Meta description is the new black

Meta description is one of those areas of SEO that seems to drift in and out of  popular attention. I don’t think it has ever made sense to ignore the value of meta description, although I have rarely given it the love it deserves.

Right now is a good time to think about this tag, and think about it carefully. The meta description tag is frequently overlooked for a number of reasons – meta description is old – it seems to have been around forever, it is not perceived as exciting, and it is not a quick fix – writing a good descriptions takes both though and time. The ubiquity of content management systems does nothing to help either – meta data is too often either left to be generated automatically or somehow just gets forgotten, buried under a backwater tab or lost at the bottom of a rarely used menu.

Just imagine

Everything has slotted into place, your site now has optimal urls, the content is good  (but still getting better of course), your page titles are spot on. Your site has reached page 1 of Google for the terms you are focussing on… everything is going to be rosy and you can start think seriously about your new improved  life spent sipping cocktails on the beach whilst your website just hums away.

Wait a minute, there’s a problem. People see your site in the search results, but nobody clicks through. This is where meta description comes in. Think of everything you have done so far as setting the stage, getting your product into that shop front in the prime position on the high street. The trouble is your shop window just doesn’t appeal and nobody bothers to come in.

The shop window

Meta description is your shop window, it is a key component of the snippets that Google shows on it’s results page. There is no guarantee that Google will use your description word for word, but the chances are it will use at least part of it.

As usual Webmaster Tools is great reference and it pays to re-read the published advice from time to time.

Write for people

To many people  just use meta description as an opportunity to place keywords and key phrases, there is clearly a place for this, but it’s no good just targeting machines. If the snippet that appears in the search results is your shop window, then it is also your chance to engage the viewer.

Don’t just treat your description as an opportunity to get one up on the system, treat it is a ‘Call to action’ – grab the viewer’s attention and make sure they want to click through to your website.






I miss the old Streetview

Recently I’ve been updating a site with some quite complex map related functionality from Google maps v2 to Google maps v3. All in all it has been straight forward and worth doing.

The one disappointment IMO has been Streetview – the old version was so much slicker. The new version is easier to implement, but that is as positive as I can be. I miss being able to click in the distance and zoom down the road; I miss the swoosh as you move from position to position; I miss built in Full Screen.

On the flip side we now the have API for static streetview images – I’ve been using Jamie Thompson’s brilliant work on getting static map images up until now, but it is time to move on.

Slightly irritating is the fact you need to convert old (v2) Streetview panorama locations (if you have them saved) to show the locations as static images or as saved Streetview panoramas.

To convert a v2 panorama to a v3 panorama:

  • ‘yaw’ has become ‘heading’
  • change the sign of ‘pitch’ e.g. -1.80999 becomes 1.80999
  • add 1 to your ‘zoom’ level

Speed matters

To my unending amazement, many people I’ve worked with simply don’t believe that speed matters as a factor in Search Engine rankings. I don’t understand why. It’s not like Google (and lets face it, we are talking about Google) are being coy about it. (see links)

When you work in an office with stupidly fast broadband, maybe you just forget? But you shouldn’t assume that the people looking at your websites do.

The bit that really bugs me is this peculiar ‘head in the sand’ attitude. It does take more than a few minutes of thinking to come up with any number plausible reasons why speed is important for Search Engine Optimisation (aside from the fact the Google say it is). Try it, take a few seconds to think.

For me though the reasons that scream out at me are User Experience and Money.

User experience

First off – I admit this isn’t really an SEO factor, is it? People are busy, they don’t want to spend valuable time waiting for a web page to load, at least I know I don’t. I have better things to do, and I’m not that weird.

But why would Google care? I can rationalise that they want people to look at Ads. And then click on them. Probably a good idea to make websites faster so people don’t get bored and do something else, or find the bit of content they are looking for before the ads have loaded (because the ads come last).

Time = Money

Google must index billions of pages per day. It stands to reason that the faster a site loads, the faster it can be indexed. I’m guessing that it costs about the same to run a server whether it is indexing million pages per day or 10 million – but if your business is based on data the faster you can chew through data the better – and therefore it also makes sense for Google to promote an internet that lets them index more, faster.

But we don’t have the time, it’s to hard…

No it isn’t. Of course, as with any work there is optimum point in terms of cost vs. benefit (and that will be different for every site).

My gut feeling (and I don’t have any firm evidence for this) is that speed becomes more important the more traffic you get. If you’re site gets 50 visitors per day, then in a sense it is what it is – what you need to focus on is link building and content. However if your site gets 5000 visitors per day, then the chances are you’ve got quality links and good content – so how do you improve? I think the answer is the speed and user experience.

A fast website either means no traffic, no load on your server, no pictures, no javascript – in short a bit of old school html text… or it if is a big site, it means you care. It means that you have taken the time to think about users, you’ve spent a bit of money on hardware or code. It means that you are a quality business and therefore it is a good bet that you have better quality data on your site. It means that people will pay more to be associated with your site.

How to make your site fast

Hell, that’s a bold statement. It’s different for everybody. Think about the usual suspects, too much JavaScript, un-optimised images, sloooow queries with no indexes.

There are a myriad of solutions, and you don’t have to have Prototype, Jquery and Mootools all running on the same page, choose a single framework at a time – you will be amazed.

  • Use a CDN.
  • Use a cache server like Varnish.
  • If you’re a bit lazy – try out mod_pagespeed (sometimes it’s fab, sometimes it’ll melt your server)
  • Be brave, leave the Apache comfort zone and use Nginx or Lighttpd
  • Use minify

Fringe benefits

Chances are you’ll end up using some kind of caching and you’ll start setting sensible expires headers for your static content. But just think you’ll never have to tell somebody at the end of the phone to clear their browser cache again. And remember, the client is not an idiot because their browser hasn’t magically detected that a style sheet or an image has changed, and the website they have paid for looks a bit rubbish.

(by the way I don’t always practice what I’ve just preached, but at least I feel bad about it)

My first bit of Mootools and centering a Google Map in a hidden div

Started a new job last week for a really cool agency in a place I really want to work* – but they are Mootools users not jQuery folk, so I am been thrown headlong into (among other things) the world of Mootools. I’m used to just sitting down and being able to make things work quickly and painlessly with jQuery and it is funny being back to basics again. Today I wrote my first useful bit of Mootools code, which in the grand scheme of things is nothing – just a nice fading toggle to show and hide a Google Map – but it still felt good.

Along the way I had to ran into a problem with my map – when I showed it the centre-ing was gone – I tried all sorts of things… map.checkResize() didn’t work and map.setCenter() didn’t work.

Eventually I deduced that first you actually need to call both functions – reset, then centre e.g.

    map.setCenter(new GLatLng(51.90568, -1.33214));

Along my way I have found a great article comparing jQuery and Mootools – which I would recommend to anyone going either way.

*But it is a kind of a personal philosophy not to ever say on my blog where I do work, just because. I’ve taken over a big project running on a Cloud server written by a load of other people, the sort of thing that is hard but very rewarding.
** I have no idea where those coordinates are. Maybe Up North somewhere?