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The Great Meta Description Debacle

  • Andrew Salomon
  • Andrew Salomon
  • 25th May 2018
Solve Legal
The Great Meta Description Debacle

Many website owners have been left confused by the news that Google’s search results page snippet lengths have, on average, almost halved this month. This is after they were on average doubled in December last year.

We look at why so many people seem put-out by the change and why confusion over Meta Descriptions and search snippets lies at the heart of people’s frustration.

What happened in December 2017?

At the start of December 2017 it was widely reported that the amount of text shown for each website on Google’s search engine results pages had (on average) increased to around double the length. That is, from approximately 160 up to around 320 characters.

This led to many leading figures within the SEO and digital marketing communities writing dramatic articles about ‘what this meant for website owners’. It probably provided several website owners a lot of additional traffic in December 2017. It ultimately led to a lot of headaches for many people involved in SEO optimisation after they increased their Meta Descriptions in response. But should it have?

meta description lengthSnippets or Meta Descriptions?

The extremely influential Rand Fishkin (Moz founder) in one of his ‘Whiteboard Friday’ videos discussed how Google had ‘increased the snippet length and updated their guidelines around it’.

He then went on to mention a Tweet from Google’s Danny Sullivan where he stated that he would probably not make meta descriptions greater than 320 characters. This is of course a far cry from advocating extending your Meta Descriptions on mass.

Rand Fishkin’s main advice was for webmasters to extend their Meta Descriptions to take advantage of the new snippet length. He suggested people should start with their most important content and then work back through their more ‘long-tail’ content.

Snippets not usually taken from Meta Descriptions

The advice provided by Fishkin seemed fairly bold (given the huge headache he was proposing for website owners). Several people noted in the article’s comments at the time (such as Memli Xheladini) that the longer snippets Google displayed generally weren’t using data from pages’ Meta Descriptions. They were taking it direct from page content and other sources where appropriate. This stood out to us at then time as being an anomaly.

In response to the comments, Fishkin replied: “One important note that a lot of folks have been asking about — yes, it’s true that Google is pulling many of the snippet texts from the web page content rather than the meta description tag. But, IMO, that doesn’t invalidate meta description optimization, it just makes the bar higher”. 

He then went on to explain the situations in which he believed Google may use your longer Meta Description for their results page snippet:

“If you want to get Google to use your meta description, you need that tag to be:

  • Useful to searchers, which means it might do a lot to answer the searcher’s query right in the snippet, and bring down clicks, but this is a tradeoff you make for a potentially higher ranking position. If you don’t do it, one of your competitors likely will.
  • Perceived as relevant by Google, which means it uses text and content that Google’s systems will associate with solving the query
  • The right length, which means Google can pull it and display it in the SERPs effectively (my guess is that too short or too long may cause issues here)
  • Employing words and phrases that Google (and searchers) want to see in the form of phrases/sentences that tackle the core of what searchers are seeking from the result. Just jamming keywords in isn’t going to work (as anyone who’s tried recently knows well)”.

The seed had been sown

These caveats (added in response to comments on the Moz post) will have been missed by many and weren’t the main ‘take home’ from the original article. The seed had been sown and search engine optimisers began increasing their Meta Description lengths for articles they had previously posted. This meant a lot of extra work for a lot of people.

meta description length headache

Further clarification

In a different article later in December Moz further noted that in their own comprehensive study Meta Descriptions (where present on a page) were only being used in around a third of cases in their own right for the Google snippet. Fishkin’s original Whiteboard Friday call to extend your meta descriptions seemed increasingly at odds with the reality of the situation.

Yoast extend suggested Meta Description lengths

After many comments on the original Moz post which had advocated Meta Description extensions, mainstream SEO plugin Yoast (no doubt under pressure from users) updated their suggested Meta Description length, to cover the longer snippet length. In their article explaining the change (which probably won’t have been seen by a large proportion of plugin users) they clarified their logic for extending their suggested Meta Description length. They identified all the main issues and their reasons for extending their suggested length. Again, the average user won’t have read this.

Snippet lengths decrease in May 2018 – many people are left confused

On 14th May 2018, everything changed when Search Engine Land wrote an article about how Google had confirmed they have shortened search results snippets. This was confirmed via a tweet from Google’s Danny Sullivan in response to a question from SEL’s Barry Schwartz.

Further clarification from Google’s Danny Sullivan

In a later tweet on May 14th this year, Google’s Danny Sullivan (seemingly wanting to clarify things after the whole meta description debacle) stated:

1) Meta descriptions we’re (sic) never at 160, never went to 320, have not gone back to 160. They have no limit, just like we said in December and last June.

2) Snippets which got generally longer in December to an (sic) variable length have gotten generally shorter to a variable length.

Danny Sullivan may well (rightly) be frustrated at being ‘dragged into’ the great Meta Description debacle, as his comments were mentioned in Fishkin’s original Moz article which advocated extending your Meta Description lengths.

It is easy to understand how many people will have been influenced by the original Moz article and subsequent apparent capitulation from leading SEO software providers. The associated fall-out will probably reverberate for some time.

think for yourselfThink for yourself and do your own research

The frustrating situation many SEOs find themselves in today is predominantly down to people thinking snippet length and Meta Description length were the same thing. The whole messy situation of people extending and shortening thousands of pages’ meta descriptions without any real reason, shows the need to think for yourself and do your own research.

You should not just take an expert’s (albeit one who is often right!) words as fact. You should also read more than just the headlines of articles and consider the potential risk/reward and implications for your business.

In this case, if you had spent huge amounts of time updating the Meta Description lengths of all your old post, you would undoubtedly have wasted a lot of time, that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Our approach

In our case we weighed up all the evidence and decided that, where appropriate we would create longer Meta Descriptions going forward if it would be beneficial to searchers. This didn’t require much extra thought as writing concise descriptions is usually more difficult than creating extended ones. We understood that Google may or may not use our Meta Descriptions for the search snippet they display on results pages.

We ruled out extending the length of Meta Descriptions on previously published content, as there was no real evidence that it would have any real-terms benefit (and would be extremely time consuming). This proved to be a sensible choice for us and our clients.

If you are a website owner who is confused by on page search engine optimisation, get in touch to find out how we can help your business.