What's the Deal with Google Meta Description Length?

by Rob Browning June 14, 2018

At the end of last year, we noticed that Google's Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) were generating longer snippets. 

changes to google's meta description length to 300 words

We weren't alone. In December 2017Google officially confirmed this change. This adjustment was to give users more useful and descriptive information. Google lengthened their descriptions to about 300-320 characters from the traditional 150-170 characters. 

 

 

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professionals, like us, took immediate action. Longer descriptions meant more opportunity for optimization. 

Both Yoast and Moz researched this change. They found that, as of mid-May 2018, Google had reverted the meta description length change. Most meta descriptions are now ranging from 155-160. Google confirmed this in a tweet on May 14th, 2018:

Our search snippets are now shorter on average than in recent weeks, though slightly longer than before a change we made last December. There is no fixed length for snippets. Length varies based on what our systems deem to be most useful.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) May 14, 2018

So now that we know search snippets are changing again, it's time to revisit the meta description. 

SO, META DESCRIPTION LENGTHS ARE CHANGING AGAIN?

As we discussed, Google confirmed search snippets are returning to their short-form version. Changes are already clear. For those of us who have been writing 300-character descriptions, this is problematic. 

Google has yet to give an official length to a meta tag description. Snippets are shorter, average around 140-165 characters. The results seem to be shorter on mobile than on desktop. But with mobile-first indexing, where does that leave these descriptions? 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOOGLE DESCRIPTION META TAG LENGTH IS CRUCIAL TO SEM

Character length isn't the only thing that has changed. It seems Google is pulling snippets from the meta descriptions that marketers write. 

The SEM Post noticed how Google maintains the first line when showing results, but it truncated the second line with ellipses about halfway through the snippet. This length creates a snippet that's 500px wide, rather than 600px. 

Truncation appears to happen around the 160 mark, but some descriptions are longer. RankRanger's SERP research indicates that the range is about 132-163 characters.

THE NEW META DESCRIPTION LENGTH AS OF MAY 2018 IS GOOD NEWS!

While meta description lengths are short again, does this mean we should write them the same? Or was there something to gain from the brief period of meta description expansion?

While Google is getting better at auto-generating snippets, we still need to write our descriptions. Writing meta descriptions requires a bit of technical prowess mixed with user experience. We can start by returning to the basics. 

FINALLY UNDERSTANDING THE QUESTION "WHAT IS A META DESCRIPTION?"

If you need a refresher, meta descriptions are brief blurbs of text that describe any web page. It appears on the SERP when displayed as a result. See below:

 

what a meta description looks like in search engine results pages

 

The meta description is a tag in the header of the HTML code. Many website content management systems allow users to manipulate this data. 

On the Search Engine Results Page, the meta description displays with the title tag and URL slug. Many believe using the same keyword in the title tag, URL, and description are beneficial. 

The meta description is also pulled through when sharing a web page or article. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter use the meta description to carry through information when distributed across the feed. Because of these factors, we must write meta descriptions both for search engines and for user experience. 

HOW TO WRITE THE PERFECT META DESCRIPTION EXAMPLE

Write meta descriptions to be length-adaptive. To do so, consider these ideas:

  1. Inductive Reasoning: Write with the inverted pyramid style of writing. The meta description should be two sentences. The first sentence should be specific. The second sentence should be a general conclusion and should include a call-to-action. 
  2. The 160/140 Rule: The first sentence should be strong and concise because this begins the snippet. The second sentence, depending on the crawler, may not get picked up at all. Write your strongest sentence first and use the second sentence for supporting keywords and action items. Calls to action, questions, and foreshadowing make great "hooks" to make up this second sentence. Depending on SERP volatility and search terms, the full meta description can show up! More than likely, though, the first sentence will be the probable snippet. 
  3. Long Meta Descriptions as Featured Snippets: Moz reports that meta descriptions can determine featured snippets. After submitting a large sample of 300+ character meta descriptions to Google, when searched, 41.8% resulted in a featured snippet. While short meta descriptions may be in style, long meta descriptions may still play a hidden role in the SERP. 
  4. Use Active Language: The common rules of communication still apply to online environments. Active language, strong verbiage, and transitional signals all help the user read your message. Both search engines and users look for these elements to dissect the information on the page. 

META DESCRIPTION EXAMPLE

If you follow these tips, you can construct powerful meta descriptions that will survive the volatility of Google’s search engine. These meta descriptions will adapt to the ever-changing world of search engine marketing. Regardless of length, preparing for both short form and long form descriptions will ensure optimal content. Let’s look at this article’s description as an example:

what's the deal with google meta description length changes

 

The first sentence is very specific and quite long compared to the latter. It includes the same keyword featured in the title tag and the URL slug, which is “Google meta description length.” The second sentence is much more concise. It broadens the ideas presented in the first part of the statement. It also includes a call to action. 

As you can see, the search engine did not cut off this snippet, showing that longer meta descriptions can still make it to the SERP. However, this meta description is also formatted for short form. If you were to remove the second sentence, the first statement would be complete.

Don't worry about meta description rollback. Moving forward, plan for preparing your descriptions. Revisit you or your agency's approach to writing metadata and be sure to include dynamic plans to adapt. After all, Google, Bing, and the rest of the internet are hyper-responsive. Your strategy needs to be, as well. 

Need help updating meta descriptions, or with developing and implementing a strategic digital marketing plan? Contact us. We'd be happy to help create a plan that makes sense for you and align with your business goals.

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