In case you're new here, it's not everyday that you'll hear me disputing something Matt Cutts said.
In fact, I tend to quote him, and other official Google sources, more frequently than most SEOs, primarily because I feel many SEOs are out of touch with what Google's guidelines actually say, and out of touch with what we actually know about Google's algorithm.
But when I took a look at what the search results had to say about duplicate meta descriptions, pretty much every search result quoted Matt Cutts and then called it good.
So here's the thing.
When Matt Cutts says something about the Google algorithm, or something about Google's guidelines, you should take it seriously.
If, on the other hand, Matt Cutts gives you business advice, such as when he says things like "just create good content" (paraphrasing), you need to keep in mind that Matt Cutts is not a business guru.
So yes, Matt Cutts is the authority on what Google considers spam.
He is not the authority on meta descriptions, duplicate or otherwise.
Here's why that matters.
Should You Be Concerned About Duplicate Meta Descriptions?
So let's start with what Matt Cutts said:
The way I would think of it is you can either have a unique meta tag description, or you can choose to have no meta tag description, but I wouldn't have duplicate meta tag descriptions. In fact, if you register and verify your site in our free Google Webmaster Tools console, we will tell you if we see duplicate meta descriptions, so that is something that I would avoid...When I blog I don' t bother [to create unique meta descriptions]...In general, rather than have one meta tag description repeated over and over and over again for every page on your site, I would either go ahead and make sure that their is a unique one for the pages that really matter, or just leave it off and Google will generate the snipet for you. But I wouldn't have the duplicate ones if you can help it.
For the record, what Matt Cutts is saying makes a lot of sense in most circumstances. However, it's certainly not universally true. It's also worth noting that he isn't saying anything about the algorithm.
Meta descriptions play no part in rankings, so duplicate meta descriptions are of no concern as far as that goes.
So, rather than taking Matt Cutts at his word, we should start by asking why you shouldn't use duplicate meta descriptions, something he didn't even touch on. Here are a few of those reasons:
- Duplicate meta descriptions are often less relevant than Google's automatically generated snippets.
- Duplicate meta descriptions can reduce your click through rate as a result of this reduced relevance.
- Duplicate meta descriptions could make you appear pushy or spammy to users, especially if they see your search results more than once.
- Meta descriptions (duplicate or not) can make pages appear less relevant for long tail queries, while automatically generated snippets will show those users the specific part of the page that is relevant to them.
- If you use duplicate meta descriptions, Google may ignore your recommendation and just display an automatically generated snippet instead.
These are all very good reasons not to use duplicate meta descriptions. However, let's not ignore any possible benefits:
- Duplicate meta descriptions may be more relevant than Google's automatically generated snippets for pages that are similar but not identical to one another. For example, identical meta descriptions across several product pages that belong to the same category might outperform Google's snippets in some circumstances.
- Duplicate meta descriptions could be used to leverage the mere-exposure effect, exposing a large number of people to a tagline or unique selling proposition that you want a lot of people to see, although it's important to consider how this might impact user experience and whether it's worth the trade-off.
So, if we were approaching this as a simple pros vs cons list, we would certainly want to go with unique meta descriptions (or no meta descriptions), and that should in fact be the default choice.
But, of course, every situation is unique, and if there are legitimate reasons to use duplicate meta descriptions, or at least to test them, don't let Matt Cutts stand in your way.
Image credit: woodleywonderworks