Why are meta descriptions longer (and am I supposed to care)?

Posted by Lisa Smith on Feb 13, 2018 9:26:00 AM



Okay, it didn’t exactly break the internet, but it made little splash in the world of SEO and content wonks: in December 2017, Google raised the allowed character limit for meta descriptions from 160 to 320. That’s right, baby, double the size. In a statement released at the time, Google said, “The fact that our snippets have gotten longer doesn’t change the fundamentals of writing a description tag. They should generally inform and interest users with a short, relevant summary of what a particular page is about. We now display slightly longer snippets.”


Ok, more characters means more space for keywords. Right? Maybe. It depends, as always, on what you choose to include in your meta descriptions and how Google chooses to extract information from it.


Here are a few things to keep in mind:


1. That's so meta. 

The definition of the Greek word “meta” as it pertains here is essentially “about the thing itself; seeing the thing from a higher perspective instead of from within the thing.” Similar to the use of an abstract to summarize a white paper, a meta description should describe the elements of the content providing the most concise keywords possible to Google’s algorithm. So, it’s still important to choose the right words, even if there is twice as much space for them.


2. Clickbait vs. click bait.

One way to “spend” your additional characters is to think about the details of your content that will drive clicks. Remember your meta description is responding directly to search queries by potential customers who may have very detailed queries or very general. Value, relevance and uniqueness are keys to success.


3. CTR affects SERP ranking.

Although Google does not directly use meta descriptions for ranking purposes, when a meta description has a positive impact on your click-through rate (CTR), there is a secondary impact on ranking. If more people are choosing your content over one with a jumbled, auto-generated meta description, then RankBrain will reward that higher CTR with a better position on the SERP (search engine results page). One more good reason to provide meta descriptions.


4. it's gonna be okay. 

It is not absolutely necessary to drop everything that you’re doing, ignore your content calendar, brew a pot of coffee and pull and all-nighter updating meta descriptions already posted, but going forward, definitely embrace the new 320-character limit and make the most of it. Keep in mind that the more compelling and unique your descriptions, the better competitor you are for that click. With that in mind, check out the meta descriptions on the pages that pull the most traffic into your site and make sure that they look okay.


Google recommends providing a meta description for every page on your site, but that only benefits you if the descriptions are great. The best way to do this is to describe exactly what is on that page, differentiating it from another page, except for the home page, which should have a site-level meta description. In all cases, try to avoid using “boilerplate” or redundant/repetitive content because Google is more likely to skip that content. For the love of all that is inbound, ditch the keyword stuffing and write clear, engaging copy.


A recent Moz blog titled “How Long Should Your Meta Description Be? (2018 Edition),” by Dr. Peter J. Meyers, takes a look at, among other things, whether meta descriptions matter at all. On the one hand the article notes that Google’s propensity to truncate meta descriptions and rewrite snippets may speak to the larger question, which is, “why bother?” since Google can also scrape a page for information.


Before, when you didn’t write a meta description, Google was generating them by crawling the first few sentences of your content. Now, Google has a more sophisticated scraping algorithm that is smarter about extracting relevant chunks out of your content—however, it may beef up your optimized 160-character descriptions with some scraped content that you didn’t necessarily intend to be there. Furthermore, a study of 70,059 original meta description tags described in the blog showed “just over one-third (35.9 %) were used as-is for display snippets.” So, we have to balance our strategy with the fact that this one is just a little bit out of our hands.


It’s frustrating, but no reason to give up on meta descriptions.


To summarize, 320 meta description characters can be a boon or a bust depending on how you use them. Stick to these rules for the best results:


1) Resist the urge to stuff keywords just to use up those characters.


2) Use the characters to better differentiate web site pages.


3) Use unique words and terms to accomplish this differentiation.


4) If you choose to rewrite meta descriptions for older pages, prioritize them by value, such as home pages, landing pages, and high traffic pages.


5) Once posted, keep an eye on pages with longer meta descriptions to assess snippets and determine how well the changes are working.


6) Know that SEO is an experiment in a traveling laboratory on a road to the unknown. If you need help grounding your experiements in data, best practices, and the hottest tools, we should talk. 



Topics: SEO