How Your Meta Description Needs to Change
In the ever-changing world of Google Search and SEO, one thing has always been pretty constant and reliable – a meta description should be no longer than 155 characters (including spaces), for fear of the description being truncated, often unfavourably, with an ellipsis (…) appearing in an inopportune spot, cutting your text off in its prime. We have always, consequently, advised that a meta description should be between 90 and 155 characters of well crafted, enticing copy and optimised accordingly, to lure the searcher to your well-crafted page.
But, as they say, the only thing that is constant is change and, lo and behold, towards the end of 2017 we saw an increasing number of much longer (300 character plus) descriptions appearing, which resembled more a featured snippet than a meta description.
So, what is going on and how will this affect things? Firstly, lets look at what a meta description is.
What is a Meta Description?
A meta description is an HTML tag that appears in the header <head> element of a web page, which summarises the contents of a page for the benefit of web crawling software, in particular search engine robots. SEO’s used to think that the description played a part in Google’s ranking of a page, however Google confirmed in 2009 that they do not use the description tag in their rankings and the tag itself does not have a direct effect on rankings. However, if the description is relevant and well crafted, search engines will tend to show this on their search page, in the snippet of introducing the page (see below), although if they find more relevant content on the page they might prefer to use that.
This is an example of a meta description tag in HTML:-
And how it appears in a search page: –
Well written copy in the snippet, although not directly affecting the rank, will significantly increase the click through rate and thus increase traffic to the page. This is, obviously, good and also may positively influence ranks.
So, What is Going On with Meta Descriptions
Looking down a typical search page, what we have been seeing is that not every description is longer (see below). This may, we suspect, be because most sites have optimised for a maximum 155-character description and Google sees these as relevant snippets for the page and quer. Where, however, Google has chosen to ignore the description and use its own snippet from the page, it is using a longer snippet, typically between 300 and 360 characters, although we are seeing the median figure of 320 characters to be a good guide.
This is an example of a featured snippet and a NEW normal/traditional snippet:-
What we are deducing is that where Google finds a more relevant longer snippet of text on the page it is showing this, just as it might have done when it ignored a meta description and showed a random piece of text before.
What is not yet clear is whether Google, if and when all descriptions are 300 characters plus, will show a page full of longer snippets.
So Why is Google Doing This
Google has been testing longer snippets since 2015, but it is interesting that this bigger rollout of longer snippets follows hot on the heels of Moz’s reporting of a drop in the volume of featured snippets in the Google Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
Longer snippets improve the user experience for searchers wanting a quick answer to their question and means the searcher doesn’t have to waste time visiting other webpages, which means that Google keeps them on their site for longer. Longer snippets are also much more helpful in Voice Search and with the increase in voice searches (up 35 times the 2008 figure and estimated to account for up to 50% of all searches by 2020) together with the launch of Google Home and the success of Amazon Echo, this is becoming really important.
What Impact Will This Have on Your Site
If your site is to benefit from the new longer snippets, you will need to ensure that you have a suitable snippet on your page and/or a longer 300-320 character meta description. If not, you run the risk of searchers being enticed by longer richer SERP snippets; or Google taking a random non-optimised snippet of text, which may not be on-brand or communicate the message you intend; and all of this might also affect your search rankings.
You may also see a reduction in your click through rate, as users might not see the need to visit your page if they can glean most of the information they need from the snippet, however, from our own research, we see sites benefiting from an increase in visibility, credibility and authority from appearing in search snippets and any decline in CTR is generally offset by increased overall visibility and traffic, better user experience and improved engagement.
If your site relies on people visiting it to generate revenue, e.g. from advertising, then this is potentially bad news, however if your website generates leads or sales, this means you will potentially get less traffic and means you will need to take a different view on the metrics you use to measure your marketing effectiveness. In other words, rather than simply relying on traffic as a measure, consider your overall search visibility, the amount of branding exposure, the amount of times you appear prominently in a search without receiving a click, the user experience stats when you get visits to your site, your conversion rate, etc.,
What Changes Do you Need to Make
I think this heralds a fundamental change in search and content. Quite recently we were pondering the reduction in featured snippets and considering if this would change our content policy, however I think this now means that, rather than looking for specific pieces of content that need to be optimised for the featured snippet, virtually every page needs to focused on a richer snippet. It also means that just about every meta description needs to be reconsidered and potentially rewritten if you want to ensure that you control the snippet that appears rather than Google.
So the answer to the burning question How Long Should a Meta Description Be in 2018 is, as typical in the world of search optmisation, it depends. The key thing, however, is that it is relevant and sums up the search query and it is no longer strictly under 156 characters but now more likely to be around 320 characters, which will be our new guideline, for now….