The WordPress excerpt: What, why, how, tips and plugins

UPDATED 2010-09-29

WordPress excerpts, which are not excerpts in the common sense of the word, make a WordPress site easier to browse and its content easier to discover. When also used as META descriptions, good excerpts bring more and better traffic from search engines.

This article looks into the WordPress Excerpt and explains how to use it.

CONTENTS

  1. What is the WordPress excerpt
  2. Why write excerpts in WordPress
  3. How to write excerpts
  4. WordPress Excerpt Editor
  5. Excerpts as META descriptions
  6. Notes, Miscellaneous
  7. Links

1. What is the WordPress excerpt

The excerpt in WordPress is a short summary of a post. It is written by hand and it can replace the full post in places where a summary is preferable.

Or, as the Excerpt box in WordPress 2.7 2.8 says:

Excerpts are optional hand-crafted summaries of your content. Learn more about manual excerpts.

In other words, the WordPress excerpt is not an excerpt in the common sense of the word; it is not a part taken from a post but an extra piece of information added to a post, in the same way that tags are added. And, like tags, it is optional. To add an excerpt, you simply write one in the Excerpt box, right under the post editor:

The Excerpt metabox in WordPress 2.7

But why bother with writing excerpts?

2. Why write excerpts in WordPress

Because of what happens if you don’t!

The following assumes a WordPress theme that displays excerpts in search results and in author/category/date/tag archives. Not all themes do. For a solution, see WordPress Excerpt Editor, on which more in a while.

2.1. Archive pages and search results

Let’s start with an example:

Say that you search for minimalist+wordpress in this site, op111.net. Among other results you’ll get “Five clean, minimalist themes for WordPress”, along with a brief description:

Five good WordPress themes examined and compared: Basic2Col, Moo Point, Sandbox, Simplish, and Thematic.

Which is the excerpt I wrote. If I hadn’t written one, the first 55 words of the review (that is, the automatic excerpt) would be displayed instead:

UPDATED 2009-02-13. I recently decided to look for a good minimalist theme for op111.net. I did not expect it would be an easy search, and, in a sense, it wasn’t. (Partly because WordPress had been going for some time without a central repository of themes. Now there is one, but it is still young.) […]

Which one is better for a list of search results? I know!

The drawbacks of the automatic excerpt are obvious, but let me enumerate them for the sake of the argument:

  1. The beginning of a piece is usually an introduction, not a summary.
  2. Even if it is a summary, 55 words are too many for a list of search results.

On the other hand, by writing a manual excerpt I was able to add a few extra pieces of information to the information provided by the title, and say all I wanted to say, in 13 words and 105 characters.

Even if the excerpt I wrote is not perfect, it can be scanned instantly by the eye. Not only that: Since the other results have excerpts too, the results page is now more appealing and useful as a whole. The same goes for archive pages—archives by date, category, tag, or author—since excerpts can be used there too. See, for example, Category “English” in op111.net

So, in a sense, hand-written excerpts are good navigational devices: They help visitors find easier what they look for. Or, if that does not exist, they let visitors know, so that they don’t click back and forth in vain and get frustrated in the end.

2.2. Result pages in search engines

Most interestingly, this navigational device can be used off-site too!

Let’s start with an example again: Try this search on Google, Live Search, or Yahoo!. You’ll get something like:

Live Search, part of search results for “clean minimalist themes”, snippets highlighted

It’s a typical SERP item: A title, a URL address and, right in the middle, a short description, which is exactly the excerpt I wrote!

How did Live Search know about that? This text does not appear anywhere in the indexed page. Did Microsoft guess it in some way? No! The answer is simple:

In op111.net excerpts double up as meta descriptions.

Regularly, search engines compile the a short description of a result by putting together bits from the page. But if the page has a META description, and if they think it is a good description and relevant to the search query, they may display that instead.

This means that, to a certain degree, META descriptions let you control how your content is described by search engines. And if a description is good, people are more likely to click on the link.

More on WordPress excerpts as META descriptions in Part 5.

2.3. Summing up the Whys

  1. Manual excerpts help visitors navigate a site easier and find good results.
  2. Manual excerpts can double as meta descriptions, which are often used by search engines to describe search results. In this way, good excerpts increase and improve traffic from search engines.
  3. Therefore, you should write excerpts by hand!

3. How to write excerpts

You should be convinced by now: You’ll never hit Publish again without writing an excerpt first! But how to write one?

Writing good excerpts/summaries is not simple – it’s an art. Writing a decent excerpt, however, only takes basic common sense: What’s the excerpt for? What is its purpose? Answering this question will show us what the excerpt must be like.

PURPOSE OF THE WORDPRESS EXCERPT

To help readers tell at a glance if a page is what they look for.

So, to do that, the excerpt must be:

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EXCERPT

  1. Brief
  2. Informative

3.1. How brief

As brief as possible! My rule is to write no more than 160 characters, partly because I use excerpts as meta descriptions too (see Part 5 for that). For English, 160 characters is 25 to 30 words. It may seem little but it’s not, for two reasons:

First, the excerpt is always displayed along with the title. So, for the purpose of offering a summary description these two are a set: title + excerpt. Assuming that a title should be no longer than 70 characters and that the average word length is 5 letters, we have:

( 70 + 160 ) ÷ ( 5 + 1 ) ≈ 38

(We also added 1 space for each word, since spaces count too.)

That’s thirty-eight words in sum! You can almost write a short story in 38 words! :-)

Second, you can say lots of things in 160 characters if you follow good practice. Not only that, but your excerpts will be better as a result:

TIPS FOR CONCISE EXCERPTS/SUMMARIES

  • Prefer short words. E.g., write “use”, not “utilize” (unless you mean “utilize”).
  • Prefer simple constructs. E.g., say “because”, “since”, or “as”, not “due to the fact that”.
  • Prefer verbs to abstract nouns. Abstract nouns are longer and less lively (and also lead to lengthier and clumsier constructions).
  • Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Does that adjective really need an adverb to qualify it?
  • Read over to remove needless words.
  • Read over again.

3.2. How informative

As much as possible! The rules I try to follow are two:

First, be honest. Summarize the content accurately and objectively and do not write aggresively promotional copy. Imagine a friend asked you what the page is about. How would you describe it to them in a few words? Use the same description as your excerpt.

Second, complement the title. Since the excerpt is always displayed along with the title, there is no reason to repeat what the title says. Of course, some repetition is unavoidable and it may also be useful, e.g. for emphasis, but, other than that, try to complement the title and to add to it.

TIPS FOR INFORMATIVE EXCERPTS/SUMMARIES

  • Describe honestly and accurately. As if you were describing to a friend.
  • Complement the title in any relevant aspect; things like:
    • Amount. Simply add more information.
    • Scope. E.g., give the general context for a specific title.
    • Tone. E.g., write a serious excerpt to balance a playful title.
    • Variety. E.g., if a title word has a common variation, use that variation in the excerpt. (To facilitate humans, not to trick machines!)
  • Write excerpts last. Then you have a better overview.
  • Revisit you excerpts. Even if you got everything perfect the first time, other things may have changed.

To recap, when writing WordPress Excerpts try to be, as much as possible:

  1. Brief
  2. Informative

Let’s see some tools now.

4. WordPress Excerpt Editor

A default WordPress setup offers one tool to manage excerpts: the Excerpt box. If you are serious about excerpts, you need more. Fortunately, even though the WordPress Excerpt is underappreciated, there are quite a few good plugins for managing excerpts. Part 5 suggests a couple that generate META descriptions from excerpts, while the Links at the end include a couple more.

This part looks at one plugin for excerpts that, in my estimation, offers the most general usefulness:

WordPress Excerpt Editor

WordPress Excerpt Editor does what its name suggests and much more. It is essentially an excerpt manager. Among other things, it lets you:

  • Add and edit excerpts quickly
  • Add excerpts to pages
  • Control the appearance of excerpts
  • Display excerpts instead of full content on index pages (search results, tag archives etc.)
  • Display excerpts instead of full content on the homepage

If you need to add excerpts retrospectively to a large number of posts, or simply edit a large number of excerpts, Excerpt Editor brings all excerpts, empty and filled-in, together in one place, so that you can edit or add excerpts one after the other. For posts with no excerpt, it shows the first 70 words, to help you start. Once you are finished with an excerpt, you click Save and Excerpt Editor goes to the next one:

WordPress Excerpt Editor 1.3

It also lets you add excerpts to WordPress pages, which is not possible without a plugin.

If you only need Excerpt Editor for these two features—adding/editing post excerpts and adding/editing excerpts to Pages—, you can deactivate it when you finish and reactivate it the next time you want to add or edit a large number of excerpts. (This is how I use it at present.)

The extended functionality of Excerpt Editor, beyond adding and editing excerpts, is too wide to go over here. There is one feature, however, that can be essential for what we discuss. This is “Replace Posts”:

WordPress Excerpt Editor 1.3, Options, Replace Posts

If your theme does not support excerpts, or supports excerpts poorly, “Replace Posts” lets you define where to show excerpts instead of full content. There are several combinations you can select for that; you can even have the homepage show the latest post in full and display only the excerpt for the rest!

5. Excerpts as META descriptions

5.1. What is a META description

The language in which most webpages are written is HTML or its cousin XHTML. A meta description is an optional set of data in the head of an HTML document that describes the content of the document. “meta” means that this set of data is metadata or meta-information; that is, data about data, or information about information: about the information in the document itself.

A basic XHTML document with a META description looks like this:

Basic structure of an XHTML document.  The HEAD section is highlighted

Click to see how this document appears in a web browser.

Unlike the title of a page and the text in the body, the meta description is not displayed by web browsers. Browsers understand it, however, as do indexing robots, the programs search engines use to browse the web automatically and index web pages.

When search engines were still young, in the early days of the commercial Web, they used to rely on this description, as well as on the “keywords” meta element, to understand what a page is about and how relevant it is to a query. As a consequence, description and keywords were abused to senselessness by webmasters. Search engines, at least the ones that matter, don’t do that any more. They do not rely on description and keywords for indexing and ranking. However, they still use description, very frequently, for what its original purpose was: Description!

The reason why search engines are interested in the meta description is the same reason why web authors should use it. The Official Google Webmaster Central Blog explains:

The quality of your snippet — the short text preview we display for each web result — can have a direct impact on the chances of your site being clicked (i.e. the amount of traffic Google sends your way). We use a number of strategies for selecting snippets, and you can control one of them by writing an informative meta description for each URL. […]

We want snippets to accurately represent the web result. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL’s content. This directs them to good results faster and reduces the click-and-backtrack behavior that frustrates visitors and inflates web traffic metrics. Keep in mind that meta descriptions comprised of long strings of keywords don’t achieve this goal and are less likely to be displayed in place of a regular, non-meta description, snippet. And it’s worth noting that while accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won’t affect your ranking within search results.

SOURCE: Raj Krishnan, Google Snippets Team, in Improve snippets with a meta description makeover, 27 September 2007.

Given the source of the quotation, I don’t think I need to add anything. — I’ll just cite one more example of search results:

Google, Search results, Descriptions (“snippets”) highlighted

Searching for “clean minimalist themes” in Google returned, among other results, two op111.net pages. Both have meta descriptions. Google seems to think that the descriptions are descriptive enough and relevant enough to the search query, so it uses them. If these pages did not have meta descriptions, Google would make descriptions by extracting relevant bits from the content and putting them together.

5.2. Using WordPress excerpts as META descriptions

You can write meta descriptions for your posts in WordPress by using a plugin. But if your posts already have excerpts, there is no reason to do that. Since the WordPress excerpt and the HTML meta description are about the same in purpose, you can use your excerpts as meta descriptions!

In the WordPress logic, this is simple. In the same way that, for example, we tell WordPress to get the post_title of a post from the database and use it as a title for that post, we can tell WordPress to get post_excerpt and use it as a meta description (in addition to using it as an excerpt). Only we can’t do that in a default setup. We need a plugin. Here are two for you:

Platinum SEO

Platinum SEO Pack does this automatically. Once you install it, all posts with excerpts will also have meta descriptions. You don’t need to do anything else. (The same is true for All in One SEO Pack, on which Platinum SEO is based.)

If a post has no excerpt, Platinum SEO will use the first 160 characters of the post as a meta description. This is the option “Autogenerate Descriptions”, which is enabled by default:

Platinum SEO Plugin Options, Autogenerate Descriptions

My advice is to disable “Autogenerate Descriptions”. If you have posts without excerpts, let the search engines piece together descriptions for them. They do a better job.

If you want to use a meta description different from the excerpt for a particular post, go to the post editor and write one in the SEO Platinum Pack box, in the Description field.

Headspace2

HeadSpace2 allows finer control of the head of HMTL pages and can do that and much more, but does absolutely nothing by default. (Which is one reason why it is among my favourite WordPress plugins.) Setting it to generate meta descriptions from excerpts is easy:

  1. Go to HeadSpace Settings › Page Settings
  2. Click to edit the Posts & Pages section
  3. Type %%excerpt_only%% in the Description box
  4. Save your changes

HeadSpace2 for WordPress, Page Settings, Excerpt as META description

This tells HeadSpace2 to generate meta descriptions for posts and pages that have excerpts.

To use a meta description different from the excerpt for a particular post or page, simply go to the page/post editor and write a meta description for that page or post:

HeadSpace2, Writing a specific META description for a post or page

Last, HeadSpace trims meta descriptions to 150 characters. You can change this value in HeadSpace Settings › Page Modules › Page Description. (I use 192.)

Themes that generate META descriptions from excerpts

If WordPress plugins can take an excerpt and use it as a meta description, so can WordPress themes. One theme that does this is Hybrid:

Hybrid for WordPress, Settings, Autogenerate META descriptions

Another is Thematic. Thematic does this by default and, since version 0.9, does it the smart way too: It makes meta descriptions only for posts that have a manual excerpt.

5.3. Length of META descriptions

Since META descriptions are written for search engines, what matters here is what search engines do. At this writing (February 2009), Google seems to use up to 160 characters to describe search results, Yahoo! up to 170, and Live Search up to 180:

LENGTH OF DESCRIPTIONS (SNIPPETS/ABSTRACTS) IN SEARCH ENGINES IN FEB 2009

  • ≤ 160 characters in Google
  • ≤ 170 characters in Yahoo!
  • ≤ 180 characters in Live Search

So, if you want your descriptions to be displayed in whole when picked up by search engines, do not exceed 160 characters. For English, that’s about 25–28 words.

For a quick check-up of your meta descriptions, you can use the Diagnostics tool in Google Webmaster Tools. It will tell you whether you have too long, too short, or duplicate descriptions, how many of each, and it will point you to the pages that need attention:

Google Webmaster Tools, Diagnostics, Content analysis, Meta descriptions

6. Notes, Miscellaneous

6.1. Excerpts for Pages

WordPress supports Page excerpts internally (the database field that stores them is exactly the same as for posts: post_excerpt) but offers no interface to add excerpts to Pages. WordPress Excerpt Editor makes no such distinction and lets you add excerpts to both posts and pages. If you create pages often, another plugin you may find useful is PJW Page Excerpt: It adds an Excerpt box to the page editor, same as the Excerpt box of the post editor.

6.2. Teasers

The “teaser” is another useful device in WordPress, often confused with the Excerpt. You make a teaser by inserting the more tag in a post. (The More button is to the left of the spellchecker.) Then, the part above the more tag becomes a “teaser” and is displayed by default on the front page in lieu of the full content, along with a Read More link.

The relation between the Teaser and the two Excerpts, manual and automatic, is this: When a post has no manual excerpt, WordPress looks for a teaser and uses that instead. If the post has no teaser either, WordPress uses the first 55 words as an excerpt.

6.3. That’s it!

The WordPress Excerpt is a narrow subject but rather confusing for it scope. I tried to make some sense of it by focusing on what seemed essential to me and without going into too much detail. If you think there is still too much detail, or not enough detail, leave a comment to say so. If you are still perplexed about the excerpt that’s not an excerpt, please ask. In any case, feel free to say what you think. Your contribution is appreciated.

Thanks for reading!

δκ

7. Links

7.1. General

Template Tags/the excerpt
Documentation for the function the_excerpt() in the WordPress wiki.
Wanted: Excerpt Exacter
“I need a WordPress plugin that won’t let me publish a post until I’ve filled in the excerpt field. Anyone got one?” By Eric Meyer. — 2009-10-05: See Autofields below.
WordPress Now Available (v0.70)
Release notes for the first public release of WordPress, v0.70, in May 2003. The Excerpt is among the highlighted features: “Manual Excerpts — This allows you to handcraft summaries of your posts to appear in your RSS feed and other places.”

7.2. WordPress plugins for excerpts

All plugins below can be installed from the WordPress Dashboard: Go to Plugins › Add New, look up the plugin name, and click Install.

Advanced Excerpt
Tweaks the excerpts that WordPress generates automatically when the Excerpt field is empty.
Autofields
Autofills the Excerpt field (optionally) and also warns about missing excerpt (optionally).
HeadSpace2
Powerful metadata manager for WordPress. Can be used for SEO and for much more!
Platinum SEO Pack
A WordPress plugin for easy search-engine optimization. (Based on All in One SEO Pack.)
PJW Page Excerpt
Adds an Excerpt box to the page editor, same as the one in the post editor, to add excerpts to pages.
WordPress Excerpt Editor
An excerpt editor, formatter, and manager for WordPress.

7.3. “description” META element

Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide
Good concise (22 pages) SEO guide in PDF format, by Google. It has a section on the “description” element.
Google Webmaster Tools
A set of useful tools by Google. Among other things, they analyze your META descriptions and tell you if there is anything wrong with them.
Making the Most of Meta Description Tags
How to write good meta descriptions, by Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz.
Video: anatomy of a search snippet
Matt Cutts of Google explains on video how descriptions are generated in Google results. (English and Korean captions available.)

Changes

2010-09-29
Several edits and corrections here and there.
2009-10-05
Added Autofields to list of plugins for excerpts.
2009-06-14
Corrected: Platinum SEO and All in One SEO cut meta descriptions at 160 characters, not 150.
Several other edits.
2009-03-03
Added Thematic to themes that generate meta descriptions.