A simple guide to meta descriptions and alt tags in 2019

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Published Jul 16, 2019 | Written by Jeremy Knight

chocolate cake with candles-1Meta descriptions and alt tags. How much time should you dedicate? How long should they be? How often should you use keywords? Are they even a ranking factor? 

The world of metadata can be confusing; best practice seems to change from week to week. Adding fuel to that confusion are recent updates from Hubspot, in which their portal now recommends meta descriptions are less than 150 characters. 

Let’s put all of the confusion to bed and get clear on how to create optimised and web-friendly metadata. 

What are meta descriptions?

A meta description is a short excerpt of a specific page which summarises the content in one or two sentences.

This preview text appears below the clickable link on search engine listings and social media posts etc., with the ultimate goal of encouraging the user to click.  

What length should meta descriptions be in 2019?

The recommended length has chopped and changed over the past few years, but it is actually dictated by the size and measured in pixels. Since 2019, Google shows up to 600 pixels which are equal to (somewhere between) 120-158 characters.

Are meta descriptions needed for SEO?

Meta descriptions are not, independently, a ranking factor. However, since they have a huge impact on CTR (Click-through-rate), they are indeed a contributing factor.

A good meta description will garner more click-throughs, which can contribute to a higher position on SERPs (search engine results pages). But as I always say this is isn’t a reason to start playing with click-bait. Your content should always deliver your promise, so be sure your content/web page reflects whatever your meta description has promised.

As quoted by Dan Shure of SEO Evolving, “they (meta descriptions) have nothing to do with rankings yet everything to do with branding.”

How to write the best meta description

A good way to approach writing your meta description is to think of it as the text appears on a sponsored ad or PPC (Pay per click) campaign. Here, you want to give the reader an incentive to click, and the primary goal is the same. 

Place all important text and targeted keywords towards the beginning of your meta description. By all means, use more than one keyword but avoid stuffing. Your meta descriptions should always be super relevant to the content on that page. Never use duplicate meta descriptions across multiple pages.

You should aim to address the readers potential question or query, and touch on your solution if you can. Where you can, inspire urgency and curiosity.

Try not to write mindlessly, and dedicate as much time as you need to craft each word carefully and ensure every word has earned its place. This may seem tedious, but meta descriptions can be the difference in a lost or gained lead, so bear with the process as it’ll get a lot easier over time.

What about alt tags?

Another component of metadata takes the form of alt tags. 

Alt tags, also known as ‘alt attributes’ or ‘alt descriptions’ are used within HTML code to describe the function or content of an image. 

What are alt tags used for?

Alt tags are used first and foremost for accessibility purposes. They help the visually impaired understand the visual content on a page by speaking to screen readers. This is why it’s generally recommended they are relevant and descriptive. 

They also help convey the relevant information when an image fails to load and provide context for search engines crawling your site.

By writing a descriptive alt tag, you’re also helping search engines understand an image, and your images have more chance of capturing long-tail traffic.

How do I write a good alt tag?

This image, as an example, has been downloaded from Shutterstock. 

chocolate cake with icing and ca (1)

The original file name might be something like Shutterstock_34577.jpg. 

This tells search engines and screen readers nothing. The alt tag needs to be updated to something a little more web-friendly.

Image source tells us the original URL from which the image was taken. But the alt follows shortly after - for example:

<img src="shutterstock.jpg" alt="chocolate cake">

‘Chocolate cake’ might suffice. But ‘chocolate cake with icing and candles’ would be even more sufficient:

<img src="shutterstock.jpg" alt="chocolate cake with icing and candles">  

This descriptive text lends itself to better accessibility and depending on the context of the image can improve SEO.

Of course, always avoid keyword stuffing, or squeezing unnatural phrases into your alt text. Keep it simple yet as specific and descriptive possible. No need for precursors like ‘image of’ or ‘picture of’ - crawlers already know this.

If you want to improve the metadata across your site pages, a good place to start is by carrying out a site audit, using a tool such as SEM Rush.

This specialised software will crawl the finer layers on your site and identify any issues that could be harming your SEO.

For now, take note of these tips when writing any new metadata, including meta descriptions and alt tags. 

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Published by Jeremy Knight July 16, 2019
Jeremy Knight