In December 2017, Google officially increased the length of search result snippets from around 160 characters to a maximum of 320 characters. Five months later, Google reverted to shorter descriptions as confirmed by Google’s Public Liaison of Search Danny Sullivan in a tweet. The initial change benefited high-ranking listings, which not only took up more space in search results, but also potentially saw an increase in click share due to longer, more descriptive snippets. For low-ranking listings, being further down the search engine results page (SERP) meant even lower click-through rates since users had to scroll more. As snippets return to their normal length, so should the click distribution for organic listings.
What We Have Learned
- Google is always testing To improve the quality of search results and user search experience, Google continuously tests changes to various SERP features. Some updates never get past the testing phase and are only occasionally spotted, screenshotted, and shared by the most vigilant search experts. Other updates are rolled out to the broader public, becoming a new element of the ever-evolving design of a search result page. Google keeps a watchful eye on how the changes perform and is ready to roll them back, as was made evident by this recent update.
- Keeping track of changes is critical Even short-lived tests help monitor and understand how search evolves and what’s down the road. Being able to quickly adapt strategies to new guidelines can sometimes be the only way to yield incremental gains in a highly-competitive search ecosystem. SERP layout changes impact user behavior and by knowing that we can better understand fluctuations in key performance indicators (KPI) and optimize for better visibility.
- Fundamentals still work It’s interesting to note that throughout the update, Google emphasized that meta descriptions, which are frequently used to generate search snippets, should still be created with the same standards in mind. With the initial change back in December, Google stated that there was no need to re-write meta descriptions to make them longer.
Why We Should Care About Meta Descriptions
Search result snippets are generated dynamically. Google may use a meta description, on-page content, or a combination of the two to create a snippet that is aligned to the user’s search query. If meta descriptions don’t always make it to the search results, have no effect on search rankings, and don’t have consistency when it comes to length, then why should we still bother creating and optimizing them for site pages?
The simple answer is because we want to be in control of our message in those instances when Google does use it to populate a search snippet. When we customize and optimize descriptions to deliver the most effective message to users, our efforts are paid off with a higher click-through rate and more organic traffic. Besides, having a well-written, keyword-rich meta description increases the likelihood of Google using it as opposed to pulling a piece of text from the page.
How Can We Make Meta Descriptions More Effective?
There are six ways to make meta descriptions more effective:
- Create unique, concise meta descriptions that accurately summarize what the user will find on the page.
- Place your most important information and keywords early on in the description to help minimize the impact of shifting length standards. Especially since the snippet size also varies between desktop and mobile.
- Using important keywords is critical. It will make your search listing more visible, as Google highlights each word that matches the user’s search query. Leverage Google Search Console to understand what keywords drive impressions and clicks to a page and make sure to incorporate top terms into you meta description.
- Add calls to action, promotions, symbols, numbers, or anything that can help your description stand out on the search result page and attract more clicks.
- Use structured data to mark up your content and help generate rich snippets. Unlike text descriptions, rich snippets were not impacted by recent Google changes.
- And Test! Don’t get complacent with your meta descriptions even if you think they are close to perfect. Tap into paid search insights to understand what ad copy resonates with your target audience, or scan the first page of organic search results to see which of the competitors’ descriptions stand out and why. Test variants of your meta description and monitor click-through rate to let you pick the winning copy.
Overall, Google may continue to experiment with the length of search result snippets, but one thing is clear — descriptions are here to stay as they play an important part in helping users “preview” search results to make a more informed click decision.