Meta Titles and Meta Descriptions Guide

fficient_logo-SOLO-128pix
Dan has a new logo. Is it a duck? A vomiting Pac-Man? A bulls-eye?

Answering a common conundrum: What are title and description best practices? UPDATED for 2021. Want some title/description 101, like, “um what are they?!” There’s a FAQ of sorts below the slightly headier stuff.

Google already has a guide for title and description best practices. You should check it out. Seriously. That’s step one.

1. Read what Google has to say about writing good titles and descriptions.

2. Step two: Google is slowly scrubbing its former SEO guru Matt Cutts from its pages. Until new guru John Mueller (no relation) gets a new video on that page, here’s the video that used to be there. Watch it. If you don’t want to watch that first 8-minute video from Cutts, here’s his 3-minute version.  Sure, Cutts himself admits (sheepishly) to not using a meta description on all of his personal blog posts, but that doesn’t mean you should be lazy, too.

3. Step three: Some guy on the internet (me) has this to add:

SEO keywords in titles & descriptions?

Be mindful of your keywords while crafting titles and descriptions. Use a verbatim or synonym keyword instance or two when appropriate, but don’t keyword-stuff and don’t use keywords unrelated to the content. On larger sites, many titles and descrips might not contain keywords.

How long should titles/descriptions be?

Meta descriptions should be between 125 and 160 characters (not words!) including spaces. They should not be shorter, and if they’re longer Google will ignore, and people will never read what comes at the end. Try to get closer to the top end of character count. Use regular old sentences most of the time in a description.

Titles should be 40 to 70 characters (not words!) including spaces. They should not be shorter, and if they’re longer keep in mind that people will never read what comes after that. Try to get closer to the top end of character count. As of 2021, going over that title character count is okay, within reason. Use Title/Headline Case for Titles. Definitely avoid sing-songy language in titles. Be direct. Every word counts. Write tersely.

Why do we care about titles and descriptions?

Titles and descriptions have two audiences:

  • Googlebot/SEO: We want Google to rank us well. Google pays attention to titles and descriptions.
  • Humans/UX: We see titles and descriptions in the SERP snippets where great language will influence us to click on the listing. (See image below, and that first link in this post.)

Don’t directly instruct people to click on your listing but you should often write something engaging, or at least informative (regarding what’s on the page,) using your keyword concepts when appropriate. …without telling them to “click”.
“Learn” – “discover” – “find out how…” – or posing a question answered on the page are all okay, but writing something interesting without a call to action is okay, too, and usually a better use of your crucially limited space for messaging. Avoid vague, click-baity titles which bury the lead. Your title IS the lead.

Regardless, don’t neglect these important opportunities to communicate with your human and robot audiences. The content in these crucial content pieces should be unique; don’t just parrot something you wrote in the body text.

Brand Name in Titles / Descriptions?

Unless your site doesn’t rank well for your brand name, you should almost never use the client/website name in descriptions or titles, because it would be a redundant waste of precious SEO space. As much as you should omit the website/client name from almost all titles/descriptions, if a page is about a person or a thing, you should probably mention the person or thing in the description. The only other reason to stuff your brand in every title: the brand manual mandates it. (Consider rewriting the manual!)

Should I set my CMS to auto-append anything to my titles, site-wide?

Generally no. But as long as you don’t go overboard and don’t get lazy because of it, fine. Keep it short and classy. Or don’t do it. …This is more of an opinion than a well vetted SEO fact. Good luck.

What is a meta title?

Do you have multiple tabs open in your desktop browser? Each tab probably has a little branded icon followed by some text. A favicon followed by the page’s meta title. That’s the only place you’ll see the title in your browser window, unless that page is fortunate enough to be displayed in Google search results. Google usually leans on those titles for the biggest, boldest text in its search listings. (See img below.) So, in short, meta titles are bits of text about a page that don’t show up on the page.

What is a meta description?

More visually elusive than, but just as important as the title, the meta description will only appear to your human audience if Google decides to use it in a SERP listing.

How do I find the existing title/description of a page?

View the code: Hit control+u on most windows browsers. Type option+command+u on most Mac browsers. That shows the page source. Then control+f or command+f to search for ‘title’ or ‘description’. Note: you’re not looking for og:description or og:title; those are sometimes different beasts. Ignore those unless you’re doing Open Graph optimization.

Use a plugin: Firefox, Chrome, and Safari probably all have extensions to copy a page’s meta information.

That title/description image you’ve heard so much about:

Something like, but better than, the image below used to be on the official Google titles/descrips guide. Here’s an image showing where title and description usually appear in SERPs, and how sometimes they don’t.

Google SERP title and description use
Example of Titles and Descriptions in SERPs. …And not. Click image to enlarge

PS – New (2017) logo for my fficient.com consulting biz is above. I’m going to do a post on the logo process some day. …This postscript is mostly to force me to write it up.

PPS – It strikes me that I should explain why I don’t use title/description best practices on this blog; I can’t. Well, I could, but it would be a pain in my ass. This site is on wordpress.com. If I leave it there and want to edit titles/descriptions, that’s another $20/mo in hosting to upgrade to the business plan. Worth it to some businesses, but my sales are all word of mouth, so not worth it to me. I could switch to self-hosted WordPress and have full title/description control, but wordpress.com is more than adequate for my needs, and I’m a fan of not adding more for more pain in the ass with no ROI. Please add this to the (growing) list of: Please do as I say and not as I do.


Dan Dreifort consults on search and usability. To the dismay of his wife and cats, he makes sounds with iCurd.com, synthBand.com, and other bands.

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