Welcome to another of my mammoth-but-hopefully-useful blog posts! This month I’ve been reminded of the challenge (and dare I say it, enjoyment) of writing title tags and meta descriptions, having written them for a couple of clients in the past few weeks. Meta data puts the skills of even an experienced copywriter to the test. With such a small character limit, the writer must combine impact with brevity (the latter, I fear, not a quality present in this post) to achieve what is effectively a strong advertising message designed to drive traffic and ultimately increase conversions.
I thought today I’d share some of the things I’ve learned from my experience as a copywriter that should help you craft better meta data for your website or that of your client.
So that you can skip the bits you might already know if you’re pushed for time, here’s a list of what I’m going to cover in this post:
- A new way of looking at meta data
- What makes great copy?
- Best practice for title tags and meta descriptions
- What to do before you begin writing your meta data
- Tricks of the copywriting trade
- Looking at the bigger picture – branding
- SEOs or copywriters – who should write meta data?
A new way of looking at meta data
Meta data should not be viewed as just another field in your code or CMS that can be ignored, or worse, stuffed with keywords. Meta data is an advert for your site and will often constitute the first impression someone will have of your brand – and online or offline, first impressions count. Meta data plays a pivotal role in driving traffic to your site, and as such, it should be approached as a way of introducing your brand to your target audience.
It may help you to imagine meta data as being a bit like a shop window.
A set of search engine results pages is like a huge street full of shops all selling the same thing, with numerous brands all competing for the attention of potential customers. When you look down the list of results, you are effectively window shopping. Which of the brands on display has a good enough offering to tempt you in?
Retailers hire window dressers to lure customers in with attractive window displays and banners advertising deals. Online, you effectively take on the role of a window dresser; writing your meta data is just as much a form of advertising as a shop window, clearly communicating your USP in a compelling way to entice visitors onto your site. In the example above, M&S neatly highlights a primary USP in its window display – its longevity: “125 years of deliciousness”, backed up by “Food for the nation since 1928” and other statements such as “quality you can count on”. This engenders trust and combines with the colourful display to tempt visitors into the shop.
In the search engine results pages we don’t have the luxury of an attractive space to display our products (unless you count Image search), but we do have a reasonable number of characters in which to convince potential customers of our benefits. Why should a customer enter your shop and not the one next door?
What makes great copy?
The art of successful copywriting lies in communicating a core concept clearly and concisely, preferably in an original way. Meta data is copy – it’s just very short copy.
Great copy does the following:
- Appeals to its target audience, making them feel comfortable and good about themselves.
- Communicates a clear message, quickly.
- Sells the product benefits rather than the product features – people don’t care if product A is X times longer than product B. They want to know how that extra size will make their life easier.
- Avoids cliché – your potential customers have seen hackneyed phrases such as “ticks all the boxes” many times before, so it will have little if any impact.
- Is easy to read, avoiding long words, jargon and complicated sentence structures.
- Is consistent, maintaining and conforming to a clear brand identity.
So, now we’ve established the basics of good copy, let’s run very briefly through the basics of search engine best practice for meta data, just to be clear about the limits within which we’re working when we write it.
Title tag best practice
Title tags are currently a pretty significant ranking factor, as they help Google understand the content of a page and the search terms to which it is relevant. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google places less emphasis on them in the future, as they’re open to over-optimisation. I would aim for a balance of including a keyword and a USP or call to action, for example “Cheap Italy Holidays – Book Your Trip Today”. Title tags should also conform to the following guidelines:
- 70 characters or fewer.
- Should contain a keyword at the start of the tag that accurately summarises the content of the page.
- Maintains a consistent structure throughout the site, with the brand name at the end separated by a pipe – for example, | SEOptimise
- Places the brand name at the start of the homepage tag.
Meta description best practice
Unlike title tags, these aren’t a ranking factor. However, they play a significant role in click-through rate, and as such, should ideally conform to the following best practices:
- 160 characters or fewer, otherwise they’ll unceremoniously get cut off in the search results.
- Compelling, giving users a reason to visit your site.
- Should contain a call to action – encouraging users to take the action you want them to take, e.g. “book your winter holiday online now”.
- Contains keywords if natural and appropriate, because they will be emboldened in the search results and will therefore appear more relevant to what a user is searching for, as in the example below:
What to do before you begin writing your meta data
Given the fact that most people skim-read the web, you have precious little time to capture someone’s attention, so it’s important to get it right. A little preparation will go a long way, so start by laying the groundwork.
- Write down your USPs – what makes you different from your competitors?
- Get into the mindset of your target audience – what will be going through their heads when they search, and what will they be trying to accomplish?
- Do you have any audience personas written down? If so, have a read of them before you begin writing.
- Take a look at your Analytics data to see which pages are driving good traffic from the SERPs. Then look at the meta data for those pages and see what may be helping to drive traffic.
- Also in Analytics, identify any keywords that are sending decent amounts of organic search traffic.
- Talk to your sales team – they’re the people in the business who probably have the best idea of what it is about your products that appeals most to customers, and what’s the best way of convincing them to buy.
- Take a look at the SERPs and get a sense of what your competitors are doing – do any stand out particularly, and if so, why?
Some tricks of the copywriting trade
You’re now ready to start writing, so here are a few techniques that you may find useful. They won’t all be appropriate to your brand, but they should at least get your creative juices flowing.
- Solve a problem – the staple of the copywriter’s repertoire, this technique shows how your product improves the customer’s life, focusing on its tangible benefits and not the features themselves. For example, rather than saying that a pack of crisps contains 50% less saturated fat, describe it as “helping you get that perfect beach body”.
- Fear, uncertainty, doubt – this involves making readers question themselves. It’s effective in that it draws readers in, but it can come across as scaremongering. For example, posing the question, “Cybercrime – do YOU know all the risks?” makes readers ask themselves whether they do and then click to find out what risks they may not know about.
- Word play – clever word play can be memorable, witty and make your copy stand out, but make sure you don’t alienate your target audience and don’t go for anything too obscure (for example, a literary reference that nobody will understand). From a Birmingham-based murder mystery party company, the strapline “Dying to entertain you” is a good example of clever word play.
- Being provocative – how many girls out there started buying Yorkie bars as a result of their “it’s not for girls” packaging? Be careful with this technique though, as the playful can easily cross the line into the offensive.
- Knocking the competition – not generally advised; most brands want to avoid this because it makes them look mean and may get them in trouble with the ASA. However, done subtly it can work well. The warm and friendly Innocent Smoothies brand does this on its cartons by saying that its products don’t contain “any weird stuff” – implying that competing products do.
- Intrigue – imply a secret waiting to be told and you’ll find that people won’t be able to resist clicking to find out what it is. This can be done simply by using words and phrases such as “find out more”, “discover”, or “see what everybody’s been talking about”.
- Gimmicks – special offers, use of capital letters (in moderation!), a boldly short description – anything that catches the skimming eye.
Other copywriting tips I’ve found useful include:
- Rhetorical questions can be used to appeal directly to your audience – for example, “Looking for a great deal on your car insurance?” (in their head, they answer “yes, I am” and click to find out more).
- Use the language of your audience, if appropriate. If there’s more than one way of referring to something, research monthly search volumes in Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool to find out which is more searched for. Avoid jargon; if you sell consumer finance products, for example, use the language your customers will think in, not the financial jargon you use internally.
- As you write, ensure you look carefully at each and every page to ensure you’re summarising its content accurately. The language on the page will also give you a starting point for what to write in the meta data, which may end up becoming a condensed form of the content on the page itself.
- Proofread and sense-check your meta data thoroughly when you’re finished.
Looking at the bigger picture – branding
When you’re chipping away at hundreds of title tags and meta descriptions, it’s easy to lose site of the fact that meta data is only one part of a much bigger body of content associated with your brand, spanning a variety of media that is likely to include on-site web copy, off-site web content, offline publications, advertising and more. It’s important to remember that although meta data serves a specific need, it’s still vital to create a sense of unity across all forms of content to achieve a strong brand identity. It won’t do to write meta data that’s markedly different in style and tone from the business’s other written content.
It’s also important to consider the user’s experience after they click to view your website. Don’t overpromise in your meta data. It must be an accurate reflection of what customers will find when they click to view the page, or they will simply go straight back to the SERPs and find another site. To maximise conversions, ensure that the on-site copy guides them further into the site and that the messaging on the page supports what they’ve read in the meta data.
SEOs or copywriters – who should write meta data?
I’ll end by emphasising the importance of not skimping on quality when it comes to meta data. I’ve always argued that it should be written by copywriters, who know how to write for different audiences, not by SEOs, who may be brilliant at SEO but don’t know much about adapting to different writing styles. It also reflects poorly on an agency or consultant if they send meta data to a client containing grammatical errors such as errant apostrophes, not to mention that such errors will give a very unprofessional impression of a client’s business if they make it as far as the live site. Meta data should be seen as part of the website’s copy and branding, and as such, should be left to the copywriter.
What do you think? Who writes your meta data? Do you have any tips to share for writing better title tags and meta descriptions? Share your thoughts in the comments below or get in touch on Twitter @RachelsWritings.
Copywriting – Successful writing for design, advertising and marketing by Mark Shaw is a great introduction to the subject for those who want to learn more about copywriting.
Typing on a MacBook by Hakan Dahlstrom on Fotopedia.com
M&S shop window from Geograph.org.uk
Yorkie bar by Leo Reynolds on Flickr