Thank you Google! We’ve just spent the last few months rewriting meta descriptions to an optimum length of 260-300 characters and now the word is on the street that Google’s rolled this back so now they’re showing max 160 characters per listing. Is it time for us to roll back our meta, too?
To be honest – no! If you, like us, have spent time optimising your meta then that’s still a good thing, and as long as what you’ve written has been for users to answer genuine queries/provide genuine information and not just keyword spam for search engines, then we’d recommend not worrying too much. Google is still showing the longer descriptions as listing snippets across the SERPs, just not for all queries, and this is the thing – Google is showing dynamic results, so it decides per query what to show as the snippet per listing, not per website.
Clear as mud? Ok, here’s an example.
Fred from Northampton types in “cricket shoes” and gets a list of results back. Great. The descriptions are most likely to be truncated or shorter because, a) the query is both broad and generic and b) it’s a statement, not a question. Fred isn’t being particularly choosy as to what type of shoe he wants but he’s also not specifying the context – he could want to buy some, or he could want information about them. Google doesn’t know, so it will provide more generic results with shorter snippets that it feels may answer his query best.
Now, Sophie in Luton also wants to know about cricket shoes, but she’s a girl who knows what she wants. She types in “where can I buy cricket shoes?”. Google sends up a little sigh of relief at someone with direction and shows her a list of websites tailored to answer her query (Google is also using her location to send her local results). Great. Those results are more likely to have longer snippets showing as Google has more information to go on to return these results with a more targeted snippet.
Here’s the crux though – there will be websites that rank for both of those queries and for the same landing page but show a different snippet per query. That isn’t always because there has been no meta description defined for the ranking page or because the description is too short/too long/keyword stuffed etc, but because Google is dynamically searching per query to show a snippet that best answers the users’ questions.
In our example above, a website called Cricket Direct ranked on page 1 for both queries, for the same landing page – https://www.cricketdirect.co.uk/Catalogue/Cricket-Footwear. This is a good landing page, but the snippet returned differed between queries:
Cricket shoes – snippet shows 167 characters
Where can I buy cricket shoes? – snippet shows 287 characters
As you can see, there is a difference between the two queries as to what Google is showing for the same landing page, based on the query. The first example is shorter, clear and concise whereas in the second example, it is longer but perhaps more confusing for the user. Why? Because the meta description defined for that page is too short for Google’s requirements – “Buy pro-quality cricket shoes, cricket spikes and bowling boots online by Adidas, Asics, New Balance, Gray-Nicolls and more.”
From this, we can see that Google has ignored the defined meta description altogether for query 1 and has used it in query 2 but added content onto the end (which is text taken from the actual page) to fill in the gap. It wants more info but has nothing specifically defined to use. So, it would have been better if Cricket Direct had a longer description than the 123 characters they do have for Google to use on a contextual query. If this content existed, then the result would be much more targeted for the user and increase their likelihood of a clickthrough. As it stands, Sophie from Luton would most likely ignore that listing if she was basing her decision on meta description snippet alone, and move down to the listing underneath, whose snippet shown reads “Visit Pro:Direct Cricket for leading online range of cricket shoes in our clearance sale. Buy now at the professional’s choice for next day delivery.” This is much clearer, but it would have just been better if Cricket Direct had better used their meta description space properly to entice her in in the first place.
So how should you use this tag?
Well, clearly, you’re never going to write a meta description that will meet the needs of every query from every user likely to be on Google. If we knew that secret, we’d be millionaires. But what you can do is:
- Use the space available (we recommend a maximum of 300 characters inc spaces, ideally 280) to display a meta description that is concise, clear and, best of all, contains a USP for users such as ‘free UK delivery’ or ‘50% off RRP’.
- If you’re not selling anything, then clear contact details are also good, such as, ‘For further information, call XXXXX XXXXXX to speak to an advisor/book an appointment” etc.
- If you make sure this has at least two sentences, it makes it easier for Google to display what it deems as the best snippet per query.
- Above all, be genuine (can’t stress this enough). Google is done (and has been for a long time) with sites that keyword spam or use meta (titles or descriptions) written only to gain rankings.
So, to summarise. Don’t stop optimising your meta and don’t limit yourself on characters based on other people saying what Google are showing. It’s extremely unlikely they’re going to stop showing your pre-defined meta descriptions as a snippet if you’ve put effort into making them read well and speak to your users. That said, don’t overdo it and write a novel for each page. Keep things concise and well written and the likelihood is, no matter what Google does or doesn’t do, your website will continue to make steady progress with a good CTR.
Having started out in this industry with about as much marketing knowledge as a gnat, I have worked my way up from tea-making trainee to Head of Search thanks largely to the staunch support of our director, Stuart, and a lot of late nights, strategy sessions and training. At work I am extroverted, creative and always on the Internet, but behind closed doors I’m happiest with my family, my dogs and a good book (usually accompanied with a good cup of tea!).