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If you’re confused about meta descriptions for your webpages, don’t worry… you are not alone. The description tag hasn’t had an impact on search engine algorithm for many years, but still acts as an optimization tool that can be used to improve click-through rates from the SERPs. However, exactly how much control we have over these descriptions is clearly dwindling.

It seems like only yesterday the SEO industry was buzzing over the increased character length of the search results snippet from ~160 characters to ~320. And, it comes as no big surprise that it’s buzzing again with the news that Google has reversed its course.

If there’s one thing that SEOs are painfully aware of, it’s that Google likes to tinker with the search results pages… a lot! They have no concern with changing their collective mind and leading digital marketers down a fuzzy path in the process. As we’ve said before, it’s a game of cat and mouse.

Looking back: Our recommendation in March 2018

In our March 29th blog post, we noted the change in meta description tag length was receiving a lot more attention than it deserved. Our recommendation was to take a “wait and see” approach and not invest a lot of time updating them. But, if you felt compelled to do something, take a “test, learn, iterate” approach. As it turns out, we were spot on.

The reasoning for our original recommendation:

  • The meta description tag itself has no algorithmic impact. So, any changes you make aren’t going to make your pages rank better.
  • They were very inconsistent with the presentation of snippets in the SERPs. Snippets were still being shown that ranged from 140 to 320 characters.
  • Often, the meta description tag content wasn’t even used. For many, they were pulling chunks of on-page content, or a hybrid of the two.

Internally, our team wasn’t buying it. We felt the inconsistency in the presentation was not a better experience for searchers, and we were confident that the consistency would increase or they would abandon it completely. Google chose the latter.

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This is an example of what the SERP snippets looked like back in March 2018 for the query “car insurance companies”:

Character counts for these results range from 140-320, and only half were pulled from the meta description tag. Is this a better search experience? We didn’t think so. It looks messy and very un-Google-like.

As documented in this 2015 Pete Meyers post on Moz, we’ve been through this before. And the truth is, Google experiments with the presentation of the SERPs all the time. So, why did they release official announcements this time?

Is this most-recent change legitimate?

Last December, Google said they expanded meta-description length to 320, but the SERPs showed that they weren’t 100% committed to that. So, the first question to answer is: Did Google really revert to 160 characters like they said?

We did some research and analyzed page one SERPs for 6 unique and random queries to see exactly how this is currently playing out in the SERPs. Hardly empirical evidence, we know, but it still gives an idea of how they are presenting snippets for a variety of search phrases.

The queries:

Our findings:

  • Of the 60 snippets, 53 were under 160 characters.
  • The description tag was used for only 32 search results.
  • Chunks of on-page content were used for 23 snippets.
  • A hybrid of the two was used with 5.
  • For 13 snippets Google used the description tag but truncated at ~152 characters.

So, in this small sample size, it looks like they’re adhering to the character length, but still, aren’t committed to the meta description itself.

Was this just one long experiment, or was Google up to something else?

The specific wording of Danny Sullivan’s tweets are very interesting. From his Dec 1, 2017 tweet:

If there’s “no fixed-length,” then why were they putting specific numbers out there? At its most basic, we think they’re trying to take SEO’s ability to use the snippet as a marketing tool, and that their system knows what’s best for searchers.

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It’s clear that their system does not always know what is best. Consider this search for “digital marketing services”. TopRank Marketing holds the first organic position:

That’s one interesting looking snippet. We’re not sure that reading this will make anyone want to click through to the page, and we’re also pretty sure that if TopRank had actually used this as their meta description tag, Google wouldn’t have used it.

Here is the actual meta description tag:

Although that description doesn’t do a great job of representing the specific content of the landing page, it is how TopRank chose to promote their landing page.

It’s more concerning that Google is taking away the ability for a website to control their own messaging. Do they really think the longer keyword-loaded description that their system generates is more effective than TopRank’s?

Is it possible they are intentionally messing with the meta descriptions to make them blend in with the paid listings and less likely to be clicked on?

Our final thoughts…

If you’re among the many that quickly tried to accommodate the expanded meta description length, you’re probably not very happy with Google right now. Our recommendation remains what it’s been for years:

  • Write a compelling meta description for each page that will entice the searcher to click through from the SERPs.
  • Aim for 160 characters.
  • Use the main keyword phrase so it will be bolded in the snippet.
  • Learn. Iterate. If you see that Google is actually using your description tag, and you feel that there is an opportunity to improve the click-through rate, then test with it.

If you believe Google will change their mind again, another option is to proactively plan for both. Split the description into two halves. Target 320 characters for the whole tag, but end the first half at ~155 allowing for truncation.

If Google intends to allow SEOs less and less control over the SERPs snippet, don’t spend a lot of time crafting “the perfect meta description”. Use that extra time writing compelling and engaging copy, because it could end up being the snippet in the SERPs anyway.

…You stay classy…

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