A lot of old-school SEO discussion was spent on meta descriptions – length, content, use of keywords, and more.
Now, the question is – are meta descriptions still important? And does changing your meta descriptions affect SEO?
You’ve run a site audit with a crawl using your favorite SEO tool. All seemed well, but then you’re alerted to the fact that hundreds, thousands, or millions of pages on the website in question are missing meta descriptions.
Do you panic?
You could tell your manager that you must spend the next month head-down writing 155-character descriptions for every webpage on the site. But is that really the best use of your time?
Some webpages just do not need a meta description. Here’s why.
5 Reasons You May Not Want to Write That Meta Description
Google is Constantly Testing & Changing the Way Search Results Appear
The limit for displaying meta-descriptions has changed several times. From ~150-165 characters, up to 260-275 characters, then back down to 165 characters. Across the SEO industry, best practices on how long meta descriptions should be have evolved.
These changes resulted in many results that had been optimized for the previous shorter version looking sub-optimal. Then, once people had changed meta descriptions to the new length, well… Google changed it back.
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 one that was too long or too short.
Organizations Have Limited Resources
Although Google recommends that you “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.”
The “sometimes” there is doing a lot of work.
Is your time better spent optimizing meta descriptions that are only sometimes used by search engines – or optimizing the content that is always used by search engines and users?
Meta descriptions are the sort of thing that must be selectively focused on. That means sometimes selectively ignoring them, too.
Google Usually Writes Its Own Description Snippet
Google almost always 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 cases, Google used words from the first paragraph of content on the page to create a description for the snippet.
Your 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
Your meta description, turned into the words included in the snippet on the SERP, has as much a chance of driving a visitor away as it does welcoming them in.
Google’s John Mueller has said one reason they rewrite meta descriptions is because they want to accurately match the search query with the page.
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.
Let’s say you write an article about apples, where you also have a good description of oranges. Your meta description is all about apples – and users searching for the info about oranges will assume your site doesn’t have that information.
By having a static description, the search result snippet is less likely to contain the keywords that the searcher used. This risks being less relevant than the Google-generated snippet.
Not All Pages Matter Equally for SEO
It is a waste of time to manually – or even programmatically – maintain meta descriptions on webpages that have no potential to rank.
Don’t let your consultant or toolset fool you; you don’t need a meta description on every page, or even close to every page.
Remember that all content requires future maintenance. It would be far better to have no meta description than a poor or outdated one.
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.
So when do you need a meta description?
4 Times When You Absolutely Should Provide a Meta Description
Your homepage is probably your most critical webpage, so the homepage deserves 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. The less text on a page, the more likely it is to need a meta description.
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, your product and category pages are likely 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% drive significant search traffic, then focus your efforts on those.
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 Found in Natural Search but Lacking Text Content
Many webpages that serve embedded videos, widgets, and apps are lacking 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.
Again, the golden rule is: The less text on a page, the more important a meta description becomes.
Know When to Ignore Alerts, Best Practices & Guidelines
In a perfect world where an SEO professional has 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, all webpages should have meta descriptions.
However, we’re all limited by time and must choose which tactics are worthwhile. It’s important to reconsider whether those best practices are worth the time investment.
It’s controversial but true. If you aren’t going to rank with a page, meta descriptions simply aren’t worth the trouble of maintenance.
You may be better off encouraging Google to craft description snippets.