Google’s snippets and the length of your meta description

You might have noticed: Google has made search results snippets longer. In the past it showed up to ~160 characters, now it can be much, much longer. We’re currently researching what this means for site owners. We’ve also changed the Yoast SEO recommendations for meta description length in expectation of the results of that research. In this article, I’ll go over what this change means for you and for us.

TL;DR: Snippets can now be up to 320 characters or even longer in some rare cases. We’re researching new best practices. In the meantime, Yoast SEO’s green bullets will work differently. As of today, Yoast SEO will only give you an orange bullet if your meta description length exceeds 320 characters.

What changed in the search results?

Search result snippets are now much, much longer. This change came pretty much out of the blue, but it’s undeniable, a search for [what is a meta description] looks like this now:

As you can see the featured snippet is exactly the same as the “normal” snippet for the blog post is now. The post has a meta description, which is much shorter, but Google grabs a “random” paragraph from the page and shows that instead.

Our hypothesis on a new snippet reality

Of course, this snippet isn’t “random” at all. This paragraph had explicitly been optimized for ranking in that featured snippet. In fact, it was optimized for that particular query and some very similar ones. Almost all the pages we’ve optimized for featured snippets now have those featured snippets showing as snippets in the normal search results too.

Our hypothesis is simple: Google grabs the “core paragraph” for a particular search query within an article. It then displays that paragraph as the snippet. Not entirely to our surprise, this would strengthen all our efforts on readability and better writing even more. We’ve been saying for a while: readability ranks.

The question is: can you still get your meta descriptions to show up? Our thinking here is that you probably can do that quite reliably if the meta description contains the searched-for keyword. Of course, your meta description length should also fit within Google’s new boundaries. But it seemed in preliminary searches, as though Google would favor slightly more keyword dense paragraphs from within the copy over a meta description which contained the keyword only once.

Another hypothesis we want to test in our research is whether deleting the meta description leads to better snippets.

The impact of this change

With longer snippets, you would expect the overall CTR of search results to drop slightly. People might find their answer in the search results; they might not need to click onward. So far we’ve not seen our own CTR go down, but we will monitor this closely for multiple sites.

Whether a CTR that goes down is bad for you depends on your key goals. For us, if people find an answer to their query in the search results, but associate it with the brand Yoast, we’re good. The branding value, in the long run, exceeds the possibility of you converting to a customer on the click. If your company relies on ad revenue though, you would probably look at this with a completely different perspective.

Our research

Here at Yoast, we feel a profound responsibility to give you the best feedback we can on your writing. And that includes feedback on your meta descriptions. Of course, this feedback has to be fact-based, which is why we are researching this change in-depth. We are currently researching with four equally sized groups of posts:

  1. A group of posts that will get a longer meta description, in which we’ll use the keyword only once.
  2. A set of posts that will get a longer meta description. We’ll use the keyword multiple times, evenly distributed across the meta description.
  3. A group of posts for which we’ll delete the meta description completely.
  4. Posts that will keep their old, handcrafted, shorter, meta description and will act as our control group.

Our research team will analyze the results of this research. After this we’ll probably do another test, with more sites, to try and corroborate our findings. At the same time, we are of course keeping up with posts by other SEO companies on the topic.

Changes to Yoast SEO

While we will have to determine new best practices, we know we have to change things as well. Our character limit for the meta description was just plain wrong. Today’s release of Yoast SEO fixes that and puts it at 320 characters. As our research continues, we might make further changes to our advice about meta descriptions.

Read more: ‘SEO Copywriting: the ultimate guide’ »