Author’s note: A big thanks to everyone who had a least a little chuckle at the joke in this post’s title.
As a copywriter who gets to get right into the nuts and bolts of SEO I have a real soft spot for metadata, particularly Title Tags and Meta Descriptions. I believe they’re among the most important parts of any page on the web and very underappreciated, often forgotten about altogether.
See, the problem with metadata is that it doesn’t actually appear on the page it’s supposed to be for. Sometimes it can even be near impossible to find where to write it when you’re creating a page.
As a result, many copywriters don’t know that they should be writing metadata for pages, they’re not sure where it goes, it doesn’t seem all that important or it’s just a weird “SEO thing”.
If there’s one thing I wish more copywriters knew about the web, it’s that metadata does matter. A lot. This post will try to explain why it does and give copywriters some tips for writing effective Title Tags and Meta Descriptions.
We’re not going to get very technical in the post at all, but we will go an a little high-theory tangent before we get into it.
There’s an interest concept in literary theory called Paratext. Developed by Gerard Genette, paratext refers to all the other parts of a piece of writing that aren’t its main part. For books this usually includes things like titles, blurbs, endorsements, prefaces and even things like dedications and copyright notices that are part of the book even though they’re not part of the story.
A Dictionary of Critical Theory defines paratext well:
“The framing devices authors and publishers use to contextualize works and generate interest. … although not officially part of the text, the paratext can have significant influence over the way a text is received.”
This makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever literally judged a book on its cover, or its title, or its blurb, or the reviews it immodestly quotes. In fact, authors and publishers spend a tremendous amount of time and effort on these things because they know that they’re the first things people will see when they pick up a book and they’re what people use to decide whether they want to read the book.
So these paratexts are pretty important when it comes to things like books, but is there anything similar for content online?
Online, millions of people are deciding whether to visit a website based on the results they see on Google. Anytime you search for something on Google, the search engine will give you a page that lists what they think are the 10 or so best results for your query. You still have to choose whether you’ll actually visit any of those websites and you only have a couple of pieces of information at your disposal to make that decision.
In the image below you can see:
- A blue heading (the clickable link): this is called the Title Tag.
- The URL for the page.
- A short summary about the page: this is called the Meta Description.
These pieces of information are called metadata: they’re data about your page, and they’re attached to your page, but they’re not part of the actual page itself. In other words, they’re just like Paratext.
Take a closer look at these metadata and how you can optimise them below.
The Title Tag isn’t just the version of your page’s title as shown in search results, it’s also one of the first things search engines themselves look at to determine what your page is about – and when it should show up in search results.
A Title Tag should:
- Match, as closely as possible, the keywords for your page while still being readable for humans. This balancing act is the true art of writing good title tags.
- Be based on a version of the actual title of your page.
- Show relevance. Above all, it should show readers that your page is a good match for what they’re looking for.
- End with “| [your brand name]”.
- Be no longer than 70 characters including spaces.
The Meta Description is a short summary of your page that demonstrates that it will have useful, interesting information. Meta descriptions aren’t as important to search engines, but they’re your best chance to convince readers that they will gain something from visiting your page.
A Meta Description should:
- Briefly summarise your page and give readers a strong reason to visit it.
- Highlight what readers will be able to do or learn from visiting it.
- Include your keywords (or close variations) in a natural way).
- Be 250-300 characters long including spaces.
Optimising Your Title Tags & Meta Descriptions
Your meta data’s most important job (sorry SEO specialists) is to convince the people who see them in search results to click on them and visit your page. Tailoring to search engines, important as it is, is still secondary to this.
For meta data to be properly optimised for the people doing the searches, it needs to follow three key principles:
- Is relevant to the need behind their search (the relevance signals that search engines rely on will really be a by-product of getting this right.)
- Is useful to them – shows that the page will give searchers something that will actually help them address their need.
- Resonates with them: the decision to click (or not to) is made quickly, and isn’t always entirely rational – there’s usually an emotional dimension to the decision that should be considered.
There’s three simple steps you can take to put this into practice and start writing really effective metadata:
- Know who you’re writing for. This means going a lot deeper into what drives your target audience. You need to know their needs, online behaviour and decision-making process. Keyword research helps, but developing personas is the most valuable thing you can do, if you have time.
- Keep practicing. Writing anything persuasive is a skill that can be improved through continuous practice and evaluation. Keep drafting and experimenting with ideas and they’ll improve over time, just like with any kind of writing.
- Keep reviewing and improving. If your Title Tags and Meta Descriptions don’t seem to be working well, change them. For your most important pages you should be reviewing them regularly.
First impressions matter, and for many people those first impressions will be formed on search engine results pages, before they even visit your website – or choose not to. Make sure you’re winning people over right from the start by writing compelling, relevant Title Tags and Meta Descriptions.