When search engines find your website and list it among their results, the meta description provides the search engine with a brief synopsis of the contents of your page. New visitors can determine based on these words whether or not your website is the one for which they're looking.
Writing Meta Descriptions
Your webpage's meta description element belongs within the opening and closing tags of the <head> element and should provide a brief explanation of what that webpage contains. Each page in your website that you want search engines to index should feature a unique description of no more than 155 characters, which is the maximum number of characters Google will display. Here is an example of a meta description that might exist on this page:
<head><meta name="description" content="An article that explores the uses and benefits of HTML Meta descriptions." /></head>
Meta Description Vs. Snippets
When a search engine indexes your page and returns it as a result for a prospective visitor, it provides a snippet of text from the website based upon the keywords searched. If you don't have a meta description for each page you want indexed, you'll have no control over what text appears in these snippets, and they may not provide the most appealing, keyword-rich description of your site. Assert this control over your website's appearance with concise meta descriptions on every page.
While the existence of meta descriptions has little to no bearing on most search engine ranking algorithms, Jill Whalen of High Rankings suggests that "the more control you have over your listing in the [search engine results pages], the more clickthroughs you should see." Even if your webpage isn't among the highest rankings on a search engine's results, if the description is appealing enough, prospective visitors may choose to visit your link over one that is of a higher ranking.
Other Uses of the Meta Element
In addition to its "description" attribute, meta elements can provide search engines with additional information regarding your website. Other attributes of the meta element include "keywords," which suggests keywords search engines might use to index your site, and "language," which tells visitors in which language or languages your website is written. The "robots" attribute tells search engines how their "spiders" -- automated website indexers that crawl the Internet seeking information -- should behave when they reach your pages.
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