How to Optimize your Search Engine Snippets

In search engine optimization it can be easy to overlook search engine snippets (you know, the smaller text below the title when you get your search results). All of us care a lot about rankings, conversions, and backlinks, but what about that first opportunity to tell a potential reader something with a search engine snippet? Besides the page title, the snippet is your chance to draw in the reader and convince them the page is worth the click. I found this topic even more interesting when I noticed that even some of the top SEOs weren’t optimizing their own search engine snippets.

One of the best ways to control your search engine snippet is with the description meta tag. The description meta tag is not a waste of time, according to Google’s own Vanessa Fox.

Before we learn from some examples from the top SEO blogs, here are some tips on how to optimize your own meta tag description:

1) Use it.
2) Make it unique. Every page should have its own unique description.
3) Keep it short. You’ll notice that Google cuts off the snippet at about 150 characters.
4) Make it relevant. If the blog post is about ice cream and you run a website about food around the world, make the snippet about ice cream, not just about your website in general.

And if you are using WordPress, there are some handy plugins you can use, or you can just put in your own code:

<meta name=”description” content=”<?php if ( is_single() ) {
echo htmlentities(get_the_excerpt(true));
} else {
bloginfo(‘name’); echo ” – “; bloginfo(‘description’);
?>” />

Now for some examples of the description meta tag being used correctly, incorrectly, and not at all. Now just so you know, I’m not trying to point fingers. I just decided to take the list of top SEOs and find a blog post and examine the meta tag description use and the snippet that shows in the search engine results.

Using the Description Meta Tag Properly

Snippets SEOBook
Aaron Wall, SEO Book (Page, SERPS)

Description meta tag? YES! Aaron even makes it unique from the content of the page, and the length fits within the length that Google shows. This way, Aaron controls all aspects of the search engine snippet.

Snippets SERoundtable
Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Roundtable (Page, SERPS)

Description meta tag? YES! Barry’s description meta tag was created by taking a clip of the first part of the content of the page. However, the search engine snippet is actually shorter than his meta tag description, so the rest of his meta tag description explains more, finishing with … “a ton of data about your site plus submit data back to Google. But……”. This works just fine, but if you wanted to be sure you know exactly what’s showing up it’s good to keep it a bit shorter.

Snippets SEO By the Sea
Bill Slawski, SEO by the Sea (Page, SERPS)

Description meta tag? YES! Bill takes the “clip from the content” approach which works out just fine. Again, he could summarize the whole post in a sentence or two, and “sell” us on clicking in to read it.

Not Using the Description Meta Tag Properly

There are worse things you can do than not use this tag properly, but you can end up with a snippet that either has breadcrumbs or links that shouldn’t show up or text that is clearly so general it doesn’t help persuade when a reader is viewing the snippet.

Snippets SEOmoz
Rand Fishkin, SEOmoz (Page, SERPS)

Description tag exists, but nothing in there! Notice how in the snippet there is a link to subscribe to SEOmoz, the title is repeated, and then included is “posted by randfish randfish”. This says nothing more than the title and appears almost haphazard. This would easily be solved by adding a short clip of the content to the content attribute that is just sitting empty on the page. UPDATE: Rand said the new SEOmoz fixes this, and will be up in a few weeks.

Snippets Stuntdubl
Todd Malicoat, (Page, SERPS)

Two description meta tags exist! Todd is probably not aware of this yet, but he has two description meta tags on his page. The first one is the one that Google uses for the snippet, but this happens to be the one that is best for the index (home) page, and that page only. The second instance of the description meta tag is a clip of the blog post, and if it was the only one on the page it would work perfectly. UPDATE: Todd has fixed his blog.

No Description Meta Tag At All

Having no description meta tag isn’t as disastrous as it sounds. The description meta tag is not required by any means, but almost all SEOs recommend having one (you might as well is the general idea). Without a description meta tag, the search engines will still take a snippet, but it is either from the beginning of the page (less common) or taken from different parts of the content where the keyword matches (more common). Read below in the examples and see some of the issues that appear, such as Google pulling text from a comment instead of the actual blog post, including the title again, or including unrelated links.

Snippets Andy Beal
Andy Beal, (Page, SERPS)

No description meta tag. Now the snippet from this one (screenshot above) is one of the most interesting of the examples without a meta tag description, as the entire snippet text is actually pulled from a comment to the blog post (see comment 21). Even if you change the keyword term from “lucky myblog to “free microsoft zune” or “zune mybloglog”, the snippet remains the same. But if I search for “mybloglog lucky winner” it shows a snippet of Andy’s content now. The variability is often fixed with the use of a unique description in the description meta tag. UPDATE: Quick acting Andy now has a description meta tag. 🙂

Snippets Matt Cutts
Matt Cutts, Google Software Engineer (Page, SERPS)

No description meta tag. Notice in the screenshot above that the title is repeated, the date is included (which may show freshness, but otherwise it tells me nothing), it tells us what category it is filed under, and then finally at the end we see the first sentence. A meta tag description would optimize this quite easily.

Snippets Jim Boykin
Jim Boykin, (Page, SERPS)

No description meta tag. The title is repeated again in the snippet, which is a waste of space. Jim could easily add the “meat” of the post in a quick summary, or an enticing preview of what we will learn from your post.

Snippets Danny
Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land (Page, SERPS)

No description meta tag. The title is again repeated, taking up almost an entire line of the snippet. Also included is a link (that of course isn’t a link in the snippet) with this anchor text: (Official Google Blog post here). It would look so much nicer to just summarize the post, or at least get rid of the title and the link.

Do I walk the talk?

Snippets SoloSEO

Michael Jensen and Aaron Stewart, SoloSEO (Page, SERPS)

Description Meta Tag? Yes! To be fair I thought I’d put the spotlight on myself and this blog. Luckily when we built the tool I’ll mention below, it brought to my attention the lack of a description meta tag in the default installation of WordPress. So after just a few minutes I was able to get in a description for each post in an automated way.

What we learned, and What to Do About It

Even from this small sample of blogs, we can see the big differences in using a meta tag description versus not using it. The snippets can include the title in duplicate, breadcrumbs, irrelevant information (post date/time, what category its filed in), or even comments written by someone else!

If you want to optimize your search engine snippets, apply the tips above to the pages of your site by using the tag and making it simple, relevant, and unique. We know it’s not easy to go through your entire site and find pages with problems, and so we created the Search Engine Viewer tool in SoloSEO.

This tool points out pages you don’t have a description meta tag for, as well as identifying descriptions that are not unique or too long to fit into Google’s two lines. This tool is designed to make it tons easier to identify problems with your blog or site and helps you to optimize your search engine snippet.

In Closing

So it looks like some SEOs have a little change to make in their blogs, but luckily its an easy one to implement. If you need any help, you can ask Aaron, Barry, or Bill. 😉


  • Andy Beal says:

    OK, you’ve shamed me into adding a plugin for meta descriptions. 😉

  • Todd says:

    LOL. Yea – thanks for revealing my glaring incompetence:) Yet another instance of the cobbler’s kids having no shoes.

    Thanks for the heads up Mike (been fixed) – and nice post.

  • Betsi says:

    Wow, thanks for this insight! I’m planning to start a blog for my jewelry business soon, and I’m merrily reading up on how to make the best use of my blog as a marketing tool and resource to my users. This particular bit of advice will not only be useful once I start the blog, but is relevant to the rest of my site as well. I don’t know why on earth it never occurred to me to optimize my snippets before! Thanks for point it out.

  • Andy Beard says:

    Most meta plugins will use the_excerpt() or a custom excerpt if you define one within WordPress when you write a post.

    You can only optimize your snippets for specific terms, maybe the keyword your particular page is aimed at.

    Unfortunately this doesn’t help with long-tail search terms so much.

    If a page is ranking based on external SEO linking, for word that are not included on the page, then that is when the description meta data will be most used.

    From what I have seen, snippets often won’t include text that is within heading tags.
    I have frequently had snippets on blogs based upon trackbacks containing the blog post title.

    When you are optimizing a page, you are most likely to put your prmary keyword phrase within the title. You might not include that exact phrase at a later time within the page, although you have it in the description.

    I am actually guilty of not creating custom snippets for most of my posts on my primary blog. I also use UTW tags at the start of each post.

    My post descriptions end up with a line starting with “Related tags: list of keywords”

    I haven’t decided on the best way to handle this problem yet. I actually gain a fair amount of traffic from pages that just contain those keyword heavy snippets.

  • Andy Beard – Thanks for the great comment. I do think the best way is to write a custom description tag for each blog post, even though it seems a bit tedious. Put in some keywords with a nice summary of what the blog post is about, and keep it short so the whole thing is used if it is used.

    I was really surprised at how often it is used based on my small sampling (I looked at more than these 9).

  • Andy Beard says:


    The key is just to realise how the optional excerpts are being used by your WordPress installation.

    For instance Chris not too long ago went into detail about how you can create nice looking archive pages.

    Wicked WordPress Archives In One Easy Step

    If you optimise your optional excerpt for nice archive pages, they might not be ideally suited for use within your meta description.

    Every plugin I have found that for providing meta descriptions uses the_excerpt, thus they would also use the optional excerpt.

    SEOmoz also had a post on this subject recently, optimising those snippets for selling.

    Personally, I don’t think archive pages would be effective if they only contained very short excerpts designed to be SERPs snippets.

    It is all a fun balancing act.

  • Andy Beard says:

    Ack, I just broke your theme with that link, please feel free to add some anchor text etc

  • wkcow says:

    yeah,i like this post.thank you, the administrator of soloseo.

    additionally, i think

    content could help the SE to identify the duplicated content.

  • I didn’t forget them. I haven’t added them in on purpose. The main reason is that I want to play more with Movable Type and decide if I want it to just pick up the first 100 words as a description (which makes life faster) or if I want to bother with making unique descriptions for each page. It’s on the list, but other things are a bigger priority. That’s especially since the descriptions, of course, will change from search to search even for the same page. But it’s still good advice. And give us some points for making use of the NOODP tag 🙂

  • Rupert says:

    Very good, but it does not explain the thing that is puzzling me at the mo.
    One one site, depending on the search phase, I can get 3 descriptions:
    1 the meta description
    2 the opd description
    3 a snippet.

    I have a meta desc, so why do I sometimes get a snippet, and sometimes not. Can you dig deeper? 🙂

  • Great post. Thanks for sharing. Its fun to see where some of the “big boys” are falling short. Well written and planned out! As for your advice, I’ll be following it very shortly!

  • Bookworm SEO says:

    It’s funny you should bring that up about SEOMoz… I emailed Rand about that months ago and he said it was something they should do. (I think that was even before your January posting of this). lol.
    Thanks for pointing to the plugins and offering your own code. I’ll have to try these out!

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