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When (& When Not) to Write Meta Descriptions

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Stephen Watts
Stephen Watts
When (& When Not) to Write Meta Descriptions

The scenario is all too common – you’ve just run a site audit with your favorite SEO tool and you were alerted to the fact, yet again, that hundreds, thousands, or millions of pages on the website in question are missing meta descriptions.

Before you tell your manager that you must spend the next month head-down writing 155-character descriptions for every single webpage on the website, consider the case that it may be in your best interest for some webpages to not have a meta description.

5 Reasons You May Not Want to Write That Meta Description

Google Is Constantly Testing & Changing the Way It Presents Search Results

After many years of a ~150-165 character limit, Google changed this to 260-275 characters last December without any prior announcement. This resulted in many results that had been optimized for the previous shorter version looking sub-optimal.

Then, less than 6 months later, Google reverted back to the shorter limits.

It takes a significant amount of time to optimize around these changes, and most websites would’ve been better off during this test period with no meta description rather than a too-short or too-long one.

I pity the SEO analysts that had just finished writing all new, longer meta descriptions when Google made the revision back.

All Organizations Have Limited Resources

Although Google recommends to “Make sure that every page on your site has a meta description,” they also state that their use of the tag in creating search result pages is light at best.

“Google will sometimes use the <meta> description tag from a page to generate a search results snippet, if we think it gives users a more accurate description than would be possible purely from the on-page content.”

With limited resources, how can an organization operating a website hope to not only be on top of all things that are necessary to rank and earn traffic, but also maintain content that isn’t required?

It can’t.

Meta descriptions are the sort of thing that must be selectively focused on – and sometimes ignored.

Google Usually Writes Its Own Description Snippet

Google usually writes its own description snippet, even if you provide a meta description.

A Yoast study, comparing the before and after of Google’s description length change, found that in two-thirds of the cases, Google used words from the first paragraph of content on the page to create a description for the snippet.

Time may be better spent optimizing the first paragraph rather than optimizing meta description tags if the goal is to influence description snippets.

Forcing Google to Create Description Snippets Is Often a Great Thing

The words included in the search result have as much a chance of turning a visitor off from clicking as turning them on.

The more you say in the snippet, the greater chance of reducing the mystery of what is behind the click, for good but often for bad.

Many blog posts, for example, rely on a great variety of long-tail keywords and answer many very different questions within a single post’s content.

By having a static description, the search result snippet is less likely to contain the keywords that the searcher used – and thereby risk being less relevant than the Google-generated snippet.

Not All Pages Matter Equally for SEO

Large websites often have thousands or millions of pages that will never drive significant volumes of natural search traffic.

It is a waste of time to manually – and often programmatically – maintain meta descriptions on webpages that have no potential to rank for keywords that could drive significant traffic.

Don’t let your consultant or toolset fool you, it is not critical to have a meta description on every page, or even close to every page.

When auditing your site for meta descriptions, differentiate between those pages that do and don’t need them and only maintain those that are necessary.

Remember that all content requires future maintenance. It would be far better to have no meta description than a poor or outdated one.

4 Times When You Absolutely Should Provide a Meta Description

Homepage

As perhaps your most critical webpage, the homepage deserves the care required to craft a great meta description.

Many homepages are navigational in nature, have more imagery and design elements, and less paragraph text compared to other pages on site meaning the need for a meta description is increased.

If you manage the website for a known brand, the homepage meta description offers a chance to influence the perception of the company directly on the search results page.

Product & Category Pages

If your website exists to help your organization make sales, it’s likely that your product and category pages are the most critical pages on your site for serving late stage prospect interest.

These are the most important pages to get right. These are certainly worth spending your time fine-tuning as much as possible.

Content That Is Getting Seen on Google

If your website has 2,000 old blog posts but only the top 10 percent drive significant search traffic, then focus your efforts on those 10 percent.

Improving the meta description for old content that isn’t ranking, and will never rank in its current state, will not improve your traffic or site at all (although your SEO tool may tell you otherwise!).

Improve the descriptions for pages that have significant impression volume.

Pages That Are Found in Natural Search but Lack Much Text Content on the Page

Many webpages that serve embedded videos, widgets, and apps are lacking on descriptive text for Google to use for the description.

Similarly, for resources pages and other pages which are basically just a list of links, Google has nothing to pull from to create an optimal description.

In these cases, a website should be sure to provide a meta description for search engines to use.

Know When to Ignore Alerts, Best Practices & Guidelines

In a perfect world where an SEO professional had as many team members as necessary to hand-craft meta descriptions and change them across a sea of pages at the drop of Google’s hat, then all webpages should have meta descriptions.

But here in the real world, where we’re all limited by time and must pick-and-choose which tactics are worthwhile investments, it’s important to reconsider whether those best practices are worth the time it takes to create and maintain them in the future.

It’s controversial but true. For pages which have a snowball’s chance in Alabama of driving SEO traffic, meta descriptions simply aren’t worth the trouble of maintenance.

And in those cases, you may be better off encouraging Google to craft description snippets.

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Stephen Watts

B2B SEO & Web Strategy at BMC Software

Stephen Watts is the head of SEO for BMC Software. Stephen holds a degree in Philosophy from Auburn University and ... [Read full bio]

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