SEO Tips for Lawyers | Master meta descriptions to boost traffic and conversions
In this post and as part of our series on SEO for lawyers, we take a deep dive into meta descriptions for law firm marketing optimisation.
Meta descriptions are an essential element of on-page search engine optimisation (SEO). Together with optimised title tags, they can improve your law firm website’s performance in organic search results.
The best law firm websites include optimised meta descriptions on every page.
While they aren’t a direct ranking signal, meta descriptions can help search results get better click-through-rates. That means better traffic and more conversions for your law firm's online marketing efforts. In turn, this can indirectly lead to improved rankings.
In this post, you’ll learn what you need to know about:
- meta descriptions for legal marketing and search engine optimisation; and
- how to create and optimise them on every page of your law firm’s website.
Note: this is part 2 of our ongoing series on search engine optimisation for law firms.
Read part 1 on meta tags and how to optimise title tags.
Now, let's get started by understanding ...
What meta descriptions are
At its simplest, a meta description is a short text marked up in your web page's HTML code. It's placed in the page's source code.
The meta descriptions primary on-page job is to tell search engines what the page is about.
Let's see what that looks like.
View this law firm service page.
This is the front-end, user-friendly side of the page. It's what a site visitor sees.
It's a page link from a keyword search for “superannuation insurance lawyer melbourne”. This is the listing on page one of Google's results page.
The webmaster who created this page added a unique meta description to the source code. It is:
“Superannuation insurance claims and compensation Super insurance lawyers in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and across Australia We fight for fair”.
Quick SEO Tip: To view a page’s title tag, meta description and other vital performance elements, use a tool like SEO Quake Addon for your choice of browser.
But like all meta descriptions, it's not visible on-page for the visitor. To see it on-page, you have to look at the source code; the “back-end” of the page.
This is what the same page looks like as source code.
Note: This example shows only the first 26 lines of the source code. The full page runs to 2055 lines of code. The whole code makes the user-friendly page viewable to site visitors.
At the top of this source code, see the opening <head> section at line 4. It ends with the code </head> at line 110.
Every meta tag for this page lives in this <head> section. Search engines scan this first to understand different aspects about the page.
Quick SEO Tip: To view any web page's source code, right-click anywhere on the page and select "View Source Code".
And this is what our example service page’s meta description looks like at line 10:
<meta name="description" content="Superannuation & insurance claims and compensation. Super & insurance lawyers in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and across Australia. We fight for fair." />
Notice the meta description code starts with:
<meta name="description" content="
And ends with:
The words between the code snippets describe the page’s content.
The raw code for any meta description is this:
<meta name="description" content=“YOUR DESCRIPTION GOES HERE”>
Let's now look at ...
How search engines use meta descriptions
Meta descriptions, in the first instance, tell search engines what your page is about. They provide the search engine with a summary that helps it determine what the value of the page will be for any given search query.
But that's not all they're used for.
Search engines like Google often display meta descriptions in search results. They may appear as the snippet in a search engine page results (SERP) listings.
Let's see how that works.
Here’s a SERP for a key-phrase search for "personal injury lawyer in north sydney".
Look at the first-ranked listing.
The snippet (framed in blue) is exactly the same text as the destination page’s meta description.
Title and meta description data extracted using SEO Quake
Google has used the meta description unaltered as the result snippet.
“Good meta descriptions are short blurbs that describe accurately the content of the page. They are like a pitch that convinces the user that the page is exactly what they’re looking for.”
And in this example, Google’s algorithm views the meta description as succeeding in doing just that.
Your meta descriptions as prime advertising real-estate on Google
Consider meta descriptions, when displayed in search listings, as “mini-ads”.
Meta descriptions are your first opportunity to attract attention and tell searchers what’s in store if they click your link.
That’s a prime opportunity. Don’t waste it!
What your meta descriptions contains can influence (in a split second) a searchers decision to either click your link (Great!) or your competitor’s link (Bad!).
Titles attract and give a promise of value. For some searchers, that's enough to get them to click and visit the page. For others, they need a little more information and convincing.
Descriptions provide more depth. They elaborate on the title. They summarise the page content and compel the searcher to click through and visit the page.
Note: Meta descriptions can also appear when pages are shared on social media channels like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This is most likely the case when a publisher opts not to add a customised snippet.
With Facebook, for example, descriptions can be “tweaked” using Open Graph markup. Twitter lets you do the same with Twitter Cards.
Now this is great news.
By tweaking and optimising your meta descriptions, you have control over “primary advertising space” in SERPs …
… But not in every instance.
Search engines will not always display your meta description in search results
Unfortunately, nothing in search engine optimisation is always that simple.
Let’s be clear …
While search engines will often use your meta description as the search result snippet, it’s not guaranteed every time.
In fact, expert research suggests this is only the case in a third of instances. In two-thirds of cases, Google uses sentences from the first paragraph of the page content as the display snippet instead of the meta description.
To understand this, know that your meta description is not the same thing as the snippet.
Meta descriptions are something you control. You can create it and optimise it.
Search snippets, on the other hand, are controlled by search engines.
Look at this snippet example for the keyword search, "car accident lawyer perth".
And now look at the on-page meta description.
Trusted motor vehicle injury lawyer car accident injury compensation claims lawyers Perth WA We are experts in personal injury compensation claims for motor vehicle car accidents in Western Australia Call Foyle Legal 0408 727 343
The meta description and the search snippet don’t match at all.
In this example, the snippet text doesn't even show on the linked to page. Google has aggregated the phrases from content site-wide.
In another example for the same website, however, the result is different. When searching for the long tail phrase, "speak to a lawyer car accident claim perth", the listing shows the meta description nearly intact.
It is only truncated at the very end.
In another example, the search "car accident claim lawyer adelaide" includes this listing.
The destination page does not have a meta description in the <head> section. It has been left blank. And so Google has aggregated a search snippet from copy in the first paragraph of the destination page.
You can see the highlighted phrase highlighted in pink.
So, you might wonder ...
Why doesn't Google show my meta descriptions every time?
This is how Google explains its automated process and how it decides whether to use your meta description as the search snippet.
“Google will sometimes use the <meta> description tag from a page to generate a search results snippet, if we think it gives users a more accurate description than would be possible purely from the on-page content.”
It gets used if the automated process doesn’t “think” a better description can be aggregated directly from copy within the page itself.
Thus, the snippet can be generated from two primary sources.
- the meta description; or
- the content of the page.
Let’s take a look at what often happens.
The snippet can come from the meta description when:
- your description matches the searchers query very closely;
- it includes the exact match (or very similar) keywords; and/or
- the page of content doesn’t have enough information to “build” a coherent and valuable snippet.
The meta description must be accurate to justify being used. It has to be concise and useful. It must respond fully to the "intention" of the searcher's query.
On the other hand, Google will opt to display its automatically generated description from the content when the search query isn't directly answered by the given meta description.
In this instance, Google believes elements of copy from the destination page do a better job at answering the query.
The snippet will come from the content when:
- content that can be extracted is more relevant to the specificities of the searcher’s query; and
- when the search query isn’t a match for your optimised meta description.
Now, you might be asking ...
If Google’s going to make up its own description, why bother writing a unique one myself?
Wouldn't it be easier to let Google choose its own description every time?
Well, here's why that's not a good idea.
Why optimised meta descriptions matter to your online marketing
Just because Google doesn’t display meta descriptions in search results every time, doesn’t mean they won’t do it sometimes. And when they do, they’re functioning as carefully crafted “mini ads” for your page.
That’s the first reason they’re of value.
And when they do appear, you want them to work hard to attract, convince and convert searchers into visitors on your website.
Don’t leave your “mini-ad” to chance, looking like this:
Craft them, so they work hard like this:
It's short and sweet. The opening questions align with the searcher's query. The firm's name is linked to a value claim. The location is clearly Sydney, and the benefit of "No win, no fee" entices interest. And there's also a call to action; "Call Us".
Take the opportunity to control how the snippet appears. Tailor them to reflect your unique brand. Deliver your law firm’s voice and personalise the messages to appeal to the types of clients you want to attract.
Having a shot at controlling how the snippet appears can also help filter traffic so you get the right kind of connections; hot prospects that lead to legal representation.
And while it is true that meta descriptions won’t directly impact your page’s ranking in search results, there is an indirect affect to leverage.
Increasing click-through-rates will often positively impact rankings
There’s plenty of evidence to show that carefully written meta descriptions can greatly increase the click-through-rate (CTR) from listing to page visit.
When a snippet mirrors a searcher’s query, CTR increases.
Google, for example, does use click data to refine results. CTR is a ranking signal.
The more people click your link suggests that they also trust your answer to their query. The better your CTR, the more likely Google will move your page link up the ranking hierarchy.
In this way, a low ranking site that receives a lot of clicks can soon climb in the SERP’s hierarchy.
So it is well worth your time to optimise meta descriptions to drive more prospective clients to your web page.
- Use them to increase your click-through-rate
- Treat them as high-performing ads for your page
And that means, pay close attention to the copy your write; the words that inform and compel people to click!
How to write an optimised meta description
The more descriptive and relevant a search result snippet is, the more likely people will click through.
Always remember, your meta description is like a mini-ad. It’s a chance to quickly grab attention and persuade a searcher to click. You want prospects to see in an instant that your page link is going to solve their problem right away.
And you want that message to stand out from the crowd of alternatives.
To grab attention and persuade them to click, you must work the descriptions clarity, effectiveness and visual impact. It must be user-friendly and persuasive.
Here are some key things to keep in mind when crafting those all important phrases.
Always start by putting your prospective client first
You are writing for your prospect, not your firm.
The prospect enters the query in search of an answer to their needs. They’re only interested in “What’s in it for me”.
Write for them, 100%. Put them upfront, in a language they’ll immediately understand. Answer their query, clearly and concisely.
Make your copy readable
Your meta description should look and feel natural. Make it attractive and easy to read.
- Searchers are often in a rush to find a solution. They’ll scan SERP's in seconds, looking to click.
- Long sentences with difficult words will be less likely to grab attention and persuade.
Privilege instead short, active sentences that are logically bound. But also know that you don’t have to always write full sentences. Active, value-packed phrases work well, too, in the same way you can write body copy as bulleted points.
- Don’t make your reader think too hard. The attraction and decision-making process online happens in a split second.
- Use active voice and instructing verbs. Get people moving; clicking your link.
Resist the temptation to use “elevated” language. That might be fine for the courtroom. It’s just too weighty for the speed of online decision-making.
Don’t obsess about character length
In the past, the length of meta descriptions mattered. Today, that’s less so.
Google tells us that there is no limit on how long meta descriptions should be. What’s more relevant is that they’re concise, accurate and hyper-useful.
Write as much as will describe the content and its value accurately.
But also be aware that what search engines will scan is not the same as what people online will see.
Google truncates snippets when the available display space is used up. The pixel width varies across devices, from desktop to mobiles.
Evidence today suggests the safest length in character terms is between 155 to 160 characters. This is, however, indicative.
In some instances, longer snippets are displayed.
Not all characters need the same amount of pixel space. For example, a “W” uses twice as many pixels as a “Y”.
ALL CAPS will also consume a lot more pixel width.
Consider length as an indicator and …
Front-end load your meta descriptions
To be certain the searcher gets the most important information to help them make that “click this” decision, front-end load your description.
Add your main keyword at the front of the description. Deliver the most important and persuasive points in the first 155 characters.
Try to include a clear call to action up-front to guide searchers to click. Use something like, “Learn how” or “Call” work well.
When crafting a call-to-action, be aware that some words can leave searchers with a negative feeling. “Read” can sound heavy and time consuming. “Call” is perhaps a quicker and more instantly satisfying promise, for example.
Be hyper specific
Vague text doesn’t communicate quickly in the split second most searchers will give your snippet.
Give enough details to answer the query and make it compelling so you get the click, not your competitor.
Don’t duplicate meta descriptions
Avoid using the same description for multiple pages. Write distinctive description for the unique content on each of your pages.
Quick SEO Tip: Use a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl your website pages and see what titles and meta descriptions are duplicated.
While you won’t get penalised for duplicate content for meta descriptions, you will miss an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Help search engines identify what is unique and valuable about your page.
And help searchers know why you’re different from your competitors.
Don’t forget to use keywords
Just because Google no longer considers keyword tags a ranking factor doesn’t mean keywords are no longer important.
Also, just because Google’s algorithm has become more complex to include synonyms and similar phrases, doesn’t mean your chosen keyword or key-phrase is no longer relevant.
To the contrary, your choice of keywords helps Google understand your page content and your intentions in publishing the page; who you might be targeting.
In addition, your keyword choice draws in a range of similar phrases, thus anchoring the page intention to query intention.
An added benefit is that Google will highlight keywords; a visual display benefit.
But don’t keyword stuff. It just looks like spam. It also wastes valuable “advertising” real estate.
Google is quite capable of understanding your chosen keyword or phrase is similar to a whole range of other keywords and phrases.
Always remember, however, that your keywords must be relevant to the page’s content. Ensure your meta description and the keywords used align to the page’s title and body copy.
If they’re not, you risk ending up with truncated descriptions pulled from the content that don’t present a clear and branded message that align with your hopes; who you want to attract and for what reason.
And don’t be boring or inhuman
Sounding like an elite expert unconnected to your prospects way of thinking is boring.
Filling your snippet with in-house gobbledygook won’t convert or impress. It can confuse and slow down the “click” decision-making process; or stop it dead.
Write in a way your prospect will immediately identify their problem and your solution; in plain English rather than legal-speak.
Make it personal, too. Show that you’re human, approachable and ready to listen.
Reach out and let your prospect know that it’s a real person and not a machine on the other end of the link.
How to “compensate” (and take back some control) if Google won't show your meta description
If Google’s algorithm decides your meta description isn’t the best snippet it can provide for a certain query, not all is lost.
You can still potentially impact what Google displays by crafting on-page content with the snippet display in mind.
Here’s what SEO copywriting master Heather-Lloyd Martin says,
“When you write your page copy, try to include a benefit statement or call-to-action near the first instance of your main key-phrase (which is typically in the first paragraph). That way, when Google does grab a snippet of text for the search engine results page, your copy has as much marketing oomph as possible.”
Another SEO expert, Yoast, “recommends spending extra attention to your main paragraph”. Populate it with short, active sentences that quickly communicate the page’s main value.
But also be aware, Google can “pull” the phrases from anywhere on the page. If you write bloated, sloppy page, an automatically generated search snippet will also read bloated and sloppy.
How to manage the process of optimising meta description
You might be saying right now that “all this is great but I have no time to write or rewrite meta descriptions for all of my web pages”.
Answer to this dilemma: prioritise.
Pay attention first to all the top priority pages on your site: Home Page, About Page, Areas of Practice, Solicitor Profiles, etc.
Work on pages that get the best traffic today. But before you change the meta description, keep a record of the existing tag. If you optimise a description and it turns out to not work, you can always switch back.
And before starting, take a look at the competition. Do a search for a targeted keyword and see how your competitors’ meta snippets read. Use what works but also think about how you can make yours unique, to stand out from the crowd.
Looking ahead for even better meta descriptions
There are, of course, many other things you can do to optimise your law firm website’s meta descriptions.
In upcoming posts, we’ll add more tips to your tool kit, including how to optimise for rich snippets so snippets can look like this:
Also, we’ll look at how to add HTML tables for direct answer queries, so you have a chance of getting a result like this:
For more on SEO for Lawyers, visit our other instalments in this series:
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