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How do you influence the search results title and snippet?

We search marketers spend a great deal of time searching for our own sites. Just sending a little query to Google to see where our important keywords rank today. And by now, you are probably familiar with the title and description (or snippet) that is shown on the results page for your site’s page. Would you like to improve it?

Welcome to the April Biznology Newsletter. I come to you each month with a topic at the center of business and technology—this month we’ll look at something I get a lot of questions about: how search engines decide what information they show about each page listed in their search results and what you can do to influence them.

Why is the information on a results page important, anyway?

Before we get into where the information comes from, and how you can affect what’s shown for your pages, let’s start by looking at why this subject is so important.

Every day you go to the mailbox and pull out a sheaf of “junk mail”—we marketers prefer to call that “direct marketing.” Most pieces you probably throw away without even opening, but you do open a few, I am sure—what makes them different? It’s probably the “pitch” on the outside of the envelope.

Similarly, the search results page is just a different kind of mailbox. When searchers look at that page, they “throw away” most of the items in the list—never even clicking on them. So what makes them click on the ones that they do? Your pitch, that’s what. Not only must your pitch contain the keywords the searcher is looking for, but the searcher wants a persuasive reason to click on your page.

As important as it is to get high rankings in organic search, it is just as important to get high clickthrough rates. The title and description, or snippet, listed for your page on the search results screen make the difference between a low and high clickthrough rate.

Where do search engines get the information shown on their results pages?

Time was that this simple question had a simple answer. The title came from the <title> tag on your page and the description came from the description tag (<meta name=”description”>). But no more.

Google was first to change. Instead of showing your description tag, Google decided to show an extract of text, or snippet, from your page that contains the best match for the search query. So, the same page found by the search engine can have a different snippet for every search query entered. People like this a lot, because it helps them make a better decision about what to click on, and soon Yahoo! Search and the other search engines followed suit. Obviously, there is no way to control what snippet is selected for each search engine for every possible keyword that will return your page, but if you learn a bit more, you may be able to tailor your writing to influence what’s selected for your most important keywords for each page.

So how do the major engines choose their snippets? Google and Yahoo! Search use different algorithms, of course, but they are not dramatically different—sometime you see just about the same snippet for both search engines. Yahoo! is more likely to use the text from the description tag (when it contains the search keyword) than Google is. But Google sometimes uses the description for a site from Open Directory. MSN Search is the new kid on the block, so less is known about its snippet algorithm, but it seems to at least sometimes use LookSmart’s description in its snippet.

But what about titles? Until recently, titles on results pages were extremely simple: they were taken from the title tag of your page. But that is starting to change. MSN Search sometimes uses LookSmart titles. Google is starting to use Open Directory titles at times.

What should search marketers do?

Search engines frequently take excerpts from text in the body of the page, normally choosing a section of text where all or most of the keyword terms are found together, or in close proximity. Often, the first run of text that contains all or most of the keywords is what you’ll see.

As you may know, search engines frequently change the way they work, and their methods of displaying titles and snippets are no exception. So, don’t get all worked up over every little change in the algorithm, because you’ll spend a lot of time chasing something that will change again soon anyway. But there are a few things you can do that will help you produce the best possible “pitch” for your page.

  • Place your keywords together at the start of your description. For search engines such as Yahoo! that use the description tag frequently, this can work very well. Pick the keywords that searchers are most likely to use for your page and write a persuasive sentence that includes those words. (Remember, it’s not just about the search engines—you have to persuade the searchers to click what they see as well.)
  • Optimize your body content. Just as with your description, you can work on your body copy so that the first occurrence of your most important keywords contains several of them close together with a compelling call to action that gets your page clicked.
  • Massage your directory entries as well. As we are starting to see from Google and MSN Search, search engines are beginning to use directories to populate titles and descriptions. It can’t hurt to submit titles and descriptions for your directory entry that contain the best keywords for your home page. The directory editors don’t always use what you submit as-is, but it’s worth a try.
  • Keep your nuggets short. Now that you have crafted such killer copy, take a quick look to make sure it is short enough to be shown as a snippet. Yahoo! and MSN favor 150-200 character snippets (including blanks), while Google’s generally top out at 150 (also including blanks), so be brief.

Don’t be lulled into ranking fixation—it is just as important to get clicked as to get ranked. By keeping a few tips in mind, you improve the odds of a seeing a must-click title and snippet appearing for your page.

 

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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