July 3rd, 2018

SEO Update: Google Meta Description Length

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Director of Marketing

Google meta descriptions went longer. Then they went shorter again.

It seems like only a few months ago we were writing about Google’s new, longer meta descriptions, and what they might mean for SEO.

Scratch that: it was only a few months ago, and now they’re short again.

Not surprisingly, this has more than a few SEOs wondering what gives. Should they go back and shorten all the meta descriptions they just lengthened? Should they wait to see if Google changes its mind and revers back to long meta descriptions? Does it even matter? Is nothing sacred?

The long-term consequences of this change aren’t hugely significant, but they do carry an important lesson for anyone who expects to rest on their laurels and demand the Internet stay put. Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at why Google’s default meta description length changed, and what it means for your SEO best practices.

Why would Google make the change?

Google is notoriously tight-lipped about most of its algorithms. Their line this is that their snippets are dynamically-generated and pulled from the part of the content deemed most relevant to users, so they can’t give a definitive character count. However, it seems obvious that they wanted to run a test, and that this test did not go as planned.

According to Search Engine Land, the average meta description length is now about 160 characters for desktop and 130 for mobile.

I think that latter number may lend some insight into why the meta descriptions went short again. The length of these meta descriptions would have taken up a lot of space on mobile devices, and while the current discrepancy in lengths between mobile and desktop devices indicates the algorithm does generate snippets differently based on device, it could just be that generating two, drastically different snippets was confusing.

Of course, the types of searches users make on different devices could matter as well. Most desktop users still type searches, while mobile searches are made using voice search. It’s possible Google varies meta description length based on phrasing rather than device.

In any case, whatever test Google was running with their meta description lengths didn’t yield positive results, so we’re back to the shorter version.

Should I go back and make my meta descriptions short again?

If you were late to the game on this one and didn’t update all your old meta descriptions, you’re in luck! And if you did update them all in a sincere desire to stay on top of the ball, I applaud your hustle and lament your lost effort.

As for what you should do now, the answer is: probably not much.

Honestly, update the meta descriptions on your most important pages so that they’re shorter again. But so long as your meta descriptions include your target keyword early, you’re probably OK.

Yes, you may end up with a few meta descriptions that are cut off mid-sentence. But the reality is that Google may not be using your meta descriptions anyway. Google does pay attention to them but it also looks at your entire post, and it will pull something else if it seems relevant.

If you think about it, you’ve probably seen this happen. Sometimes, when I’m looking for the origins of a quote, I’ll type in the full sentence as best I can remember into Google. The search result may be pulled from somebody’s blog post, which could have been on a completely unrelated topic, but which happens to contain the quote I’m looking for. They may have set a meta description that matched the topic of their blog, but Google will show me the snippet that contains the quote I’m looking for.

Writing good meta descriptions is still important, but it’s good to remember that you don’t have control over Google. Google will always show what it thinks will help searchers most. If you can help, good. If not, Google has it covered.

Will this happen again? Will Google ever stop? Is nothing real anymore?

Yes, no, and don’t be ridiculous.

Google is constantly updating their algorithms to make them better. That’s what they do, and it’s the job of SEOs and marketers to keep up.

Changes don’t usually come and go this quickly, which is part of what makes this reversal such a surprise. That said, while this is a rare instance where being on top of the latest SEO developments backfired. In general, the instinct to stay informed will serve you well, as it will put you at the forefront of a shifting industry.

Experience expires. Take that as an opportunity.

Never trust an SEO who boasts over a decade of experience, but hasn’t undergone any training since. The initial change and swift reversal of the Google meta description length is a reminder that nothing in this industry stays the same for long, and that if you want the best service, you need to keep your skills sharp.

This may seem exhausting, but it’s actually a fantastic opportunity—especially for those just entering the industry. There will always be those who fall behind and don’t maintain the up-to-date knowledge SEOs need to do their jobs and serve their customers. While there’s a lot to learn, it’s also easier to find your footing.

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