How to increase SERP CTR with compelling page titles & meta descriptions




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If you want to gain and maintain Google rankings, you need a strong page title and meta description.

According to current understanding of Google, engagement factors like time on site are a key ranking factor. If someone clicks our result and ends their search there, it sends a strong signal that we’ve created content that satisfies their query.

To grab their attention during their search, your page title and meta description must communicate the value they’ll get from your content. But most importantly, it’s got to stand out from the ocean of same-old content on the SERPs.

Attack of the content clones: State of the SERPs in 2021

Search for any given keyword – especially competitive ones – and you’ll likely see a number of similar headlines:

For example, results for the term “what is vat” all provide similar answers to the same question, which can be bucketed into three categories:

  1. What is VAT?: Repeating the query back to the searcher in an attempt to prove relevancy
  2. How much is it/how does it work?: A common question people have when looking for information about VAT
  3. Complete guides: Content positioned as definitive resources

For marketers looking to stand out, taking a skyscraper or 10x content approach is pointless. Building a comprehensive guide that covers the basics is table stakes.

We need to find a truly unique angle that nobody else is covering and delivers on that unique promise.

In a recent conversation with Rand Fishkin, we talked about an article he wrote about outreach tips. He was disappointed with the results he found when searching for articles on the topic, and so he positioned his content accordingly:

He took a slightly controversial approach, but it paid off. During our chat, we discovered that this article ranks at the top of page one for “outreach tips:”

Look at the results above. Which of these headlines stands out the most?

This might seem like a risky move, but there’s a method in the madness. We marketers have come to expect lackluster results when searching for broad keywords. As someone who personally sits within this target audience, I feel this frustration. Rand’s article stands out because it’s breaking the mold. The promise offered by the page title is more compelling than its counterparts.

So, how would we take a similar approach for a topic as dry as “VAT”? The rest of this guide will cover our framework for writing attention-grabbing page titles and meta descriptions. If you’re looking to increase organic CTR from the SERPs, read on.

Researching angles for killer page titles

Your page title is the first thing your audience will notice. So you’ve got to make it exceptional.

Reverse-engineering the SERPs is a good place to start, depending on how competitive your primary target keyword is.

For example, we’ve already identified several angles for our “what is vat” article:

  • Defining what VAT is
  • The fact it’s a guide
  • How much VAT is
  • The full definition “value-added tax”

“SERP-stacking” these themes to communicate a well-rounded, comprehensive article is one approach we can take. But for this topic, we’ll quickly blend-in – which is the opposite result of our goal.

So, let’s take the microphone to our audience. The best way to do this is literally getting them in front of a microphone, conducting customer interviews around their challenges and needs.

Another scaleable approach is searching for relevant keywords on Quora. This will provide us with audience sentiment, and uncover potential angles that competing content has failed to include. Here’s what we find for “what is vat”:

Immediately, I see a huge opportunity in the first result. Here, someone is asking for an explanation in “layman’s terms”. Nobody is making this promise in the SERPs.

Twitter is another great source of insight. But since nobody is tweeting about VAT in this context (and honestly, why would they?), I’ll use “sales pipeline” as an example instead:

I see two potential angles from this single tweet:

  1. Why You Should Build Sales Pipelines Before MVP
  2. How to Build Sales Pipeline & Close Your First Sale

If you’re writing for a startup audience, you’ve just coupled a topic (building sales pipeline) to the priorities and pain-points (before building your MVP and getting the first sale) of your audience. This insight will become tremendously useful in a moment.

Value-driven meta descriptions

I don’t know about you, but I rarely read meta descriptions.

I’m more of an “open-in-new-tab-and-judge-the-introduction” kinda guy.

Still, meta descriptions are important for communicating the value of your content to searchers.

This is your opportunity to show them your content will answer their most pressing questions. It’s also a chance to get them clicking on your content with anticipation.

We use a framework that takes one or all of these approaches:

  1. See what common themes arise on the SERPs
  2. Summarise what our content covers
  3. Look for questions people are asking elsewhere

Let’s take another look at the SERPs to build a more complete picture of searcher needs. For our “what is vat” article, these are the themes that keep coming up:

  • Current VAT rates – standard 20% and rates for reduced rate and zero-rated items…”
  • “…is a tax applied to purchases of goods or services and other ‘taxable supplies…”
  • “…broadly based consumption tax assessed on the value added to goods and services.”
  • “For a business, VAT plays an important role and can be charged on a range of your goods and services.”
  • “…it stands for value-added tax and it adds to the cost of nearly everything you buy in the UK.”
  • “Value added tax, or VAT, is the tax you have to pay when you buy goods or services.

Unlike page titles, there’s a tremendous amount of validation in these page descriptions. While a strong page title will stand out, our meta description should reaffirm they’ll find what they’re looking for.

In a way, Google has already done this for us. The elements are all here on page one. We just need to apply it to our own content.

The more a particular phrase or theme arises, the more we should be inclined to use it. Based on our findings, a possible meta description for our “what is vat” guide could be:

“VAT (currently at a rate of 20%), is value-added tax on purchases of products and services. Learn how to calculate it and what it means for your business in this complete guide.”

But as we’ve already discovered, there’s more to the story than the SERPs offer us…

Bringing it together & creating cohesive metadata

We have everything we need to craft attention-grabbing page titles and meta descriptions that communicates our content’s value.

Let’s start with our page title – which, from our research, is a no-brainer:

“What is VAT? A Layman’s Guide to Value-Added Tax”

Here, we’re demonstrating that we truly get our audience. We’re essentially saying:” “VAT can be complex, so we’re giving you content that’s easy to understand”.

We’re also communicating the fact it’s a guide, building context around the positioning of our content and setting expectations.

Finally, we’ve included the term “value-added tax” for experimental purposes. As this is a real-world example from one of our recent content optimization projects, and we want to see if this simple addition makes a difference.

Next, let’s revisit our meta description. While it’s nice and comprehensive, this first draft comes in at 177 characters. As the recommended limit is 155 to 158 characters, we need to cut some of the fat.

After revisiting the SERPs (and putting ourselves back into our audience’s shoes), we’ve come up with the following:

“In this complete guide to VAT, you’ll learn how to calculate value-added tax and what it means for your business (current rate: 20%).”

This description communicates the following:

  1. Re-affirm the context (this result is a complete guide)
  2. You’ll learn how to calculate it
  3. Why it matters for your business
  4. The current rate

Including the current rate of VAT brings the answer to the SERPs itself. We’re providing utility in the SERPs for anyone who needs this information immediately.

Standing out, intelligently

You spend so much time producing and distributing your content. But metadata is part of the puzzle that often gets neglected.

Page titles and meta descriptions should make up a critical part of your content creation and promotion process. Without it, nobody will click-through, which means Google will likely decide your content is not relevant enough.

I know writers who craft ten or more headlines for their content. Take the same approach with your page titles and meta descriptions, and you’ll see your CTR soar.

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