Artem Okhrei, seo-specialist, web-developer

26.06.2018 at 15:00

How to create meta descriptions in an ever-changing world

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Summary: At mid-May 2018, Google search engine returned to the reduced format of snippets. Moz.com data indicate that these changes are rather big, and most meta descriptions were shortened to the previous range - about 155-160 characters.

In December 2017 Google significantly changed the display of snippets, increasing their length: many descriptions exceeded number of 300 characters. On May 12-13 weekend, the company seems to have rolled back this change (it was partially confirmed by Danny Sullivan on May 14 on Twitter). In addition to the obvious question - what are the new limits? - this can make you think about what to do if the rules change again. Of course, we cannot look into the future, but here we will try to answer both questions based on what we know today. (Original article by Dr. Peter J. Meyers from Moz.com)

Lies, dirty lies, and statistics...

The author extracted all available snippets from MozCast 10K (the base of first pages from Google's search results for 10 000 keywords): the data in this database is updated daily, and it’s very comprehensive. On the morning of May 15, there were 89,383 descriptions in the catalog.

It can be noted that the minimum length of snippets from the base was 6 characters, the maximum - 386, and the average value - about 159. However, this is not very useful, for some reasons. First, it hardly makes sense to advise something like "write meta descriptions in the range of 6-386 characters." Secondly, there are many extremes. For example, here are the snippets from the search for "USMC" or in the "Junkers" department store:

As we can see, despite all the credibility of these organizations, such descriptions as "apple" and "BER Meta TAG1" clearly will not be optimal. If these cases can teach you something, then this is how you don’t need to do. What about the opposite limit? Here is a snippet of 386 characters - the search result for "non-compete agreement":

Notice the "Jump to Exceptions" text and links in the beginning. These elements are added by Google, so it's hard to say what is included in the number of meta description symbols, and what is not. Here is another example - with 370 characters, from the search for «the Hunger Games books»:

Therefore, we see that there are still some longer snippets. Note, however, that both examples refer to Wikipedia, and it is an exception to many SEO rules. Are such long descriptions only accidental? Looking only at average (or median) value does not give us an exhaustive answer.

The general picture, part 1

Sometimes you should let data speak for itself. Let's take a look at all the snippets "cut off" by Google (ending with "..."), and discard the video results (from the previous study we learned that they are a bit shorter). Thus, there are 42863 descriptions (hardly less than half from the general data set). The following diagram shows all the shortened snippets, grouped by 25-character ranges (0-25, 26-50, etc.):

 

The picture is very different from the data of the December study: the bulk is clearly clustered in the range of 150-175 characters. You can see that some snippets were "cut off" by Google after the 300+ characters, but their number is relatively small.

The general picture, part 2

Obviously, there are many descriptions in the range from 125 to 175 characters, so let's zoom in and look only at the middle of the frequency distribution, divided into smaller, 5-character segments:

Now we can clearly see that the main part of the "cut-offs" takes place in the range the 145-165 characters. Before the changes in December 2017 took place, the recommendations for composing meta descriptions were 155 characters or less, which means that Google seems to have returned to its old rules.

Consider that Google uses proportional fonts, so the exact restriction is hard to formulate. Some people made the hypothesis that the width limit should be considered in pixels, as for Title tags, but the author has found that this rule is hard to apply for multiline text fragments (especially for mobile results). Moreover, it is practically inconvenient to write texts with a limitation in pixels. At the same time, 155 characters is quite reasonable approximation.

Back to the past?

Should we just return to a limit of 155 characters? If you have already made longer meta descriptions, should you abandon the work done and start all over again? The thing is that none of us know what will happen next week. In general, there are four options for us here:

1. Let Google decide

Some sites do not have meta descriptions. Wikipedia turns out to be one of them. Now Google understands the content of Wikipedia much deeper than most sites (thanks, in particular, to the Wikipedia), but there are many other resources that do well without a description tag. If you have a choice: either write bad, repetitive meta tags, or leave them empty - better select the second, and let Google handle it.

2. Let "..." be where it may

You can simply write a description of the length that you think is ideal for a certain page (within reason), and if the snippet is cut off, do not worry about it. Perhaps the ellipsis will add intrigue. This is partially a joke, but the reality is that the cut-off snippet is not deadly. A good description should encourage users to read more.

3. Chop anything after 155 characters

You can ruthlessly remove all the results of your work, which exceed the limit of 155 characters. Generally, this will be irrational, and sometimes it even can lead to a deterioration in the quality of snippets. If you want to make new short meta-descriptions for your most important pages, then this can be quite reasonable, but keep in mind: some search results still give out long snippets, and the situation can continue to change.

4. Create adaptive descriptions

Is it possible to compose a description that works well on both lengths? Probably, but with some planning and care. Author does not recommend it for every page, but perhaps there is a way to meet both standards...

The 150/150 approach

There is a style of writing so-called "inverted pyramid". This is a journalistic method where you start with a conclusion or a summary, and then you reveal the details, the data and the context. This approach turned out to be successful for the Internet, but its origin was due to limitations of the print layout: journalists did not know where the editor would be forced to cut the article to fit into accessible space, and this style helped them to ensure that the most important part would most likely be preserved.

What if we apply this approach to meta descriptions? In other words, why not write a 150-character "base" with the shortest summary, and then add 150 symbols of useful but less significant details (giving additional value)? 150/150 is not a sort of magic number: you can make, for example, 100/100 or 100/200. The main thing is to make sure that the text before the "line of demarcation" can remain on its own.

Try to imagine this as advertising in two separate lines. Let's see, for example, the following blog post:

Line 1 (length – 145 characters).

In December, we reported that Google increased snippets to more than 300 characters. Unfortunately, it seems that the rules have changed again.

Line 2 (length – 122 characters).

According to our new research (May 2018), the limit has returned to 155-160 characters. How should optimizers adapt to these changes?

Line 1 summarizes the essence as briefly as possible. We hope that this gives the search engine an understanding that it is "on the right way". Line 2 dives into the details and contains enough information (hopefully) to be intriguing. If Google decides to use a longer description, then it should work fine, but if it remains short, we still should not lose.

Is it worth worrying at all?

Is it worth the effort? According to Moz, it's still very important to make effective descriptions that attract visitors, and it also indirectly affects the ranking, but you can suddenly realize that you can write well within the 155-character limit. The reality is that Google seems to be rewriting more and more snippets by its own way. This is hard to measure, because many descriptions only change partially, but there is no guarantee that your description will be used in the form you wanted.

Is it possible to say exactly in what situation a longer snippet (more than 300 characters) will appear? Some SEO experts hypothesize the relationship between long descriptions and featured snippets. From the total set of Moz data, 13.3% of the results had featured snippets. If you look only at those results, where the maximum length of the description was 160 characters, then the analogous value is 11.4%. And if you look at those SERPs, where at least one snippet exceeded 300 characters, then it is 41.8%. in The number of data in the latter case is rather small, but it is still an impressive difference. There seems to be some connection between the ability of Google to extract answers in the form of featured snippets and the "will" to display elongated descriptions in the results. In many cases, however, these longer snippets are taken directly from the page, not from the meta tags, so even in this situation there is no guarantee that Google will use your extended meta description.

Now it seems, that a mark of 155 characters "returned to the game". If you have already expanded some or many of meta-descriptions on your sites, then there is hardly any reason for panic. Perhaps it makes sense to rewrite excessively long descriptions for critical pages, especially if you see that cutting off snippets leads to bad results. If you decide to do so, then try to use the 150/150 approach - at least you will be a little more confident about the future.

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