Over the course of SEO’s long and ever-changing history, we’ve seen the perceived value of metadata slowly chipped away by Google update after Google update. First it was the meta keywords tag, left dying in the gutter and now barely hanging on as a simple reminder of days long ago. Now, there are indications that title tags and meta descriptions, too, are becoming less important. According to Searchmetrics’s 2016 study of Ranking Factors & Rank Correlations, the worth of keywords within both title tags and meta descriptions has declined, with approximately half of all observed landing pages ranking within the top 20 spots including relevant keywords in titles and descriptions.
Gone is the practice of strategically placing keywords within metadata, hoping your page on the health effects of inhaling sawdust will miraculously rank high with the title tag “The Health Effects of Inhaling Sawdust.” That isn’t to say including relevant keywords in metadata is totally unnecessary; you still want your title tag and meta description to provide some detail about the topic of your page, so including “sawdust” and “health effects” in there is probably a good idea.
Still, though, we’re seeing more and more indicators that keyword presence in metadata is growing less and less important. Does that mean metadata is irrelevant SEO-wise? Not at all: it continues to serve a vital role in the grand, algorithmic scheme of things. Now, crafting good metadata means writing title tags and meta descriptions that draw the eye and garner clicks. The more clicks your page gets, the higher your click-through rate (CTR) grows – and user signals like CTR are becoming increasingly more critical in securing high rankings, so says Searchmetrics’s latest study.
Making the CTR-Metadata Connection
Searchmetrics’s data shows a high correlation between click-through rate and SERP position. That seems obvious, though: higher-ranking pages will receive more clicks. That’s kind of the whole endgame of SEO. So does high CTR contribute to high ranking, or is it the other way around?
An experiment conducted by Moz last year sought to solve this chicken-or-egg (as Moz puts it) conundrum. In their findings, the folks at Moz came to the conclusion that pages that beat a so-called “expected CTR” for a given organic position will rank higher. So, for example, if your sawdust health effects landing page exceeds Google’s “expected CTR” for position 3 by 12 percent, you have a greater chance for that content to rank in position 2.
That isn’t to say CTR is the magic, end-all ranking factor. According to Searchmetrics, content quality, relevance, and other user signals like time-on-site and bounce rate are important elements with which to concern yourself, too. CTR being a ranking factor gives new life to metadata, though, and the decreasing importance of keywords in these tags means more creative freedom to help encourage clicks.
This means escaping formulaic approaches to meta descriptions and article or landing page titles that essentially function as keyword-stuffed sandwiches. Don’t shy away from writing a description that’s funny or outside the norm – something that will snag you those sweet, sweet clicks. Don’t be afraid that just because your title tag doesn’t include an exact keyword match for your targeted terms, you won’t rank well. If your content is relevant, valuable, and of quality, you have a good chance of ranking regardless of how keyword-friendly your title is. Use this information to build metadata that hooks searchers in, putting more eyes on your content and ramping up your click-through rate.
Increasing Social Engagement with OG Tags and Twitter Cards
Similar to the benefits of attention-grabbing metadata are those of attention-grabbing social sharing tags. I find that with my clients, Open Graph tags and Twitter Cards are among the most overlooked SEO elements. Open Graph (or OG) tags and Twitter Cards work like metadata specifically for Facebook and Twitter, respectively. Ergo, you can build these tags to suit your audiences on these social networks and reap the rewards of higher shares and click-throughs.
It’s unclear if social signals like Facebook Likes or tweets have a direct effect on SERP rankings. Searchmetrics’s study has found a correlation, but they mainly attribute this to sites in top-ranking positions usually being brand names with strong performance on social already. Moz, through yet another experiment, suggests a similar idea: pages that perform well organically will likely perform well on social, too, as the same things (humor, appeal to emotions) that facilitate engagement on SERPs will facilitate engagement on social.
Like metadata, putting together titles and descriptions for Facebook and Twitter that help your content stand out in users’ feeds will undoubtedly do a better job at pulling them in. That sounds like a “duh” piece of advice, but writing custom OG and Twitter Cards enables you to shape the way your content is presented on social to capture the types of users that would be inclined to click or share. A Twitter feed is a different environment than Page 1 of a Google SERP; it would make sense, then, that different copy in your tags might be needed to draw eyes.
Without good content, of course, no amount of dazzling, ground-breaking, mind-blowing meta descriptions or Twitter Cards are going to help you as far as organic and social engagement goes. If you have a page drenched in quality information, though, optimizing these tags to their fullest potential should give it that extra boost to harvest a click. In endless seas of blue links and shared articles, how will you make your content stand out?