Broken SEO: Meta Description Madness, Find And Fix Missing, Duplicate, And Long Descriptions [Tactic Tuesdays]

on under SEO Auditing, Tactic Tuesday.

While your meta tags don’t directly influence your position in the search results, the meta description is the first thing a searcher sees when they notice your listing in the search results other than your page title. It serves as an important call to action that helps verify the relevancy of your page to their search query, and captures their interest in order to draw them onto your page.

Drawing more visitors onto your page from the same number of searchers is a good thing for obvious reasons, but it also increases click-through rates which in turn can raise your position in the search results indirectly.

Unfortunately, meta descriptions are one of the most often and easily overlooked pieces of your landing pages and blog posts. Since they are not visible on the page itself, they can be easy to forget about.

In addition to outright forgetting to include a meta description, it’s not uncommon to include meta descriptions that are too long to be visible in the search result.

Duplicate meta tags are another common problem, where large swaths of the site, such as pages sharing a category or subfolder, may all share the exact same meta description. This is counterproductive, and in many cases it would actually be better to have no meta description at all, since at least the automatically generated snippet would be more relevant to the searcher’s query phrases. Of course, an empty meta description is far from ideal, and in most cases it should be replaced with a meta description designed specifically to draw users to that specific page.

Here is how to identify pages that have issues with the meta description, and resolve the issue.

Find Pages With Missing Meta Descriptions

To start, you will need Screaming Frog. The free version of the product should be sufficient for our purposes today.

After downloading and installing Screaming Frog, enter your homepage URL into the bar at the top of the window and press the “Start” button or hit the ENTER key on your keyboard.

Screaming Frog will begin crawling your site, collecting all URLs linked from your homepage or pages reachable from the homepage. Wait for the progress bar next to the “Start” button to climb up to 100%, indicating that the site has been completely crawled.

Depending on the size of your site, this can take a significant amount of time. If you find that, even after a significant amount of time, the number of URLs that needs to be crawled (in the bottom right corner of the window) is growing faster than the number of pages it is crawling, you may need to make some adjustments. You can limit the crawl to a specific subfolder or subdomain, etc., by going to Configuration > Include and Configuration > Exclude to set limits on which pages are crawled. This won’t be necessary for small sites, but large sites like ecommerce sites may require this limitation. You can use regex in these settings. These features are not accessible in the free version of Screaming Frog.

Once the crawl is complete, you can click the “Meta Description” tab at the top of the window, underneath the bar where you typed or pasted in your homepage.

From the “Filter” menu at the top left, just above the spreadsheet, select “Missing.” The spreadsheet below will now list all of the crawled URLs on your site that do not currently have a meta description.

Make a copy of these URLs into a spreadsheet and add a column for a new meta description for each page. Write the meta descriptions so that they are specific and highly targetted for the URL in question. The meta description should hook users who are looking for the specific information that they will find on that page. In most cases you should try to work the keywords associated with the page into the meta description, even though they do not affect rankings, so that they words will be bolded in the search results if the user was searching for those specific keywords (or close synonyms).

One point of consideration: some pages may not necessarily need a meta description. Inclusion of a unique meta description should be the default choice, but pages designed to target a very large variety of long tail keywords may in some cases perform better without a meta description, since the automatic snippet is, in this case, more likely to contain the information from the desired part of the page.

Find Pages With Duplicate Meta Descriptions

Make sure that you are still in the “Meta Descriptions” tab of Screaming Frog. From the drop down menu in the top left corner of the window, select “Duplicate.”

You will see a list of all URLs on your site that are using the same meta description.

As stated above, it’s almost always better to have no meta description at all than a duplicate meta description. A duplicate meta description means one of two things: either they pages themselves are actually identical, in which case you should set up a redirect in .htaccess, or it means that two pages which serve different functions are being billed the same way in the search results.

If the pages are different, paste the duplicates into a spreadsheet and create a column for the new meta descriptions. Come up with a unique meta description for each using the same guidelines discussed above for missing meta descriptions.

Find Pages With Long Meta Descriptions

Once again, make sure that you are still in the “Meta Descriptions” tag of Screaming Frog, and use the “Filter” drop down menu in the top left corner of the window to select “Over 156 Characters.”

Meta descriptions longer than 156 characters are not fully visible in the search results. If they are longer than this, they will be cut off at the end with an ellipses. For obvious reasons, if your meta description’s call to action is not fully visible, this can hurt your click through rates, which can also indirectly hurt your rankings in the search results.

Furthermore, it is possible that an excessively long meta descriptions could actually count directly against you in the search results. While this is unlikely, meta descriptions stuffed with keywords were once used as a spam tactic to manipulate search results, and as a result this is not the kind of behavior that you want to be associated with.

Paste the URLs with long meta descriptions into a spreadsheet and add a column for the new meta descriptions. Try to cut down your meta descriptions as much as possible by removing filler words. Use the same guidelines discussed above and make sure that your meta descriptions are highly specific for each page, with a strong call to action and usage of keywords.

All set!

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