Depending on how you got to this article, you may have seen one of a number of texts that attracted your attention. You might have come here through a Google search, in which case you saw a title and the beginning of an article. If you clicked a link in your Twitter timeline, you just saw the title of this article. And if you came through my RSS feed, or my weekly newsletter, you’ll have seen an excerpt.
I used to let WordPress create its own excerpts; they take the first 55 words of each post. But I recently changed to writing custom excerpts, because I realized that they are much more useful to readers.
When you write a custom except for a post or article, WordPress uses that instead of the default 55-word excerpt. To do this, just write one in the Excerpt field that displays in the WordPress admin interface. (If you don’t see this, click Screen Options at the top of the window, and check Excerpt.) You can also do this in some third-party tools. I use MarsEdit to write my articles, and post to my blog. In MarsEdit, choose View > Excerpt Field to have this display at the top of the window.
A custom excerpt is what we call a “dek” in the trade. It’s a summary of an article, which appears below the headline, but above the story. In print, and on some websites, you may see this dek; on most blogs, you don’t. There are several advantages to using custom excerpts.
1. Your RSS feed will be much easier to read, and each article will have a custom summary instead of just picking the first words of your article. Since you can craft this summary, you can choose how you want to present an article to get more readers to click through. To make sure your RSS feed uses excerpts, go to Settings > Reading in the WordPress dashboard. Next to For each article in a feed, show, check Summary.
2. I send out a weekly newsletter, which essentially reproduces my RSS feed. Since I use custom excerpts, the newsletter is more concise, gives more information, and looks a lot better.
3. When someone searches your blog, or when they click on a category link (such as this one, for the Tech category) or a tag (such as this one, for articles tagged iTunes), they’ll see titles and custom excerpts, making it much more likely for people to read more articles on your blog.
4. I post all my articles to Twitter and Facebook. While Twitter is limited to only displaying article titles, Facebook also displays the custom excerpt. Again, readers are more likely to click through to an article if there is a clear, concise summary.
5. I’ve seen some articles that say that Google uses custom excerpts, if a site uses them. This isn’t the case for my site in Google’s each results, and this may be because I’ve only recently started using them. I don’t have time to go back and write 2,000 custom excerpts, so I may miss out on having Google pick mine up for a while.
No matter what, custom excerpts are a good thing to add to your articles. They don’t take long, and they can actually help you by making you summarize what you’re trying to say in just a few words. They can help you ensure the focus of your articles, and help your readers choose what they want to read more easily. It only takes a minute to write one, either before or after you’ve written an article, so why not do so?