Really Neat Idea: Using ASCII Art Within A Meta Description!

Summary:As for SEO value, this technique is worthless... but it could very well result in many more click-throughs to your site if properly administered! Join me as I show you how to pull off one of the neatest things I've seen done with a meta description.

UPDATE 6/8/2011: The site I use as the example in this post appears to have dishonestly taken the idea from seomofo.com and claimed it as their own. I put too much into this post to alter all of its contents accordingly, so this update will have to suffice as the caveat that SEOMofo should be considered in place of dxbseo throughout this post. Talk about nailing down Google's formatting of a meta description in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)! I recently stumbled upon what is easily the coolest meta description I've ever seen (along with a page title, the meta description is typically (but not always) what Google will show searchers when your site appears in a SERP). While it holds absolutely no value for SEO (Search Engine Optimization), it's certainly a unique way to grab the attention of a searcher where attention may otherwise not have been grabbed. Check this out (click the image to actually see the result in Google):
SEO Meta Description
That's right! That company decided to forgo a keyword-rich description that would garner the attention of a search engine in place of an ASCII art description that would possibly garner the attention of a searcher. Pretty awesome (see: geeky) idea, I must say -- but just how did they pull this off? Well, I decided to start chipping away at some ideas as to how they could have done it (and the answer ended up being a simple one, but here's to lessons learned from taking longer paths to resolution :) ), so here is a breakdown of my research: 1 - If you visit the Web site and view their source code, here is their meta description:
<meta name="description" content="WWWWW___WWW____WWWW____WWW__ WWWWW__W_________W________W____W_ WWWWW___WWW____WWW____W_____W_ WWWWW________W___W________W____W_ WWWWW___WWW____WWWW____WWW_" />
2 - The total number of characters used in the description is 155 (if you look closely at the screen shot above and compare it to the actual meta description, you will see a period at the end which results from an addition made by Google and not from the actual meta description from the page). So how did they get it to wrap just like they wanted in Google? A closer examination shows that the characters in the meta description are spaced in the following manner:
Line 1: "WWWWW___WWW____WWWW____WWW__ " (29 characters, including the space on the end) Line 2: "WWWWW__W_________W________W____W_ " (34 characters, including the space on the end) Line 3: "WWWWW___WWW____WWW____W_____W_ " (31 characters, including the space on the end) Line 4: "WWWWW________W___W________W____W_ " (34 characters, including the space on the end) Line 5: "WWWWW___WWW____WWWW____WWW_" (27 characters, no space on the end)
3 - When closely comparing the actual meta description to how it appears in Google, I noticed what appeared to be a pattern consisting of two main factors: The number of characters within each line and a space on the end of each line (except for the last line). Well, after developing an initial theory that Google automatically wraps two terms consisting of at least 27 characters followed by either a space or an underscore + a space (since each of the lines above end with a space, but also an underscore just before the space), a quick test of that theory via a page I created and waited for Google to cache proved false as seen below:
Google Meta Description Test
Here's the exact meta description I used for that test (140 characters total):
<meta name="description" content="Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious_ Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" />
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is comprised of 34 characters (which is an exact match for the number of characters in line 4 of the meta description we're researching), so if it were simply a matter of character count followed by either a space or an underscore followed by a space, then the meta description above should have wrapped, but it didn't. Hmm, interesting. The next thing I tried was to remove the underscores on the end of the meta description on lines 2, 3, and 4. My thought was perhaps that would disrupt the pattern. Here are the results of that test:
Google Meta Description Test
Still no change! At this point, I thought I should try searching for this site in a few other search engines just to see how they parse this particular meta description. Interestingly enough, none of the other search engines I tried parsed this meta description like Google. Check out the results within Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and Dogpile (+1 if you remember Dogpile, hahaha). The lesson here is to be aware that if you decide to do something like this with your meta description, it will only show up properly in Google (and only for now, because Google may change things up later). On the next page, I discuss the solution to this issue and go over some key takeaways for you from this case study.

 

Page 2: Case Study Conclusion and Takeaways...  »

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Alright, so up to this point, we've tried tests that relate to character length, spacing, and underscores. Next up is to see if character width may have something to reveal (thanks to @dizzySEO and a colleague of mine here at work for also recommending this). After all, take a look at how the following two lines of text compare: 34 Characters: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious_ 27 Characters: WWWWW___WWW____WWWW____WWW_ Although it is comprised of 7 less characters, the second line is significantly wider which goes to show how my tests thus far have been lacking a critical observation. With that in mind, I decided to search Google for a term that is only 23 characters long but equally as wide as the 27 character term above: WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW Browsing through page-after-page of results shows that when the string of capital 'W's is present, anything next to it that is approximately as wide will wrap to the next line. After doing a bit more testing, I discovered that the width of at least 21 'W's seems to do the trick. For instance: The following will wrap in Google (21 'W's followed by 21 'W's): WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW But the following will not (21 'W's followed by 20 'W's): WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW In the results of one of the searches above, I managed to find a result that shows a comparison of both of the above within one meta description! The first line of 'W's in the following screen shot is comprised of a total of 20 followed by a total of 21. As you can see, they are side-by-side. All of the other 'W's (which are all the ones in bold) total 21 and they all wrap to the next line. Check it out:
Google ASCII Meta Description
Problem solved! Now, if you feel confident you could rank strongly for a page without the need of a keyword-rich meta description, then I can only imagine this would attract more eyeballs even if you ranked a bit lower on the first page. However, I showed the initial Google result of that site's meta description to a few tech-savvy people I know and they didn't see the "SEO" in the ASCII art until I pointed it out to them, so you may want to take careful consideration with what type of ASCII art you decide to go with should you decide to do something like this! While there is a lot of room for experimentation, the basic formula you can use to create your own ASCII art meta description (based on the data gathered from this particular case study) is to use up to a total of 5 lines and make your terms wrap properly via making sure they are at least this wide (copy and paste this string of 'W's into Notepad or something similar so you can compare): WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW Also of note is that Google only shows up to 156 characters (including spaces) in a description, so be cautious of your total number of characters. Here is a template you can use which should set you up nicely, but it only consists of 109 characters total which gives you another 47 characters to play with:
<meta name="description" content="WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW" />
Now, as for how Google might feel about this, it appears someone tried this before in a Google AdWords campaign of theirs:
Though it was initially approved, it was removed and the company was required to change the ad descriptions to reflect a non-ASCII art description. Here is another example of a company using ASCII art within their AdWords ads (they, too, had their ads containing the ASCII art removed once Google became aware of them). So, if Google's response to ASCII art in AdWords ads is of any indication, they may well not like to see this in organic results, either. And it makes sense from the perspective that it very well may just give you an unfair advantage insofar as attracting more clicks than your competition, but I would have to see some conclusive proof showing that this actually helps to get more clicks on average. I mean, there are too many variables to consider, such as if the ASCII art is readable in the first place, how it performs based on whatever your ASCII art image is, what the industry is that you're targeting, which keywords, how much traffic, et al. So, what initially began as a quick short to show you all one of the neatest meta descriptions I've seen has ended up becoming a nice little case study! While I could have saved face by making this post much more concise using the solution as the only experiment attempted, I really wanted to show some of you the types of thoughts I had so that you could get a feel for what it's like to find something like this in a search engine and test some theories. I mean, before I correctly tested the character width thing, I at one point thought that Google possibly recognized ASCII art within meta descriptions! After all, a quick Google search for "ascii art" yields a unique Google banner in the upper left-hand corner of the page:
But, alas; that theory would be completely shot down. Regardless, this case study is exemplary of the types of scenarios that motivate individuals like me to study how search engines work. I mean, I took away a couple of lessons from this whole thing due to the testing I implemented and that's what helps make me a better SEO! Likewise, this just goes to show fascinating things such as how the search engines all differ from one another in how they display their site descriptions. Then again, maybe I'm one of only a handful of people who find things like that fascinating to personally discover. ;) Any questions/comments/concerns? Please let me know via the comments section below! -Stephen Chapman SEO Whistleblower

Topics: Browser

About

Stephen is a freelance writer and blogger based in Charlotte, NC. His contributions to ZDNet cover topics related to security, gaming, Microsoft, Apple, and other topics of interest with a tech/SMB skew.

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