A few weeks ago, we wrote about one of the biggest new changes Google is making to their search results leading up to the start of 2018. That change is the expanded character limit for meta descriptions, aka the text snippet that appears below your link in the search results.
As we covered in that previous post – you should still read it though – we have observed:
- Previous text snippets for search results varied up and down a bit, but averaged about 165 characters.
- Most queries now have examples of longer snippets, reaching up to 320 characters, nearly double the previous limit.
- The limit is flexible; some sites break past it in order to show a full sentence instead of cutting off a few words.
How will this affect your SEO moving into 2018? Let’s talk about findings and ideas of how to move forward.
As you might expect, Moz is on the ball with covering everything related to SEO, especially major developments. This case is no exception. You can read the article I’ll be referencing here, and may want to; I’ll be making a couple of direct references, like the one immediately following this sentence.
In the Moz article, they mention that sometimes longer snippets show up in the search results, and that 320 characters is not necessarily a hard limit. They cite the search results for Wikipedia’s page on the non-compete clause, which you can see here. They say that the snippet adds up to 386 characters. I say that they’re a bit off the mark, though they do bring up this same issue later in their post.
See, Moz is counting the “Jump to Exceptions” line in the character limit. While yes, that IS part of the snippet of the page in the search results, it critically is not part of the snippet in the actual meta data for the Wiki page itself. In fact, Wiki doesn’t actually have an explicit meta description tag in their source code. The description is set as part of a script for the window. It’s part of the general formatting of Wikipedia to avoid them having to explicitly write a unique description for every page.
Critically, the snippet that is made up of the actual description on Wiki’s page itself is exactly 320 characters. That is, this: “In contract law, a non-compete clause (often NCC), or covenant not to compete (CNC), is a clause under which one party (usually an employee) agrees not to enter into or start a similar profession or trade in competition against another party (usually the employer). Some courts refer to these as “restrictive covenants.””
The elements above and below it – the Jump to Exceptions and the links for specific states and countries – are rich snippet elements added by Google. It’s the same way some search results will have star ratings visible, some will have site subpages, and so forth.
None of this additional information is considered part of the character limit for those search results. Rather, it is rich information added by Google dynamically based on structured data for the site.
So, while it’s accurate to say that snippets can exceed 320 characters, it’s not necessarily accurate – at least based on the example Moz gives – to say that your meta description itself can exceed 320 characters and be left intact.
In fact, I’ve found several examples of meta descriptions that are truncated significantly below 320 characters. In these cases, it is sites that do not set their own meta description and have that description pulled by Google automatically. Both examples are Gizmodo results, one for the query “net neutrality” and one for “huffpo”. Both truncate early, one at 304 and one at 302. Google could easily have included another word or two within the character limit, but didn’t.
Limitations on Long Snippets
Moz’s study found that the average length of snippets across nearly 100,000 results was around 230 characters, but of course average data isn’t necessarily useful here. Many sites intentionally have short or even nonexistent meta descriptions, which will draw down the average. Plus, every site that could have a longer description, but has a shorter one set manually, won’t have updated to a longer snippet.
One thing to learn is that some kinds of snippets don’t actually get longer description spaces, at least not yet. Video snippets are one of the most visible of these; they’re still quite short. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google tests out longer video snippets in the coming months, but that opens up a lot of potential video CTAs brought into search results snippets. It doesn’t do anyone any good if the video snippet is just the social media links for the channel that posted the video, after all. Since YouTube doesn’t allow setting meta descriptions separately from video descriptions, there’s no good solution to the problem.
Also, one thing we mentioned in the SEOBlog post up above is that a lot of content management systems – in particular, older SEO plugins that allow customized meta descriptions – have the old 165 character limit hard baked into the code. Goodreads.com is one such site using that kind of CMS, according to Moz’s data; all of their descriptions are “truncated” with a … in the code itself, which makes it looks like Google truncated the description when in fact it was the CMS doing it preemptively.
It makes sense, again, for a site as large as Goodreads to use a plugin that auto-generates snippets. It gives the site some control, so Google isn’t taking snippets from data that shouldn’t be used for a snippet, but it’s done automatically so it’s not a broad scale manual problem.
Until such time as the CMS is updated, either by a plugin or by the developer of the CMS or plugin in use, those shorter limits will be enforced not by Google, but by the site itself. Anyone using one of these plugins or CMSs will be low-key shooting themselves in the foot until they fix the problem. In the case of older or abandoned software, this might mean a large-scale site migration, which can be a giant pain.
Also, one more note: Google will, in some cases, happily ignore your meta description in order to provide their own. This seems to only happen in cases where the original meta description is either redundant with the title or simply not useful. Moz finds an example where a site is providing the lyrics to Silent Night. The title of their page was Silent Night Lyrics, and the meta description as set by the site itself was… “Lyrics to Silent Night”. Google felt like that redundancy wasn’t worth keeping and instead posted the lyrics to the song itself.
It’s worth noting that Google didn’t actually customize the description. They pulled the lyrics from the page, and truncated them to boot. It just goes to show that Google will make chances, when those changes are beneficial.
My personal suspicion is that they changed this instance due to keyword misuse. If you were trying to target an audience looking for Christmas song lyrics, using “Silent Night Lyrics” and “Lyrics to Silent Night” would be two ideal keywords. Using nothing BUT those keywords looks like keyword spam, so Google won’t want to keep it around.
Should You Change Your Descriptions?
There’s a lot going on with this question, so I’m going to break it down and discuss a few related topics.
First of all, is the ~165 character limit alive or dead? According to the Moz data, chances are pretty good that yes, the older character limit is dead. Google seems to have rolled out their changes on a large scale. Some sites might not have updated yet, so adding a longer description might be temporarily truncated, but eventually you will be re-indexed and updated to the longer description length.
This holds true for traditional websites, but not for other forms of content. Video snippets should still keep in mind that video descriptions are truncated after 100 characters or so. I would also assume that, for the most part, other forms of non-web content will be similarly short.
Secondly, you have to consider technical limitations of your CMS or SEO plugin. You can add longer descriptions, but only if you’re allowed to add them. If you’re using a plugin or a CMS that enforces shorter descriptions, you need to figure it out and do something to change it.
- Use a longer description, closer to 300 characters, in a new post and wait for it to be indexed.
- Check the new post in Google’s search results to see if the description is truncated. If it’s not, you’re good to go!
- If the description is truncated, figure out what part of your system is causing it. Do you use an SEO plugin like Yoast or All-In-One, a system that auto-generates shorter descriptions, or just the default description field in your CMS?
- Check with the developer of the plugin or CMS in question. Do they have an announcement on their website that they’re working on an update and will allow for longer meta descriptions?
- If the developer does not have a public update, do they at least have an active website and indicate that the plugin or CMS is still under active development?
- If the website looks active, send them a support message and ask them if they have plans to address Google’s change.
- If the developer has no plans, if their website is defunct, or if they have indicated that the CMS or plugin is end-of-life and will not receive a patch, start looking into other solutions.
The two main solutions are custom code or a site migration. If you’re using a popular plugin, chances are someone will try to take up the mantle and provide a fix, even if the fix is little more than a code hack. This can work, but I always urge people to avoid keeping end-of-life plugins and software around. The older a piece of software is, the more likely it is to have an unpatched security hole, which can be a gateway for your site to be compromised.
Alternatively, you can hire a developer to try to create that patch for you. This may or may not be possible, depending on the copyrights on the plugin or CMS and the scruples of the developer.
Finally, you can just migrate to another plugin or CMS. If you just use a small SEO plugin, migrating to a larger and actively maintained plugin can be a hassle but not a “site downtime” hassle. If it’s your entire CMS, well, that’s a more major issue to address.
Third, you have the divide between new posts and older posts. Anything you have scheduled to be published and that you are planning to publish in the future goes in “new” posts, while everything that’s already published goes in “old” posts.
For new posts moving forward, I would definitely suggest aiming for the new 300-ish character limit. Keep in mind the former limit while writing descriptions. If possible, write a short description and then expand upon it, so that if you’re truncated it still makes sense, and if you’re not, it’s a perfectly acceptable long description. Once you’ve confirmed that nothing on your site is being truncated – a site search filtered by time will help you comb through new posts – you can just write longer descriptions.
I 100% recommend switching to longer descriptions if possible. They give you more room for keywords, more room to be descriptive, and more room for a call to action; all of which can help boost your click rates and traffic.
For older posts, I would suggest updating descriptions on a rolling basis. Start by filtering all of the content on your site by traffic. Anything that still gets traffic, no matter how little, should be a priority to update. An updated description will make your search result more attractive, and it shows Google that you’re paying attention and striving to meet the latest goalposts.
Anything that does not have traffic, well, you can audit. At the very least, work on updating these over time. You might be able to attract some traffic where you couldn’t before, but I wouldn’t count on it.
If you want to do a more in-depth audit, you can audit the content itself to determine if it has value or if it could be a weight holding down your site. That, though, is beyond the scope of this post.