Optimizing WordPress Excerpts for Maximum Clickability

April 21st, 2011 | Shonali Burke | 5 Comments

This is part of the Blogging for Grasshoppers series

As I’ve been paying more attention to blogging—not just the writing thereof, but the look and how the posts come across—one of the fields that I believe is little-used is the “excerpt” field in one’s WordPress blog.

Of course, this is merely my opinion, but having seen a number of blogs that don’t seem to do this, I thought it time to tell the rest of you grasshoppers why this is important.

Image: Steve Hoang via Flickr, CC 2.0

And also because I promised Ingrid Abboud I would do so, though I would not call her a grasshopper by any stretch of the imagination.

But let’s back up a bit.

The first thing we learn, when we start blogging, is that it’s important to use a plugin such as the All in One SEO Pack, to get our blogs all gussied up from an SEO point of view.

It’s pretty simple to set that up, as this tutorial on All in One SEO from wpbeginner explains.

Of course, you’ll have to use the right keywords, etc., but you already know that.

And if it helps any, check out Erica Holt’s post from a few months ago on how Google Insights can help you test search terms, in addition to everything else you do to use the best keywords.

Now, here’s the thing.

What plugins such as AiO SEO, etc., will not do, is generate your “manual” excerpt for you.

(This is WordPress’ built-in Excerpt field.)

This was explained to me by the WUL resident genius and God-of-all-tech-things, Herwin Icasiano.

A plugin like AiO SEO will generate your “meta description,” which is what search engines will display as a brief description of the content when they pull up search results.

SEOMoz describes meta descriptions as:

“Meta description tags, while not important to search engine rankings, are extremely important in gaining user click-through from search engine result pages (SERPs).

“These short paragraphs are webmasters opportunity to advertise content to searchers and let them know exactly what the given page has with regard to what they’re looking for.

“The meta description should employ the keywords intelligently, but also create a compelling description that a searcher will want to click.

“Direct relevance to the page and uniqueness between each page’s meta description is key. The description should optimally be between 150-160 characters.”

Why should you care?

Because!

If you don’t fill out the manual excerpt field, or completely rewrite the description in the plugin area, these plugins will use the first few words of your post to generate the description that appears.

And, as you know, when you write, you may take a while to get to the “meaty” stuff of your post (read: keyword-rich copy)… which the SEs will completely miss out on.

Yikes!

This is what Herwin said (emphasis/italicization mine):

“As long as you have All in One SEO Pack installed, you only need to fill out the Excerpt field up top (not in addition to the description field within the SEO Pack form fields).

“As long as the excerpt field up top is filled out, All in One will use the copy in there to generate its meta description.

“Maybe you want your meta description to be different from your excerpt. If, for example, you’re having your excerpts pulled for your site, you’d want creative copy that might not be optimized for search.”

“In order to still have your blog post optimized for search, you’d fill out the description field within the SEO Pack to generate a more search engine-friendly meta description.

“If your copy is both creative and optimized, just fill out the excerpt field.”

For a really great explanation of this (and a post that Herwin pointed me to), check out this explanation on op111.net.

So, ideally your manual excerpt field is optimized for humans, and your plugin description area is optimized for Google-esque spiders.

Now, we all know that optimized copy is not necessarily going to pull people in.

It’s the creative copy that does so.

So to me, the easiest way to hit both of these targets at one go is to write concise, decently-optimized copy in your Excerpt field. AiO will then use the same copy in its field.

For example (and I’m using WUL posts so that I can tell you what I did/didn’t do):

1. Nothing filled out in manual excerpt or the excerpt field in AiO SEO.

Here’s what Google brought up when I searched for “social media darby shonali burke” (when I was trying to place an orphaned German Shepherd dog, way before I knew anything about this kind of stuff):

Eh? Other than the vanity effect of making me preen when I see my name appear, there’s nothing that would make me click through (if I weren’t me).

2. Nothing filled out in the manual excerpt field; only the post title is pasted into the excerpt field in AiO SEO.

Here are the results for when I Googled for “what sales can learn from pr”:

A halfway decent title, but it would be nice to have something more.

3. Nothing filled out in the manual excerpt field; but this time the description in the plugin area is complete.

The results of what came up when I searched for “social media value wiifm”:

Not too bad this time around. But those ellipses at the end of excerpts drive me nuts.

4. The manual excerpt field is filled out nicely, and syncs with what’s in the plugin description field.

What came up when I searched for “no is not a dirty word”:

See how #4 has a much cleaner “excerpt,” without any “…” or other crap?

Not perfect from an optimization point of view by any means, but from a readability point of view.. I’d say, “Yes!”

What about the blog post excerpts that are published, say, to Facebook?

Turning to Herwin, again: “Facebook pulls the meta title and description when sharing links; so anything you put in the AiO description field will be shown.”

(So, if you’ve filled out the manual excerpt properly, this is taken care of for you.)

Nice manual excerpt = clean synopsis that will tell people what the post is about and get them to click through (hopefully).

No manual excerpt = you’re most likely SOTL.

What about if you set up your blog so that the front page displays excerpts instead of the full content?

Herwin: “[This is when] manual excerpts are used instead of meta descriptions.

“If you go with this option, it will display the excerpt along with a ‘read more’ link for every post on the front page.

“Using the quicktag <!–more–>, instead of this option, would tell WordPress to still use any content before the quicktag as an excerpt rather than the copy in the manual excerpt field.”

The grasshopper way

Since I like to make the programming of posts as easy as possible (somewhere a leprechaun is laughing at that), I have started following these steps when prepping posts:

1. Try to make the post title as keyword-friendly as possible, while still making it clickable.

I can’t always do this, but I try.

2. Write a human-friendly and search engine-friendly synopsis in the SEO plugin description field.

This helps with keeping within the preferred character count.

3. Paste this into the manual excerpt field.

I’m of the “keep all your bases covered” school.

Maybe one of these days I’ll try pasting this into the manual excerpt field and removing it from the plugin field…

… but not today.

4. Finally, I paste the keywords in the plugin field into WordPress’ Simple Tags.

‘Cos I like to have everything filled in, neat and clean.

By the way, I’ve talked about the All in One SEO plugin here because that’s one of the most widely-used WordPress plugins. A while ago I switched to Platinum SEO, and I like it much better, but that is (perhaps) a post for another day.

Regardless, the steps remain the same.

Much like the song remains the same.

Make sense? Did this post help?

What are your tips on making your blog posts as human- and search engine-friendly as possible?

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Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
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4 comments
Keith Davis
Keith Davis like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hi
I use all in one SEO and it really is fantastic.
Takes a few minutes to fill in the various fields, but if you are serious about your rankings, what's a few minutes compared with the time you have taken to write the post?

Matt Cutts always says that Google loves Wordpress so spend a little time on SEO and Google will really love you.
Title tags etc but take a look at the canonical settings that AIO SEO has.
BTW - first time visitor and I love the colour scheme of your blog.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

Hey, Keith, thanks much for stopping by and the nice words. It does take a little while to get used to the extra steps, but once you do, it goes pretty quickly. It's become second nature to me now.

Davina K. Brewer
Davina K. Brewer like.author.displayName 1 Like

This post helped.. and also bummed me out. This is the kind of stuff I want to automate, set and forget; don't want to have to do the old-fashioned work way. Crybaby waahh.

I do write w/ SEO in mind: headlines, posts, keywords and tags but I don't let it take over. I use an Excerpt Editor plugin that does just use the front part of a post for the description. Another thing I try to remember to do is edit the pretty permalinks to something keyword specific, what the post is really about more than the headline. Gotta think about that.. like you said both search and human friendly, so I'd want the post excerpts on the blog pages to be the leads not the excerpts. May experiment w/ this and see if I get better traffic. FWIW.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

You know, when I started out, I didn't realize that AiO etc. didn't actually "do" anything for you... until you worked 'em. And I was like... what?! But I guess we still gotta do something, eh?

I have Excerpt Editor too, but I haven't really used it so far. Like you say, it takes the first few words (I think 70 or 75) to generate the description, but unless you edit that then you run in to the same problem I mentioned earlier, of not having the excerpts very readable (unless your first 70-75 words are perfect). So it always comes back, IMHO, to writing the excerpt & then plugging it into the manual excerpt field as well.

Like you, I try to focus more on readability than SEO. I figure if it's readable and shows up, people will be more likely to click through. Of course, if it hasn't been "SEO-d" at all, then it won't show up... chicken and egg!

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