Google Officially Extends Snippet Length
Meta descriptions are one of the most important onpage SEO elements, with webmasters often spending large amounts of time thinking about, researching, and testing different variations to find the most effective description for each page of their site. Together with a page's meta title, the meta description forms a snippet that helps search engines understand and rank a page, while also serving as a "sales pitch" to entice potential visitors.
For years, it's been said that meta descriptions limited to 160 characters are optimal for Google's search results - but it may be time to throw the old playbook out.
Snippets Are Longer Than Ever, and They Often Come from Page Content
While most webmasters have stuck to the 160-character rule over the years, the truth is that Google's snippet length has always been in flux. SEOs over the years have occasionally noticed much longer meta descriptions popping up in search results. The difference this time is that Google has officially come out and stated that snippets are now likely to be much longer than they were in the past. As one Google official told Search Engine Land:
"We recently made a change to provide more descriptive and useful snippets, to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches. This resulted in snippets becoming slightly longer, on average."
Yoast, a popular SEO tool for WordPress, performed research related to this announcement and found that, on average, snippet length is currently much longer than 160 characters. It's now likely that a snippet will be 320 characters or more. In addition, many of the snippets now found in search results aren't related to meta descriptions at all. Instead, Google often chooses to display content from the page that is most relevant to a searcher's query. In other words, snippets are dynamic based on a page's content and a user's query - Google's algorithm will decide whether your meta description or an excerpt of content from your page is the best text to display to a user in their search results.
Indeed, we've seen both of these concepts in Content Customs' Google snippets. Our snippets are longer, and Google often chooses to show content from the page rather than our meta description:
Of course, one of the problems with extended snippets is that click through rates (CTRs) could decrease due to a higher likelihood that users will get their query answered directly in the snippets of search results without needing to actually click through to a page. If CTRs go down dramatically for many sites, it may fan the flames of the argument that Google unfairly scrapes content, especially now that their FTC antitrust agreement has expired.
What Does This Mean for SEO?
These developments may make it seem like meta descriptions are becoming irrelevant or even obsolete. Don't let that fool you though - meta descriptions are still a very valuable space to place SEO keywords and to write compelling copy that encourages users to visit your site over the other sites in their search results. A longer meta description - provided Google chooses to use it - just gives you more opportunity to create content that gets you traffic.
You may also be tempted to go through your existing meta descriptions and increase their length. However, this may not be necessary if you believe your meta descriptions are already well optimized. After all, it's likely that if Google chooses to display a longer snippet for one of your pages, they'll probably just pull the content from your page.
What you should do now as a reaction to this change is ensure that you're avoiding thin content wherever possible on your site. Since Google is so often pulling content from your page for the snippet, you'll want to make sure you have high-quality, relevant content that it can pull from. While it's bad for a host of reasons, thin content is now likely to prevent your snippets from being very compelling.
Overall, the worst position a page could be in would be to have thin content and a missing meta description.
Writing Good Meta Descriptions
Aside from a potential increase in length, the guidelines for writing good meta descriptions are largely unaffected by this change. In general, your meta descriptions should:
- include a call-to-action
- be relevant to the content of the page
- include focus keywords related to the page content
- be unique for every page
- have compelling copy that piques readers' interest
- include specific product information when applicable
Longer snippet length means you have more room to check off all of these suggestions in your meta descriptions. For those of you using Yoast, the latest version will only give you an orange bullet for the meta description if it exceeds 320 characters (although this may change in the future). Google's guidelines for writing good meta descriptions can be found here and here.