Google announced on May 14 that it had implemented changes to its algorithm resulting in shorter snippets being displayed for search results. These changes reverse a previous update from December of last year which had increased snippet length. For SEO’s this raises many questions on how this will impact their work and whether they should change strategies yet again. This post is to inform you about the history behind these changes, and how you should respond.
First, lets look at what the snippet is and what it’s purpose is. A snippet is a small sample of text from a webpage which Google displays under the link provided on their results page. The text can be taken from the page’s visible content, or it can come from the page’s meta description tag. According to Google, the intention behind snippets is to help a searcher better understand how the links which appear on the results page relate to their search. As such, any changes Google makes to how they display snippets can be presumed to be related to this goal. With this in mind SEO’s have focused on making the making meta description as compelling as possible and use this to help influence the likelihood that a user will click on their result.
Historically, the average length of snippet which Google would display was 160 characters. SEO’s have longed used this as a guide in crafting their meta descriptions, trying to get their message to fit within the confines of 160 characters. The December update, however, increased this to an average of 230 characters long with reports of up to 300 characters. According to a statement made by Google at the time, a change had been made to their algorithm in order to produce more descriptive and useful snippets, which resulted in the average snippet length growing longer. SEO’s quickly rushed to take advantage of this new-found space to increase their messaging.
A statement issued by Google about the update is that there is no fixed length for snippets; the length of snippet displayed depends on what their algorithm deems most useful.
Now, as of May 2018, Google has confirmed that they’ve rolled out a new update related to how snippets are displayed, and it appears to have undone the changes of the previous update and once more shortened the snippet length. The average snippet length for results displayed on desktop device has fallen from 300 characters before the update to 160 afterwards; and on mobile, from 200 before to 130 afterwards. A statement issued by Google about the update is that there is no fixed length for snippets; the length of snippet displayed depends on what their algorithm deems most useful.
The actual impact which this update will have on snippet display is far from certain. Sites which have their snippets generated from meta description tags that are now overly long may have their snippet displayed in truncated form, cut off with an ellipsis at the new length… or they may not. 160 characters on desktop and 130 on mobile are only averages, meaning that in some cases Google might decide to display longer snippets. In fact, Google has been known to display snippets as short as 6 characters and as long as 386 characters. Furthermore, Google does not always use meta description tags when generating snippets, and sometimes partially rewrites the text when it does. And finally, even in cases where a site’s snippet has verifiably been shortened from its previous length by this update, the only change has been to what is displayed under the site’s link on the results page, not the site’s ranking. It is uncertain how much of an impact the snippet being truncated will have on the click-through rate – how much do searchers rely upon snippets to decide when to click, and how long of a description is really necessary to give them an idea of what they’re clicking on?
In the aftermath of this newest update, you may be wondering how you should react to these changes. The first question most people should be asking themselves is whether it was necessary to react at all. After all, all those people who completely revamped their meta descriptions in response to the previous update have now seen the reason behind all their hard work undone after only a few months; and indeed, there is no guarantee that Google will not push a future update which once again changes the average length of snippet they display.
There are also some who question whether the use of meta description tags is even necessary at all any longer. When a page lacks a meta description, Google can generate a snippet automatically by taking it from the text which is displayed on that page. Some sites do not bother writing their own meta descriptions and simply allow Google to choose the snippets itself, trusting its algorithm to select a relevant sample of text. Wikipedia, for instance, does not use meta description tags on any of its pages, relying on Google to generate snippets for them. This eliminates the problem of having to update meta description text for each algorithm change, at the cost of having less control over what is displayed.
In the end, what is likely to be best is to follow Google’s own recommendations on the use of meta description tags. Google has stated that they recommend simply using meta description tags to give a short, relevant summary of what a page is about, and not worrying about whether it meets some arbitrary character count. This update emphasizes the fact that you should write informative descriptions tailored to the user intent first and foremost and follow Google’s guidelines on meta descriptions that you should make sure your descriptions are truly descriptive. What works best is what’s most useful to a searcher, not what’s most tailored to the apparent trend of the latest algorithm update.
“How to Write Meta Descriptions in a Constantly Changing World (AKA Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away)” by Dr. Peter J. Meyers. MOZ Blog. May 16, 2018. https://moz.com/blog/how-to-write-meta-descriptions-in-a-changing-world
“Why Google Won’t Give Specific Meta Description Lengths” by Jennifer Slegg. The SEM Post. May 15, 2018. http://www.thesempost.com/google-wont-give-specific-meta-description-lengths/
“Google confirms it shortened search results snippets after expanding them last December” by Barry Schwartz. Search Engine Land. May 14, 2018. https://searchengineland.com/google-confirms-it-shortened-search-results-snippets-after-expanding-them-last-december-298196
“Google officially increases length of snippets in search results” by Barry Schwartz. Search Engine Land. December 1, 2017. https://searchengineland.com/google-officially-increases-length-snippets-search-results-287596
Jeff Williams is an SEO Project Manager at Fruition based in Denver, Colorado. Jeff uses his deep understanding of SEO and internet marketing to guide clients, optimize websites and ultimately improve search rankings.
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