How to Take Advantage of Google’s New Meta Description Length
In early December 2017, Barry Schwartz reported on Search Engine Land that Google had officially confirmed that it had increased the length of descriptive snippets displayed in its Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). These snippets are the text displayed below the clickable blue link and URL in the listings on Google’s SERPs.
With the new snippet lengths in place for a few months now, we have greater insight into how the change to SERP display impacts SEO efforts. Let’s discuss exactly what changed, how Google now displays its listings, and what you can do to take advantage of the update. I’ll also pr
vide six tips that you can use to improve your approach to writing Meta Descriptions.
Here’s What’s Changed
Google’s update to its SERP display impacts one major element commonly addressed in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts: the Meta Description.
The Meta Description is an HTML tag that is meant to summarize a page’s content, functioning like an abstract, and is displayed within Search listings rather than on one’s website. While Meta Descriptions do not directly impact Google’s algorithmic rankings, they are often a user’s first interaction with a webpage. And a strong one can increase the click-through rate (CTR) into such sites.
Historically, Google has truncated displayed Meta Descriptions to around 155-160 characters (including spaces). The Search Engine bases its cutoff point on a pixel limit rather than a pure character one, which is the reason for the average limit. SEO professionals have had to play it safe, opting for shorter Meta Descriptions to ensure that Google didn’t break up their messaging.
With the increase in displayed Meta Description length, Google has more than doubled the maximum descriptive snippet length. As Dr. Pete Meyers points out in his exhaustive study of more than 89,900 page-one organic results, the new Meta Description cutoff occurs around 300-320 characters.
How Google Views the Change
Relevancy & Tag Overwriting
Google believes that the longer descriptive snippets will, “help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches.” This is a logical extension of what their search engine is meant to do in the first place: get you to the information you desire as quickly as possible.
The key phrase from that statement is “relevant to their searches.” The phrase queried in Google will generate highly specific results based on what the algorithm finds relevant to display.
While not new, Google sometimes overwrites the blue link text, descriptive snippet, or both if it believes it can cobble together a more relevant descriptor. In a landscape with longer snippets, the Search Engine has even more copy to evaluate for relevancy, and in the early months of the rollout sites with shorter Meta Descriptions often saw their tags overwritten for descriptive snippets, in favor of longer body copy text.
Important to note: As Google homes in on relevancy, consider that it treats the Title and Meta Description tags as mere suggestions.
Desktop & Mobile
Perplexingly, Google rolled out the increased snippet length to both its Desktop and Mobile SERPs. It’s an odd choice, since Mobile SERPs cut off the displayed Title tag about 10 characters sooner than on Desktop.
Longer descriptive snippets mean that an individual Search listing now takes up more real estate within the SERPs, pushing subsequent listings even further down the page. This can increase CTRs for the top listings to the detriment of the lower ones. For Mobile, this may be even more impactful, as a single listing can now take up half the phone screen before scrolling. And with additional listing elements like a displayed image or site links, that one listing can even take up the entire screen.
So how can we take advantage of these longer listings?
How to Play in the Space
Google has given us more space to make an argument for our sites’ relevancy. It’s also given us more rope to hang ourselves with, since it can easily overwrite any Meta Description it deems irrelevant. To take advantage, SEOs must rethink their approaches to Meta Description copywriting.
The old 155-character Meta Description limit forced us to write concise, punchy snippets with a call-to-action. This was often challenging, especially for more complex page topics or webpages discussing multiple subjects. Writing to the new limits feels like almost too much space. Kuno Creative commented that longer Meta Descriptions may even cost you some clicks by either losing site of the call-to-action or answering the query entirely in the snippet itself, negating the need to visit the page at all.
Here’s a few guidelines to keep your Meta Description copywriting on track:
- Shoot for about 300 characters in your Meta Description, but don’t worry too much if you come up a little short. Writing natural copy is more important than reaching a specific number.
- Focus on relevancy holistically. Your tags are not the only element that needs to be relevant to a Search query. Make sure your body copy strongly reflects the topic at hand, so that if Google does overwrite your tags, something relevant may still be displayed in the SERPs.
- Front-load your call-to-action. Include two-to-three sentences within your Meta Description, using the first sentence to entice a click. Through-put into your website should be the focus, and additional sentences should lend descriptive color to support that goal.
- Include a topical keyword somewhere in the Meta Description. While this won’t impact rankings, it may help you avoid having your tags overwritten, as Google can more easily connect the tag back to the queried subject.
- Make sure every page on your site has its own unique Meta Description. If you’re not indicating to Google how you’d like each page to be described, it will make the call for you.
- Supplement your Meta Descriptions with some on-page markup language. By making use of structured data, you can gain some rich snippets with ratings, images, addresses, site links, or other display elements. Combined with longer Meta Descriptions, these beefier listings can help push the competition further down the page.
I would also encourage experimentation within the Meta Description space. Test out different Meta Description copy formats and evaluate which work best for your website and its specific assets. A cookie cutter approach likely will not work for every page.
Writing is Rewriting
The new Meta Description length affords us more descriptive freedom, and you should use it as an opportunity to construct better Search listings for existing pages.
Examine how Google currently displays the Search listings for your core webpages by checking your most important keywords. If Google is overwriting the snippets of pages targeting the old character limit, write new tags for these pages first. Additionally, check the current click-through rates for your priority Search Queries in Google Search Console. For terms with low CTRs, check the Meta Descriptions for the associated page and adjust accordingly. The displayed snippet can also provide clues to what Google was hoping to see in the Meta Description.
Google rarely gives you additional (free) opportunities to promote your content, so make sure to capitalize on the new snippet lengths. Meta Descriptions can now breathe a little and read more naturally, rather than squeezing an entire page’s summary into 155 characters. As Search Engine Watch suggests, try to “write like Google doesn’t exist.” If you craft copy like a human for other humans, Google just might reward you with better listings.