We think you’ll agree that writing meta data for every single page on your site is a daunting task. Especially if your site racks up hundreds or even thousands of pages.
But if you use tools like Sitebulb or Screaming Frog as part of your content strategy, you may have been slapped with the ominous “duplicate meta description” warning.
What does it mean? And what can you do about it?
This post explains duplicate meta descriptions and teaches you how to avoid common pitfalls with your site’s meta data.
By the end you’ll know how to craft meta descriptions that tick all of Google’s mysterious boxes.
What are duplicate meta descriptions?
If more than two meta descriptions on your site are identical or very similar they are considered duplicate:
These meta descriptions are the same, word for word. They’re also problematic for other reasons (brevity, non-descriptive) but that’s for another blog post.
These meta descriptions, from the Guardian, are considered duplicate despite having minor differences between departments.
Why does your website need meta descriptions?
To understand why duplicate meta descriptions are problematic, let’s take a step back.
Meta descriptions exist to give users an idea of what to expect on a web page. They are also useful for search engines as signposts indicating the purpose of a web page.
In the old days of SEO, meta data was a more prominent ranking factor. Webmasters strove to craft the perfect title, description and keywords to give Google the best chance to rank their site highly.
Or, more likely, they filled the meta data with keyword spam to try and game the system.
This led to a crackdown by Google and now the search engine uses other metrics to determine ranking. Ones which are harder to game.
Are unique meta descriptions important?
2 years ago our answer would have been a firm “yes”. Now, not so much. The reason:
Google may decide to ignore your meta descriptions.
Let’s look back at the examples above. If I search ‘property news Guardian’, this comes up:
The meta description matches the example above. Google has decided that the site’s meta description is an accurate description of the contents of the page, and has pulled it through to the SERP.
If I search ‘the Cadbury story’, something interesting happens (bear in mind that the meta description for that page was ‘Cadbury chocolate’):
Here, Google has disregarded the meta description, instead pulling through copy from the page which it feels provides a better description and a better answer to the search query.
It is important to note that knowing that Google will do the work for you is not an excuse to get complacent with meta descriptions.
Should you still write unique meta descriptions?
Our answer to this would still be a resounding yes.
Imagine you have two stacks of magazines: one has a variety of interesting titles, the other has 50 copies of today's newspaper. Which one are you more likely to browse?
This logic applies to web pages, too.. If you have too many duplicate content issues, search engines may register some of your content as spam, low quality or repeated content, and push your site further down the rankings.
Consider meta descriptions your site’s first impression.
For search engines, they provide a top-level clue about your site’s content.
For users, they provide a brief description about the contents of each pages, which will help people decide whether or not to click through to a page.
We recommend thinking of meta descriptions primarily as a click through rate tool, then as an SEO one.
Tips for writing good meta descriptions
With all this in mind, here are our top tips for fit-for-purpose meta descriptions:
- Write with the user in mind, not the search engine. Imagine you’re describing the page to your mum, or someone who’s not particularly web savvy.
- Imagine meta descriptions as the ‘elevator pitch’ of the page. They should quickly convey all the important takeaway information.
- Write the meta description for each page and blog post when it’s published. This is when the content is most fresh in your mind, and it makes the task infinitely less tedious.
- Respect the 325 character limit. Google has recently bumped the length of displayed meta descriptions from ~155 to ~325 characters, use them wisely!
We think that’s everything you need to know about avoiding duplicate meta description issues, and writing effective meta descriptions.
Any questions or comments, let us know below.