Near the end of 2017, Google took another step to bring users closer to the answers they’re searching for directly in the SERPs by dramatically increasing the character limit for meta descriptions.
Historically, though not a direct ranking factor, or an on-page signal for search engines, meta descriptions have played an important part in technical SEO by giving searchers a glimpse into what to expect from the corresponding page. But with only around 160 characters available, creating compelling meta descriptions that win the user’s click while still describing the page’s content has long been a struggle for SEOs.
On December 1, Search Engine Land confirmed what many SEOs were already seeing in their own testing: the meta description snippet length limit has been increased into the 300 character area.
Since inception, the meta description has been a tag explicitly for users, written by page creators to entice users to click on their page in the SERP over the 9 other possible organic results on a page.
The downside of user control, however, is tied directly to the beauty of modern SEO — one page can and should be so well written about a topic that it offers answers to multiple queries.
So with the ability to only write one set meta description for a page, limited by a strict pixel length limit, webmasters are unable to show searchers their page is the best result for the hundreds of specific keyword variations and queries their page performs for.
Google’s focus has long been on connecting users to the information they are searching for as quickly and seamlessly as possible. As search has evolved, SEOs have already seen Google shift from showing the provided written meta description to showing a dynamically created description that can often speak more accurately to the user’s unique query based on content on the page. More than half of the time now, Google chooses to show meta descriptions it dynamically creates on its own over what is set for the page.
Here’s an example:
Client A has an SEO page that compares the Land Cruiser and the Lexus LX 570, offering spec comparisons in a easy to read grid format, as well as long form content detailing some of the key differences between the two models. This page ranks for 210 keywords, currently, and the meta description is set to:
For three-row backcountry explorers, the 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser and the 2017 Lexus LX 570 are close to neck-and-neck, but one pulls ahead.
But, because of the volume of information that this page offers to users, a user in this dealer’s area searching for “difference between land cruiser and lexus” will see:
And a user searching “land cruiser cargo space” will see:
The same page is ranking, but Google is making an effort to provide the relevant information to the user based on their unique query by dynamically pulling content directly from the page and serving it to users in the SERP.
So then why change the length? If the ability to create dynamic meta has existed and been in use for a while, why did Google engineers decide to make the change to longer snippets?
For the user!
As Google’s AI has gotten progressively better at understanding natural language and query intent, its ability to match a query to the exact answer a user is looking for from the content on the page has improved dramatically – but in order to show the answer the user is looking for directly in the SERP, more space was needed.
Right now, we’re seeing that there doesn’t seem to be a set standard for description length, rather, Google is either:
- Actively testing the length to find a new limit that it’s comfortable with.
- Disengaging from the concept of length-limits, in favor of taking the space needed, within reason, to show the best answer. (we think that this is the one!)
Right now, Google is going to show up to about 300 characters in order to answer the user’s query or serve the best information about the page. Google will most likely not show a set length as a rule – meaning that if the query can be answered in 200 characters, the description it shows will be 200. If it needs 300, it will take 300.
Things To Be Aware Of
Organic traffic is important to measuring SEO success, but with every new update that Google releases, quantifying success becomes more and more difficult. With the latest update, you may see:
Fewer organic entrances to your site from easy-to-answer queries:
Google’s goal is to give users what they’re looking for directly in the SERP — bypassing the need for the user to go to your site. Just like with the introduction of the knowledge graph and instant answers, the more answers provided in the SERP will result in fewer visitors needing to go to your site to find what they’re looking for.
Our Take: Google’s ongoing effort to provide information directly in the SERP will have a direct impact on CTR and traffic stemming from organic search, especially for pages that are created to respond to search queries that can be easily answered. A critical strategy to employ with your content will be to continue to answer the user’s initial question, but to offer more substance and background around their query that entices users to continue reading on your site.
Re-writing meta descriptions to meet the new character limit is unnecessary, and unwise:
As these new limits are monitored and discussed, many SEO agencies will demand that your site’s meta descriptions are updated to meet the new guidelines.
Our Take: Don’t be fooled, and don’t get caught up in the hype. We believe what we’re seeing is Google’s effort to show us they can pick the best description for a page. Since the meta description is not a ranking factor, padding your page’s description won’t provide any value, unless the content you’re adding to your description is valuable.
Only take the time to re-write meta descriptions for pages where there is a direct benefit to the user by doing so. For instance, if you have a page that discusses the fuel economy of the Toyota Prius, re-writing your meta description to directly answer the target query of “What is the fuel economy of the Prius?” is a great idea – re-writing it to add fluffy filler language is not.
Low page one positions will be less effective:
Searchers don’t like to scroll, and Google wants to serve the absolute best answer to the user first. With the longer meta descriptions providing more direct information to users, searchers may not venture as far down page one to find what they’re looking for.
Our Take: Remember that a single page will rank for a variety of keywords – some higher, and some lower – so don’t worry if your page isn’t in position 1 for every single query. Remember that positions shift, and that your SEO pages provide a value greater than just driving organic traffic by assisting conversions once users are already on your site, eliminating the need for them to leave your site to find the answers that they’re looking for.
What Actions Should You Take?
With the new SERPs showing meta descriptions between 230 and 320 characters, we’re recommending our clients think of the new limit as 300 characters. With that in mind, we want to make sure that the user continues to come first!
Don’t feel obligated to use the full 300 characters just because you can. The goal is to help users find the information that they’re seeking quickly – writing a fluffy, long meta description will not boost your page’s rank.
Do think about the questions users are asking themselves related to your page, and incorporate answers to those descriptions directly in your snippet, even if it means sacrificing CTR. Even if you don’t have the right answer for a particular query, Google will find the right answer on your, or a competitor’s page, and showing that over the description you wrote anyways.
Don’t waste your time updating page descriptions, even if your SEO provider tells you. Google is showing us they’ve got meta descriptions down to a science (literally), and will show what it considers to be the best answer in the meta description.
Do focus on making your meta descriptions for non-Q&A or direct answer based pages compelling, using the new character suggestion as a guide. For instance, with the new allotment of space, incorporating Unique Selling Proposition (USPs) into your service, finance or homepage description may be a great way to stand out from the crowd for searches where your default meta is the best option for Google to show.
As these changes continue to roll out, Dealer Inspire will continue to keep our SEO focus on users, and will make adjustments accordingly.