How Meta Descriptions Helped a .gov Rank Above reddit.com

Have you Googled a health condition lately? Some illness or symptom you’ve found yourself suffering from recently? If so, there’s a good chance your results included a link to MedlinePlus, the National Library of Medicine’s consumer-facing health website.

Infographic showing MedlinePlus 7th place.

Why? MedlinePlus.gov is all about quality, and thanks to its focus on the practical means by which information reaches consumers in the age of the internet, it’s also all about SEO. The MedlinePlus SEO strategy has helped the site attain unparalleled rankings, competing with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, by paying proper attention to the development of its meta descriptions.

“[Meta descriptions] help users know what to expect from a webpage,” MedlinePlus’ Kate Masterton and Katie Chan wrote recently in a Digital.gov blog post. “People are more likely to click through to the site when the meta description is well-written and precisely describes the content they seek, thereby providing an immediate boost to clicks and conversions.”

Meg Mader, a Bixal digital program manager who advised on NLM’s SEO strategy, points out that "Meta descriptions are a simple way to increase findability of pages. When done correctly, and within character count limits, meta descriptions can have a quick and positive impact on search engine ranking."

A meta description, in HTML, is the 160 characters that come up as a brief description of a search result on any given search engine. But what makes a good meta description? MedlinePlus simply analyzed the most searched-for terms for each and every page on its website using Google Adwords’ keyword planner tool. MedlinePlus used this same strategy for the Spanish meta descriptions. This wasn’t just a matter of translating the English meta descriptions into Spanish; MedlinePlus staff researched, wrote, and edited these meta descriptions as well. The same can (and should) be done for any other language, given the nuances often lost in translation.

MedlinePlus’ SEO visibility saw immediate benefits. According to Searchmetrics’ SEO Visibility Winners in 2016, MedlinePlus ranked seventh. Who placed one through six? Google, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook. MedlinePlus.gov came in seventh behind these giants and just ahead of self-proclaimed "front page of the internet" reddit.

These efforts, coupled with stringent measures undertaken by MedlinePlus to make sure only high-quality information can be found in each health topic, have helped the site become one of the most frequented .gov websites, according to analytics.usa.gov.

The best part about meta descriptions? They work on social media platforms as well. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter pull information directly from unique, platform-specific meta descriptions when users share a page.

MedlinePlus en Español has been particularly successful with its Spanish language Facebook account. It has seen nearly double the followers and likes as the English account, reaching over 20,000.