Understanding Meta Descriptions for Ecommerce SEO

James Philo
min read
6 Sep

What are Meta Descriptions?

The Meta Description is the copy that shows up beneath the page title and link within search results to provide some more context behind what that page is all about. See the example below from the Merchstack homepage.

Meta Description example

The Meta Description is defined by a <meta> tag within the <head> element of your page. Sticking with our example from above, this is what the Meta Description tag looks like:

Code example

Every page can have a Meta Description, though not every page does. You can easily use your browser's developer tools or web inspector to find a page's Meta Description. There are other tools and plugins out there that make this even easier, but we'll explore those in another post.

Why Meta Descriptions Matter

The quality of your meta description doesn't directly impact your ranking (i.e. it isn't included in the algorithm that establishes your ranking). However, meta descriptions do influence the likelihood of a customer clicking into your page (measured by the click-through rate, or CTR). Your CTR is factored into Google's algorithm that determines your ranking for a specific keyword. Google will compare your CTR with the CTR of other pages above and below yours in the search results for the same keyword. If you're able to entice more customers to click into your page with a relevant and engaging meta description than the results above you, you will likely overtake those pages over time.

Meta Descriptions can be seen as signs in shop windows

Think of meta descriptions like your “shop window”. If your shop window looks better than the shops next to you, it's more likely customers will enter your store. This is the same concept when applied to the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), but instead of a physical shop window, you've got 160 characters within your Meta Description to achieve the same effect. Your goal is to make your “shop window” as relevant and enticing as possible to attract more customers. The more customers you attract, the more likely it is you can compete for better and better positioning on the “SERP Street”. Unlike in the physical world, this competition for positioning, footfall, and relevancy is happening continuously, and locations (search rankings) are constantly changing. As Google starts to see relative over/underperformance amongst stores competing for a given keyword, the algorithm will adjust to ensure the best-performing pages move towards the top. Ranking higher is like being able to move your shop to the best position on the street. This should mean more footfall and more customers.

It's worth noting, as with most SEO components with an eCommerce store, there are no guarantees. Your performance will be impacted by better Meta Descriptions in two key ways:

  1. By increasing your CTR for your existing rankings.
  2. By having relatively better CTRs than other pages competing for the same keywords.

The impact will vary across keywords and be impacted by all other factors that play into your CTR, and, more broadly, your SERP rankings. But, if you perform better than those results above you, it certainly puts you in a great position to start to move up the SERP. This means Meta Descriptions are important and worth spending the time to get right, alongside other key elements of the SERP, like Page Titles, H1s and Breadcrumbs.

Meta Descriptions in eCommerce: An Example

Let's explore a quick example of Meta Descriptions in eCommerce. Suppose someone searched for “Grill Pans”.

Google search field for Grill Pans

The below results are taken directly from the SERP for “Grill Pans”. The second column is the Meta Description that was defined on each of those pages.

SERP for Grill Pans

There are a few interesting items to note from the table above. 3/5 of the results are using the site-defined Meta Descriptions.

  • The Walmart result (result 2) has a specific product name that seems to have been replaced in the meta description. In this case GreenLife Ceramic Non-Stick 11" Square Griddle is replaced by Blue Diamond Open Square Griddle, 11-inch. The GreenLife product was the first ranking product on Walmart's Grill Pans product listing page (PLP) the day we searched. It's likely the Blue Diamond product was the first ranking product when Google last cached this page.
  • The Cooks Illustrated result (result 4) has had the entire Meta Description replaced with copy from elsewhere on that page. When we searched a couple of times, we got a different Meta Description each time. Google may simply be testing various Meta Descriptions to see which performs the highest in terms of CTRs. It's also possible that the defined Meta Description, which includes 'Grill Pan' in the singular, was seen to be not as relevant to the plural search term of 'Grill Pans'. Google selected what it believed to be the most relevant content from the page for that specific keyword.

As we'll explore further below, it's not always a bad thing if Google overwrites your Meta Description. In this study by Portent, Google was found to overwrite Meta Descriptions 70% of the time. It would be interesting to further this research to understand how often eCommerce Meta Descriptions are overwritten, especially for PLP pages. In our example above, 80% of the Meta Descriptions were not overwritten, but that's clearly not a statistically significant sample set.

Constructing good Meta Descriptions for eCommerce

The question of what a “good” meta description is comes down to time and resources. High-quality, customized, unique meta descriptions would be ideal, but the time and expense required to create and maintain these descriptions over time is likely impractical for most eCommerce stores. A small multi-brand retailer can easily have 10,000+ pages on their eCommerce store, whereas medium to large eCommerce stores can have hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages. That's a lot of meta descriptions!

Things to keep in mind

  • Treat this as an investment. You're willing to dedicate X resources, and you expect Y return. Factor in the time it will take to properly test and update meta descriptions.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. There is a spectrum of what constitutes a good meta description. What convinces a customer to come into your store? It needs to be enough to convince that customer, not the best thing they've ever read.
  • Treat meta descriptions like any part of your digital experience. This means adopting a similar approach. Be prepared to Launch, Analyze, Test, Iterate, as you would with other more traditional features within your site.
  • Meta Descriptions are part of your user journey. A/B test them. Which approaches convert better? Validate and invalidate different approaches. Your goal is to optimize the user experience, which starts in the SERP.

A selection of valid approaches to meta descriptions

Let's revisit our Grill Pans results from above. We've added a column here which identifies the “Approach” these brands are taking with their meta descriptions. As you can see, there are many approaches. Bed Bath and Beyond use a narrative about hearty meals. Walmart layers in product details from that PLP. Home Depot talks about shop perks like free shipping. The Cooks Illustrated result was overwritten, so there was no “approach” so to speak. And the Williams Sonoma page adopts a brand-led approach. All of these are valid approaches. There is no objectively best approach, and the approach that's best for you and your customers would require testing and validation to confirm.

SERP for Grill Pans with differing approaches

A formulaic approach to Meta Descriptions

It is perfectly reasonable to adopt a formulaic approach to constructing meta descriptions. It is near certain that the Walmart, Home Depot, and Williams Sonoma meta descriptions from the graphic above are formulaically constructed. Good, bespoke meta descriptions per PLP or PDP will always be better, but when you factor in time, resource, and benefit, a formulaic approach often makes the most sense.

So for a Product Detail Page (PDP), a hypothetical formula and completed example might look something like this...

  • PDP Formula: Shop online now for your very own [Product Title]. [Store Name] [Differentiator or Tagline].
  • PDP Example: Shop online now for your very own Gold-Plated Slingshot. Slingshot Labs has the best selection of slingshots and projectiles for your every need.

And for a Product Listing Page (PLP), you might have something like this...

  • PLP Formula: Our [Category H1] are [tagline]. [Shop Perk]
  • PLP Example: Our luxury slingshots are designed to help you bring down giants. Free shipping and returns.

You can take all of this one step further and auto-generate meta descriptions. There are a few products in the market that enable a flavor of automated meta description generation. If you do choose to automate, be sure you can review and override whatever has been automatically generated, especially for high-demand / high-volume pages. As with our recommendations above, you're still going to want to regularly test your meta descriptions to see if they can be improved.

Replacing Meta Descriptions to be more relevant to specific queries

As we mentioned above, Google can and will overwrite your Meta Descriptions. This isn't always a bad thing, but it also means you're not always entirely aware of what customers are seeing/reading as they arrive at your site. Remember, Google's goal is to deliver the optimal search engine experience. If Google thinks they can deliver a better experience to their customers by selecting alternative text from your page for a specific keyword, then they will do so. Let's consider an eCommerce example:

  • Let's say someone searches for 'Emerald Dress', and your 'Green Dresses' category page ranks for this search term
  • Google will select content from that page that contains keywords relating to the search query
  • So, for example, if you have a product that has Emerald in the title, Google will likely pull this copy and replace your defined meta description with this copy from the PLP
  • Their goal is to make the overall search result more relevant to the search term, to increase the likelihood that a customer clicks through
  • If you see a lot of traffic for one of these queries and have enough product, it may lead you to create a specific page for Emerald products
  • Otherwise, sit back and thank Google for doing some of the heavy lifting for you!

If you found this post useful then have a read of our H1 article for more ways to improve your website's attractiveness to both users and search engines.

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