As of May 2018, Google has reverted back to shorter display snippets. Data collected from Moz suggests these changes are widespread and that most meta descriptions are now being shortened to the previous limit of about 155–160 characters. Given this new development, consider this post a record of Google's experimentation with snippet length, which, as of right now, does not seem to apply.
Jump to the bottom of this post for updated recommendations on meta description length.
In early December 2017, Google officially confirmed it has lengthened the snippets of text that appear beneath links in search results.
These description snippets have remained around 160 characters for many years, but a recent report from RankRanger has measured average growth to be around 230 characters, with roughly half of users seeing these changes as of early December.
In public statements, Google says the change was made to “provide more descriptive and useful snippets, [and] to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches.”
In more practical terms, SEOs and marketers can infer that Google is tuning its search engine to show answers to basic questions directly in these snippets while offering richer information about what someone will find when they click through on a link.
Read on to learn more about these changes, the SEO opportunities it offers, and what businesses can (and should) do now to get the jump on the competition.
What’s changed, at-a-glance
The old 160 to 180 character limit on snippets has been increased to roughly 230 to 300.
The change affects search engine results on both desktop and mobile pages.
Google’s official guidelines have changed, which for many years suggested keeping meta descriptions between 160 and 180 characters. Now, they say there is no “official” recommended meta description length, however Google’s public liaison for search, Danny Sullivan, has stated that 320 characters is what he believes to be the new maximum.
I will ask around. But as a guide, it's not likely to be longer than 320 characters, which I believe is the max we show now. If you had a meta description longer than that -- AND we used it exactly (which often isn't the case) -- longer wouldn't show. — Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) December 2, 2017
As of early December 2017, roughly half of all search results have longer snippets sitting in the top position for any given search results page.
Meta descriptions vs. search result snippets
Before going any further, it’s important to take a second to flag an important distinction between “meta descriptions” and the snippets that Google actually displays in search results: Snippets don’t always reflect set meta descriptions.
Google sometimes chooses to pull its own snippet of text from a page if its algorithm feels like your meta description doesn’t do a good enough job addressing searcher intent. This only underscores the need to be diligent and thoughtful when writing meta descriptions to ensure your messaging isn’t skipped over.
While we all want people to click, focus on anticipating the clearest most concise answers to the questions searchers are looking for and offering them in your meta descriptions.
How do longer Google search result snippets affect SEO?
There are three significant ways this may affect SEO:
1. It changes the way you should write meta descriptions
In addition to greater length, SEOs and marketers should be writing meta descriptions aligned with Google’s explicitly stated goal of answering searcher questions quickly and easily.
We can reasonably assume that the better your on-page content and meta description can do this (especially compared to competing pages), the better the chances Google’s algorithm will reward you with higher rank. Strike a reasonable balance between information and enticement.
2. Prepare for possibly lower click-through rates
Since these changes are so new, it’s too early to point to hard numbers around how this will affect click-through rates, however marketers shouldn’t be surprised if this metric suffers to some degree given that these longer snippets are offering searchers everything they need without needing to click through for more.
For more complex queries, however, this change may actually improve click-through rates given the increased real estate to entice searchers about heavier topics.
3. Prepare for even fewer clicks for lower-ranking search results
Longer snippets take up more page real estate, which puts lower-ranking results more at-risk of going unnoticed if searchers can’t muster the strength to scroll down that far.
What should marketers do?
Here’s a short-and-simple action guide marketers and SEOs should consider following to take advantage of this change:
1. Make a list of high-priority pages for editing meta descriptions
A simple priority list could consist of your highest-trafficked pages. Going a step further, marketers can take full advantage of this opportunity by also including pages that aren’t ranking as well as they could be in order to get a jump on the competition. By catering to Google’s wishes when other pages stay stuck in the past, this may be a unique opportunity to jump up in rank relatively quickly.
2. Start writing longer meta descriptions going forward
Update your processes to change the former 160 to 180 character limit to the 230 to 320 range.
Updated meta description recommendations (May 2018):
Given that as of May 2018, it seems Google has reverted back to the original 155-character cut-off, the information included in this post is no longer relevant as prescriptive advice. Instead, it serves as an example of what Google has done (and may again do) that can influence somewhat significant change in marketers' actions.
Today, there are four general options for action given Google's seeming return to shorter search result snippets:
1. Allow Google to display custom snippets
Many websites simply don't publish pages with meta descriptions. In these cases, Google will often generate its own text snippet by pulling in a relevant bit of text from your page based on a keyword or key phrase that was part of the query.
If you're not confident in the quality of your meta descriptions, it may be better to try leaving them blank to see how Google sorts it out.
2. Leave your longer snippets alone
If you've already spent time tediously lengthening your meta descriptions, your pages may still rank well even if your snippets get cut off. A good description should entice people to want to read more, and this extends to all lengths.
2. Shorten everything to 155 characters
If you have the time, you could re-edit your meta descriptions back to the original character limit, but be aware that Google may decide to lengthen them again in the future.
No matter which approach you take, the bottomline is to write contextual, helpful summaries that balance information quality, accuracy, and intrigue.