I remember the day that they arrived.
First came the rumours. Half-glimpses, grainy smartphone footage, tweets from folk insisting upon what they’d seen. Of course, rational folk dismissed these. There’s no way, they said, debunking social media hearsay and deriding claimants.
But then came reports from trusted news sources — not conspiracy or clickbait sites -– of spottings in the wild across the globe.
We kept our eyes open, hoping to spot one for ourselves. Was this real? Because if it was, it would turn everything upside down.
The world waited with baited breath. All we needed was confirmation from an official source. And then it came.
On December 1, Google confirmed to Search Engine Land that it had indeed increased the maximum search result snippet length from 160 to 320 characters.
The search world erupted with panic. Would this be rolled out to all search results? How would this affect the 160-character-max meta descriptions we’d been crafting for clients for years? What about SERP length – would even fewer organic results be displayed per page, owing to the increased real estate each demanded? Does this change the way we should write meta descriptions going forward?
Once we’d all stopped screaming and had a cup of tea, most digital marketers figured we could work out the answers, and how best to proceed, on our own.
Will all meta descriptions have 320 characters going forward?
Did all meta descriptions have 160 characters before? While general received wisdom was that meta descriptions should use all the space available to them, countless examples existed of pages bucking this trend and still recording strong organic CTRs.
And that’s even if Google choose to use the meta description provided in the site’s HTML – often the search engine will pull what it deems a better answer for a user query from a page’s body content. A detailed and relevant answer to a question is obviously more likely to be closer to 320 characters than 160, so informational searches are more likely to return much longer results.
Searches for a service, on the other hand, are likely to return a more varied number of snippet or meta description lengths. These sites demonstrate their quality through hard metrics such as conversion rate – so if a page with a 140-character meta description had 30 percent of users landing on it making a purchase before this change was rolled out, it’s less likely to be affected.
Will fewer organic search results be shown in SERPs?
This is the question striking fear into the pit of most SEO stomachs. With rich snippets and image, video and paid results meaning “top ten” and “page one” are no longer one and the same, are we going to have to start securing even higher positions enjoy the benefits of a page-one ranking?
Well, Google doesn’t seem to be returning significantly fewer results per page – but that doesn’t mean pages at the bottom of each SERP aren’t going to suffer.
Why? Just because search snippet and meta description length has doubled, users aren’t going to spend twice as long time browsing search results. The change means that:
- Higher-ranked descriptions are more likely to satisfy the original query, simply by virtue of having more space to do so.
- User patience for scrolling through search results is going to run out having seen fewer.
Monitor your pages that generally rank between positions seven and 10. If organic traffic to these pages has dropped since December, then obtaining a higher ranking needs to become an even greater priority.
How does this affect the meta descriptions I’ve written for my clients? I don’t have to go back and rewrite them all, do I? Should I be writing 320-character meta descriptions going forward?
Is it worth your or your client’s time to rewrite or expand every meta description ever written for the site? Probably not. Is it worth investigating whether you can use the new character limit to improve certain pages? Absolutely.
Check your analytics for organic CTRs which are low relative to the rest of your site. Is Google generally returning your old 160-character meta description, and if so, could more detail be added that could help drive the user to click on your site over your competitors? If so, then go right ahead.
It’s important to note here that most search results aren’t hitting the full 320-character limit. Most are coming in in the mid-200s, and most of this length are either pulling the meta description combined with a snippet of body content or the snippet of body content alone.
What’s more important than hitting the limit is ensuring what you’ve provided is relevant and enticing. Remember, your meta description isn’t a direct ranking factor — it merely offers free organic advertising space to help drive users to your site over its competitors. So yes, use the extra space to promote your business’s USPs and add more tangible product detail. Add a call to action if you didn’t have room before. However you can improve your description as a piece of advertising, do it.
But don’t see the extra space as an opportunity to stuff five more keyword variations in. Just as you now have double the room to sell your site and product, you’ve also got twice as much chance of being flagged as spam if you go about it the wrong way.
And don’t try to fill the space just because you can – if you need the full 320 characters just to spell out the purpose of a page or your business, then it’s probably slightly overcomplicated. If you’re filling up your meta description á la a student trying to reach the word count on an essay an hour before the deadline, then you’re going to end up with flabby, overwritten descriptions that deter more users than they entice.