Rival IQ Insights

Tips and Lessons to Help You Conquer the Digital Marketing Universe

Is Your Meta Description Working As Hard As Your Tagline?

This article was originally published on March 21st, 2013. We’ve refreshed some of the details and screenshots to give you the most up-to-date information possible. We kept some old screenshots so you can see how Meta Descriptions have evolved over the past two years.

Optimize Your Meta Description

A well-crafted Meta Description can be as important to your brand as your tagline. Companies spend thousands of dollars developing phrases that help customers understand the essence of their brand. Nike’s “Just Do It” or General Electric’s “Imagination at Work” are excellent examples. For consumers using a search engine, your Meta Description helps them quickly grasp what you have to offer and invites them to enter your virtual front door.

Here’s a great example from Exact Target:

ExactTarget is the preferred targeted email marketing provider for Fortune 500 enterprises and Small Businesses alike. Find out why.

And results in a SERP display like this:

The SERP pages for Exact Target in Google

A well-written Meta Description achieves its objective if the reviewers next step is to click and learn more

Google has pulled Exact Target’s Meta Description to display along with their search result. Although it no longer has any influence on SEO rankings, the thoughtfully-written Meta Description is still playing a valuable role in driving traffic to Exact Target’s website.

Today we’re going to delve deeper into Meta Descriptions – exploring what makes a good one, looking at usage, and discovering what competitive intelligence you can glean from a side-by-side comparison. Read on!

Is your Meta Description a friendly doorman or an angry bouncer?


A thoughtfully-written Meta Description will crisply articulate what sets you apart from your competitors in a warm tone that welcomes visitors to come explore your website. Just like the doorman who offers a friendly greeting and holds open the door – your Meta Description can create a great first impression.

With that said, if you aren’t proactive, search engines will create a first impression for you, displaying seemingly random and definitely generic text to explain what their users might expect to find on your site. Like being greeted by an unfriendly bouncer, many visitors are moved along – clicking through to a competitor’s site instead.

Here’s a real-world example:

Unbounce, a leading landing page optimization company, has spent time perfecting a Meta Description that delivers results.

Unbounce's well written meta description prior to an accidental change

Unbounce’s well-written Meta Description prior to an accidental change

Rival IQ identified that Unbounce had released a beautiful new home page but had inadvertently wiped out their Meta Description.

Unbounce Changes scaled

Rival IQ tracks the change to the new Unbounce homepage and accidental deletion of their Meta Description

The impact on their SERP was immediate. Gone was any mention of who uses Unbounce and what makes their offer different from the competition. Instead, Google had put a bland face on their welcome.

Unbounce SERP no meta

The impact of a missing Meta Description is obvious on Unbounce’s new SERP

It didn’t take the on-the-ball marketers at Unbounce long to get their proven Meta Description restored.

Writing Meta Descriptions that deliver clicks.

I find distilling a company’s value proposition down to 155’ish characters of goodness (the length SEOmoz recommends) a real challenge. Thankfully, there are some great resources to out there to help. Here are a few I found helpful:

You can’t win if you don’t play.

“80 percent of success is
just showing up”

Woody Allen

At Rival IQ, we track thousands of websites for our customers. Can you believe when this article was originally published, 28% of homepages didn’t have a Meta Description? Another 30% had Meta Descriptions that are too long, abruptly cutting off after 155 characters. This means that a mere 41% of companies had a Meta Description that is the right length. 

Meta Desc Usage Chart

In 2013, over 50% of companies do not have a Meta Description or have one that is too long

In 2015, Moz ran a similar experiment of 92,600 Meta Descriptions. And boy did those two years make a statistical difference! I recommend reading the full analysis! According to Dr. Peter J. Meyers of Moz,

“Most of the snippets (62.1%) cut off as expected, right in the 141-160 character bucket. Of course, some snippets were shorter than that, and didn’t need to be cut off, and some broke the rules. About 1% (1,010) of the snippets in our data set measured 200 or more characters. That’s not a huge number, but it’s enough to take seriously.”

552c82f7636900.30636075 (1)

Analysis Courtesy of: Moz.com

Meta Descriptions Are All About Positioning

You can gain valuable insight into how your competitors are positioning themselves by doing a side-by-side comparison of their Meta Descriptions. (Assuming, of course, that they have them!)

This might sound daunting, but we’ve made it easy! Rival IQ allows you to easily collect and compare the Meta Descriptions of companies in your competitive landscape and analyze for positioning changes. If you are looking to quickly analyze Meta Descriptions for a set of companies, try our free Competitive Meta Description micro-app.

What You Can Learn From Meta Description Comparisons

To demonstrate what we can learn from a side-by-side comparison of Meta Descriptions, I’m going to explore examples from two different industries. First, I’ll examine the dynamic, technology-oriented landing page optimization market, and then follow it with a look at the much more mature auto insurance market. In both cases, it is amazing to see the insights you gain from studying how companies describe themselves in less than 160 characters.

Landing Page Companies’ Meta Descriptions (circa May 2013)

Meta description comparison for landing page optimization market

3 Key Learning:

  • Missing Descriptions. Two companies have blank Meta Descriptions, including Visual Website Optimizer (another leader in this space).  Just to drive home my earlier point about random text getting displayed, here’s a look at their search result – it’s definitely in the “bouncer” camp:
Visualwebsiteoptimizer no meta

The impact of a missing Meta Description is clear in the SERP for Visual Website Optimzer

  • Minimal Differentiation. Most of the landing optimization companies tout the same benefits – making more money, increasing conversions, and being easy to use. Only Unbounce gets specific about what they do and why it’s easy. Perhaps that’s enough to let them stand out.
  • Social Proof Stands Out. Ion Interactive is the only competitor to leverage social proof in their Meta Description, calling out Dell, DHL, and Western Union as customers.

As a marketer, I’d walk away from this analysis determined to get more specific about what I’m offering prospects (like Unbounce) and possibly incorporate recognizable customer names (like Ion) into my Meta Description.

Landing Page Companies’ Meta Descriptions (2 Years Later)

A little over two years later, we are happy to report that all the companies in this landscape now have Meta Descriptions! All except for Optimizely are a “good” length. See how their Meta Descriptions have evolved — kind of like our product interface!

Landing Page Companies' Meta Description

Auto Insurance Companies’ Meta Descriptions (circa May 2013)

Meta description comparison for the auto insurance industry

3 Key Learning:

  • It’s a mature market. There are no missing Meta Descriptions, and most of them are tightly honed.
  • Key messages. Some companies are building credibility and differentiation by emphasizing their longevity in the market. Others are specifying the type of insurance they offer. Very few of them tout benefits beyond price. (This might be a positioning opportunity.)
  • Free offer. Six of the eleven companies promote the offer of a free quote to discover how prospects can save. This is a great example of leveraging a Meta Description to perform advertising in organic search results. Clever.

As a marketer in this industry, I would see if emphasizing benefits other than price resulted in a better outcome. Allstate’s tag line, “You’re in Good Hands…” comes closest to doing this. And if I were GEICO, I’d be weighing whether the 35 characters I’m using spell out the acronym that is my known name (Government Employees Insurance Company) is worth the real estate.

Auto Insurance Companies’ Meta Descriptions (2 Years Later)

Unlike companies within the digital marketing world, these auto insurance companies don’t seem to evolve as quickly. 2 years later, GEICO still believes spelling out their acronym is worth the used online real estate and length doesn’t seem to be a concern for most of the companies in this landscape.


3 Easy Steps to Winning Meta Descriptions

  1. Spend the time to craft a Meta Description that welcomes customers with a concise articulation of your value proposition.
  2. More than 50% of businesses either don’t have a Meta Description or have one that is too long. Your first step to winning is to get in the game and follow the basic rules.
  3. You can gain key market-positioning insights by doing a side-by-side comparison with your competitors’ Meta Descriptions.

What is the best Meta Description that you’ve seen? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

About John Clark

Hi, I'm John Clark. I am the co-founder & CEO of Rival IQ, the easiest way to build, analyze and monitor your competitive landscape. When I'm not wearing one of my many startup hats, I like to run, golf, read, and practice yoga. If you do any digital marketing at all, I would love you to try Rival IQ, and tell me what you think. You can find me on Twitter, @johnc1n

View all posts by John Clark »


  1. @randfish recommended your post and now I knew why he did. John you wrote an excellent post and I truly appreciate your efforts. Keep updating us

    • Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you liked it. Please sign up for email updates or follow @RivalIQ on twitter to make sure you don’t miss our posts.

  2. Really timely post. Thank you. Some wally ( a self appointed SEO Guru) on a recent LinkedIn discussion stated that meta descriptions were no longer important as Google did not use them in search ranking anymore! Clearly they are vital in persuading customers of how you add value and therefore that thy should enter your site. High bounce rates are often the result of poor meta descriptions in my experience!

    • Richard, happy to be timely! We clearly agree that the meta description is still important both to search and as a way to figure out how your own positioning messaging fits into your market. We are working hard at Rival IQ to help companies use available information to inform and optimize their marketing tactics such as their meta description.

  3. Hi
    John, great post, but i found
    The link to The Essential Guide to Meta Descriptions that Will Get You Found Online by Brad Shorr is not working,

  4. Excellent post about a theme which in germany is nearly forgotten. Beside the fact that the meta description has no more ranking value, its key benefit is to persuade the customer / prospect. Thanks for your observations.

    • Martin, glad you liked it. I agree it seems that this important aspect about getting people to click is often forgotten. I was surprised when I looked at our own data about how many people didn’t even have a meta description.

  5. Arrived here via an SEOMOZ referral. Your post certainly encouraged me to review our meta description which I found to be sorely lacking. Now I just need to develop an awesome description in 155 characters that will attract visitors to our site. Thank you for a very informative post and I’ll be bookmarking your site and revisiting often.

    • Steve, happy to help. Yup figuring out those 155 characters of goodness can be a challenge. We definitely encourage you to compare and contrast with peers, competitors and other companies you think are doing a good job.

  6. Thanks for the article! For a non-techno person like me It was clear, well written, and the visual examples were quite helpful. I run a couple of WordPress websites for my business and use the Yoast SEO plug in and it has made me very aware of he meta descriptions although I didn’t really know why they were so important till now.
    P.S. If you go look at my site right now because its a mess. It sure looked good on March 6 though, just before my hosting company overwrote my database. But now that I’m rebuilding I’ll be able to use some of your tips.

  7. Nice article, great advice. The Free Competitive Meta Description Report link in the last paragraph is broken – adding www. to the domain name or changing the request from https to http makes it work. You might want to take a look at your .htaccess file – http requests without www are being rewritten correctly, but https requests are not.

  8. Great, I see many companies struggle with this part of SEO. In my experience you can more than double the number of clicks and conversions by writing compelling, clear meta descriptions.

    It’s all about finding the right combination of page title / tagline and meta description.

  9. I Totally Agree with you. People are much too less aware of the meaning of the Meta Description. I’m writing from switzerland and we have here the Same Situation. With a Little effort you could Win a Lot!

    • Thanks Frank. Yes I think it is a global issue, no particular geographic boundaries. It is funny I am working on a post analyzing the top 200 tech/growth companies in Seattle in collaboration with a publisher in town (GeekWire) and my analysis is the percentage of companies with meta description problems is exactly the same from those 200 companies. I was surprised that a tech heavy group like that didn’t do any better. Old school stuff but still valuable. Look for it on the blog next week sometime.

  10. Great post John! Meta description are way too often overlooked compared to Head Titles, they do indeed impact CTRs which you reminded us all here. Glad I stumbled on the free tool to compare competitor’s meta description performance, not just length but also tone of voice, call-to-actions, etc. registered! 🙂

  11. John,

    Thanks for the educational post. I think this is a great resource to send to clients and to help communicate on calls the importance of a well-written, brand-friendly and inviting meta description.

    I think that the incorporation of a target keyword can still provide a boost as an attention-getter since Google bolds the presence of your search keyword in your SERP listing. So if a target keyword is present in your meta description, it helps your site’s result stand out and sends a visual signal to the searcher that your result is relevant to their query.

    • Lauren, glad you liked it. I completely agree that having keywords in the meta description is a good idea since they get bolded. My only point in the post was that they didn’t get considered from an SEO perspective. Great clarification, thanks!

    • Now, this is truly one of the most detailed pieces and descriptions to make a good META. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Hi John,

    Thanks for the post I enjoyed reading it, I agree with you that the meat description should be carefully crafted to try and encourage click through its work mentioning this like free quote or even a phone number to try and grab the eyes, obviously Google authorship tag can help with grabbing attention too, although I know that’s not meta description. Thanks just my opinions anyway, thank you.

  13. Great information. Please keep posting. Its very interesting

  14. HI John,

    great educational post, Your posts are pretty good.


  15. I’ve read many posts but this one has a lot of new things that I haven’t seen before. Thanks for the sharing this great information with us.

  16. Hy John,the article is very interesting.I have read it several times because i’m italian and i don’t understand english very well. However i have understand it quite completely. A single doubt: what exactly does “key-market positioning insight” mean? Thanks.

  17. nice information

  18. This is such an awesome article John! I really enjoyed it! Do you think that meta descriptions will increase in value in future?

  19. Great content! keep it up!

  20. I would like to appreciate you for such a detailed explanation about a topic MetaTags. It is overlooked and considered a small thing, but you have taken time to explain it well and thank you for that. It certainly increased my knowledge.

  21. Laura, Thanks for the mention in the SEO content marketing roundup.

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