Google is notorious for changing its algorithms often – sometimes on a weekly basis – to give users the best possible search experience. The way the search engine crawls sites, identifies content, assigns ranks and displays the results is constantly changing.
In December 2017, Google started displaying meta descriptions as larger, 300 character snippets, but have rolled back that changed since May 2018. These sorts of changes and reversions leave many web developers, marketers and SEOs wondering how to keep up.
The ideal length for a meta description
What you learn about writing meta descriptions today may not be the case tomorrow, but there are ways to cope with the ever-changing landscape of search engines. Of the almost 90 000 search results displayed for the top 10 000 keywords on Google, the average meta description is 159 characters long.
However, it is possible to find search results with one-word meta descriptions, or up to 400 characters, so extremes of length do exist. On average, Google will cut-off meta descriptions that are longer than 175 characters, by adding an ellipsis (…) to the search results.
Some cut-offs happen sooner and some happen later (depending on the proportional font size displayed on Google), but the best length for a meta description appears to be between 155 and 160 characters.
Should you change your old meta descriptions?
If you started writing longer meta descriptions as of December 2017, should you go back and change them to make them shorter? The short answer is no, because no one knows if Google will revert back to the longer meta descriptions in the future. So, there are four ways to deal with the situation:
- Let Google take care of it – Some websites don’t even have meta descriptions (like Wikipedia) but Google still displays snippets on the results page. Instead of rewriting shorter meta tags, let Google deal with the existing descriptions and display the results in an optimal way.
- Deal with an ellipsis – Keep your long meta descriptions and if the snippets get cut off by the ellipsis, so be it. Sometimes an ellipsis can work in your favour by adding mystery that makes the user want to click on the link to find out the rest. However, your meta descriptions should entice viewers regardless.
- Rewrite all your meta descriptions – If you have the time and are a perfectionist, you could go back and rework all of your meta descriptions to 155 characters. However, be careful not to chop your descriptions for the sake of it as this can result is worse search snippets. Perhaps you’ll want to shorten only the meta descriptions for your most important pages.
- Write adaptive meta descriptions – It is possible to write meta descriptions that work well at various lengths. Careful planning and succinct wording are needed but you can create a description that works at 100 characters (if Google decides to display shorter snippets) and at 300 characters. Again, it’s probably only viable to do this for your important pages, such as the home page.
Writing adaptive meta descriptions
One good way to write an adaptive meta description is to take a lesson from journalism. Journalists write news stories using an inverted pyramid style. Here, the story begins with the main point of the article – the punchline if you like. As the story goes on, other bits of less important information and contexts are added.
This ensures that the most important information is conveyed at the beginning and that readers can get the idea without reading the entire article. This approach works with meta descriptions too.
You could write a 155-character description that summarises the page, and then add an extra 155-characters with the less important information. This way, Google will display vital details when using the algorithm for short descriptions, and will also show the long description if they ever revert back to the December 2017 algorithm.
Note that the 155-155 character descriptions aren’t the absolute goal – you could write 100-100 or 200-200 character meta tags. The aim is to ensure that the first half can stand on its own as a good meta description.
The best way forward
To summarise, Google tends to be a bit erratic with its algorithm changes, so we can never predict what the future holds. The ideal length for meta descriptions (since May 2018) is roughly 155 characters. To accommodate the possible future of longer search snippets, it may be a good idea to write adaptive length meta descriptions.
If you have increased your meta description lengths since December 2017, don’t stress too much about shortening them. Rather focus your time and effort on shortening only the descriptions for important pages, or those where cut-offs and ellipses are leading to bad results.
At the end of the day, the purpose of a meta description is to engage the viewer and provide an overview of the context of a web page. Length aside, you need to make sure that the right information is included and that it relates directly to the content of the web page.
If you wish to partner with someone who knows how to apply the best practices to achieve your online goals, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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