Metadata: Meta description
The meta description is not directly visible in any part of your site, except if you check the actual HTML code view. It should be used exclusively to supply robots (from search engines like Google) with a short summary of the page. If set up correctly it will indeed be used by these search engines as the snippet found in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) to describe a search result for a webpage. You can also see it as the sales pitch for your website, as it can trigger people to actually click on your result in Google (improved CTR):
Actually, the meta description is NOT used as a ranking factor, which sometimes causes people to think it is not important from an SEO perspective. However, the impact on Click Through Rate can be massive. The best way to describe its importance is that you can see it as a little advertisement for your website, for free... Similar to the page title, attractive meta descriptions are very important and make people click on your site.
The only thing Google hates is duplicate meta descriptions that are re-used on many pages. They even stated on their webmaster blog that you are better off having empty meta descriptions than duplicate ones. If you do not enter the meta description for your pages, Google will just try and take a snippet from the text of your page. Usually, it will do a pretty good job in doing so, except that it will usually look a bit messy, with sentences broken off, and the use of '....'.
However, if you enter the meta-description yourself, you have full control of this text, as long as it is relevant to your search results. If a user searches for the word "SEO", but the meta description you filled in does not contain this word, Google will probably ignore your description and use its own. Using a correct meta-description has the following advantages:
- If you make sure you limit the description to 160 characters, it will not be broken off, and won't look messy.
- If carefully composed, users browsing through the search results may be more likely to click your site, increasing the Click Through Rate (CTR), which in itself can be positive for your SEO ranking.
- Google does NOT use meta descriptions to rank you higher. However, if set up correctly, Google might register a higher CTR and reward you for this.
- Google hates duplicate meta descriptions.
- If the keywords that people search for in Google are also used in your meta description, it will be made bold in the search result pages and stand out more.
There has been much debate about optimal lengths for the meta description. Until November 2017 Google used a pretty fixed limit of around 160 characters (actually, Google uses pixel counts, but that is hard to work with), but then they expanded it to around 320. For half a year... This led many people to rewrite their descriptions, only to find that they had to go back 6 months later when Google reverted the change.... I personally think this was a very awkward move by Google, but never mind. They currently say there aren't any formal requirements and indeed meta descriptions vary depending on the keywords searched for, but in 90% of cases, the old limit is back.
The best advice to give for perfect Joomla meta descriptions is this one: make sure to summarize the page in the first 160 characters as a teaser. Then copy this exact phrase into your meta description. Feel free to add more characters for the rare occasion it may be shown, but don't spend too much effort on this. Finally, Google has become very picky with your meta descriptions. You really need to get it right for Google to re-use it. See this example from my website where I use this technique:
Joomla setup: Setting a global meta-description or not
When building a Joomla site, the first thing you are sometimes advised to do is to add a global meta-description, using the Global Configuration settings. This ensures that every page will have a meta description. However, it will be identical for all pages of your site, which is why I always leave it empty (I add it for individual pages later) and I strongly advise you to do the same. If you want to use it though, you can enable it from:
System > Global Configuration > Site tab, under Meta-Data. In the Site Meta Description field, fill in a useful description, using your main keywords.
A similar issue can occur when you have a menu item of the type Articles Blog. If you then enter a meta description in the Metadata tab of the menu item, all articles within the Blog will have the same meta description, at least when the actual articles do not have a separate meta description. So, if these articles do not have a meta description, it is probably best to leave the meta description for the main menu item empty as well.
Meta-description for every page
You should make sure that every page has a unique description. Unique is really the keyword here! Then every page can build its own ranking for its own specific keyword or keyword combination. If you have a really large site, this may be a lot of work. In cases like that, you may have to prioritize: start with the homepage and the main menu items and work down as far as you have time.
You can set your descriptions either per article, category or on the menu level. If you have a simple site with only a few articles, where every article is linked to a menu item, it does not really matter which one you choose. On larger sites, or sites using blog views, not every page is connected to a menu item. Probably the best way to go then is to set it in every article, for category views per category, and for the remaining ones on the menu level.
The most used method is the Article Manager. In every article, you will find the Meta Description field under the Publishing tab. Similarly, in the Menu Manager you will find it under the Metadata Options:
Note that if both are entered, the menu-item description will be used, overriding the one you set on the article level.
There are many extensions to assist you with your meta descriptions. In the article about Page Titles (at the bottom), I list a few, and these are the same as the ones to be used for meta descriptions.
Pro-tip: It is always wise to perform an SEO audit that also scans whether your meta descriptions are indeed set up correctly. I can highly recommend Website Auditor by SEO Powersuite (desktop, free to use if you do not need to save projects), which is great for full-site audits.
For individual pages, I often use the Chrome extension SEO Minion, which is a great help to analyze many aspects of the page you are on without having to deconstruct the HTML source code. It can detect dead links, but it also shows you the page title and the meta description at a glance:
As you see, it here warns me that my meta description is a bit too long.