Build your audience with SEO descriptions and custom URLs

A pile of vintage alphabet building blocks spell S-E-O.

(Photo by NPR Training)

If you’re writing separate SEO headlines for stories, episodes and other content, good for you! (If your content management system doesn’t allow it, shame on it.)

You can do even more to bend Google to your will. Custom URLs and SEO descriptions, if allowed by your CMS, can give your posts a boost in search. And descriptions give you another chance to seduce those who saw a headline but weren’t convinced to click. We asked NPR’s Audience Insight & Research team how to write them.

Custom URLs

What is a custom URL? It’s a field in some content management systems that lets users change the URL of the page. This field is often called “slug” or “permalink.”

Why is a custom URL important? It helps Google understand what your story is about and is a way to rank better. If you think thousands or millions of people will be searching for content like yours over time (especially true for evergreens), write a URL to edge out the competition.

How do I write a strong custom URL? In general, the shorter the better — a custom URL is literally just a list of keywords that best represents the text of your story. Use keywords from your story; for example, if you write “COVID-19,” use “covid-19” or “covid” in the URL.

How do I format it? Use hyphens and lowercase, and never use underscores. Avoid filler words like “and,” “the” or “is.” The exception is when those words are part of a full keyword phrase:

bennie-and-the-jets ✅
biden-and-his-cabinet ⛔

Can you give me some examples?

SEO headline: Generational wealth: How to invest for the long term
Custom URL: investing-tips-retirement-long-term-wealth

SEO headline: Jan. 6 commission fails in Senate following GOP opposition
Custom URL: jan-6-commission-senate-filibuster

SEO headline: Covid variants are getting new names to avoid confusion
Custom URL: covid-variant-uk-south-africa-renamed-alpha-beta

If you plan to update your story in the future, avoid using dates. For example, headlines like “Our favorite horror books to read this month” or “What’s coming to Netflix in February” should have time-agnostic URLs:

best-horror-books-recommendations ✅
netflix-new-movies-tv-shows-to-stream ✅
netflix-february-movies-tv-shows-to-stream ⛔
best-horror-books-recommendations-2021 ⛔

What else should I know? Using full keywords in custom URLs will help national audiences find your content, even if you’re a local outlet. (This goes for headlines, too.) For example, use the first and last name of a celebrity — local and otherwise — or the full title of a university that’s in the news.

What happens if we don’t have a custom URL? Your CMS will probably just put hyphens between the words of your headline. Not ideal!

Should I change a URL after it’s published? No! Unless there is a typo in your URL (like spelling “madonna” as “madona”), leave it be. When you change your URL, Google will need some time before it can recrawl and index the page.

Descriptions

What is an SEO description? It’s the line of text that can appear following the SEO/window headline in Google search results. (But not in Google Discover or Google News.) Some content management systems have fields specifically for this purpose.

Why is the SEO description important? It’s information that will help Google understand what your story is about. And it’s a second opportunity to convince someone to click through; higher clickthrough rates cause Google to show the story to even more people. Like custom URLs, an SEO description can edge out the competition.

How do I write a strong SEO description? One sentence usually suffices. The big difference between the SEO headline and description is that you don’t need to front-load or cram keywords into the latter, since the goal is attracting humans who already see the search results.

What are some examples of SEO descriptions?

SEO headline: Generational wealth: How to invest for the long term
SEO description: This estate planning expert shares her top tips for planning for the future.

SEO headline: Jan. 6 commission fails in Senate following GOP opposition
SEO description: Republicans just staged their first filibuster of the Biden administration to block investigating the Capitol Riots.

What happens if we don’t have or use an SEO description field? Google will automatically scrape a sentence it thinks best represents your article.

I don’t see my SEO description in Google! Google won’t use your meta description if it doesn’t think it “adequately answers a user’s query,” according to Moz, a search optimization software company. Thanks, Google.