We studied long meta descriptions: Here are our findings

A few months ago Google changed the length of the meta description from 160 to 320 characters. This caused quite a buzz in the SEO community and a lot of people wanted to know whether they should change their own crafted meta descriptions. In the meantime, we already changed the length of the meta description in the Yoast SEO plugin, but we also wanted to investigate this change more thoroughly. So, we started our own research! It appears that Google very often creates a meta description by itself, based on the first paragraph of your article.

Update May 2018: Google decided to shorten the length of the meta description again, read here what – not – to do. 

What did we do?

For this research project, we picked 100 of the most visited pages on our site. Before we made any changes we did a baseline measurement, by gathering data from our Google Search Console account. We wanted to know how high these pages ranked before we changed the meta description with Yoast SEO, in order to compare it to the rankings afterwards.

We divided the 100 pages into 4 groups and created four types of meta descriptions. In the first group, we wrote a long meta description to match the new length set by Google and we mentioned the focus keyword of the post only once in the description. In the second group, we wrote a long meta description as well, but used the focus keyword more frequently. For the third group, we didn’t change the meta description and left it the way it was. So this group had the old meta description length. In the last group, we deleted the meta description, so that we could see if Google would replace it with a long meta description it selected itself.

What did we find?

First of all, we analyzed new Google Search Console data after two weeks and compared it to the baseline measurements. The first thing we noticed was that Google created a lot of the meta descriptions itself, regardless of the ones we wrote and of the group a specific page was in. This means that we didn’t see a clear difference between the various groups we had created. So, in other words, it didn’t matter if we’d created long or short meta descriptions and whether the description was written with a high or low keyword density.

Secondly, we looked at which part of the copy Google used to extract a meta description. In two-thirds of the cases, Google used sentences from the first paragraph. It’s not a guarantee, whatsoever, but it is a clear indication that writing an introduction to your article should be done with the meta description in mind.

Some conclusive thoughts

 Let me start off by saying that we conducted this research on only one site. A site that has quite a few high rankings and high domain authority, as well as a lot of extensive articles. This makes it a good example site to test on, but the results might differ from other sites. In the future, we’d like to do more research on various types of sites.

One of the questions that we can’t answer is whether Google creates a lot of meta descriptions itself, based on our content, because we simply write decent content that matches the search intent. We’re curious what happens if we would test this on site that has less content, for example, a photographer’s website. Will it become more important to craft your own meta descriptions, if Google has little options to pick a description itself? We’ll let you know if we know more about that!

So… should you change them all?

We won’t advise you to go and change all your existing meta descriptions. What would make sense, for most sites at least, is to take a look at your best ranking articles and make those descriptions longer and meaningful. In all other cases, we’d recommend focussing on the content of your article. State clearly what the article is about in your first paragraphs, so if Google picks a description itself it’s likely to be a good one!

Read more: Content SEO: the ultimate guide »

Coming up next!

51 Responses to We researched longer meta descriptions: here are our findings

  1. LDB
    LDB  • 6 years ago

    Maybe this is a silly question, Michelle, but it’s been nagging at me since I read this article (TY BTW).

    When Google picks up a first paragraph to use as a meta description, do they use or bypass any headings?

  2. Derek Hines
    Derek Hines  • 6 years ago

    When the Google announcement came out, we changed around 20 pages’ meta descriptions by adding more content to each with the goal of testing whether a longer meta could help click-through rate. After two months, we noticed that the majority of these pages had an increased CTR. Of course, there are plenty of other factors involved in the CTR, but at least anecdotally it appears to have had an effect. We’re going to keep testing to see if this holds true.

  3. Kelvin soft
    Kelvin soft  • 6 years ago

    Nice one, but Ionce more, I love this article

  4. Kelvin soft
    Kelvin soft  • 6 years ago

    Nice one, but I think its affecting my site, I meant the Google new policy on Search

  5. Jonathan Kingsbury
    Jonathan Kingsbury  • 6 years ago

    Great article and appreciate the quick change to 320 characters. We started writing longer meta descriptions for various pages and noticed some are displayed in the SERPs, while others have text compiled from the page (same with your results). Curious how this change may affect SERP positioning in the coming months.

    • Iris Guelen
      Iris Guelen  • 6 years ago

      We’re curious too Jonathan!

  6. Scott Spencer-White
    Scott Spencer-White  • 6 years ago

    Excellent info as always Toast! I didn’t realise the meta description length had changed!

  7. silverbirdng
    silverbirdng  • 6 years ago

    I it really engaging read through the tips

  8. Christina Ramas
    Christina Ramas  • 6 years ago

    Thanks for this great info. I’ll take note of this: “State clearly what the article is about in your first paragraphs, so if Google picks a description itself it’s likely to be a good one!”

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      You’re welcome!

  9. Eve Jones
    Eve Jones  • 6 years ago

    Since Google has updated its meta description’s length, everyone is just ready-steady-go to stuff the keywords in it and your article is something one needs to get through so that content is improved instead of rushing for meta. Great share!

  10. Consulenza
    Consulenza  • 6 years ago

    It was a good attempt to understand Google’s behavior. Thanks for sharing what you found out. Maybe next time it would be even better to go deeper, nailing the point. Totally agree with John and Guy about broadening the search into mobile and CTRs.

  11. Anil Agarwal
    Anil Agarwal  • 6 years ago

    Excellent case study about meta description and I’m wondering about whether longer meta descriptions can be any helpful for the visitors or not.

    We are trying to match with the longer meta desc of 320 words for all the new blog posts that we are publishing at our blog Bloggers Passion (so far haven’t noticed any better results).

    “Writing an introduction for your article should be done with the meta description in mind” – this is a great takeaway from the post. We often try to include the primary keyword in the introduction (within the first 100 words to rank better) and yes we know that most of the times Google picks the starting information to show in meta description.

    Even after the latest changes made by Google, we haven’t increased the length of our meta descriptions just because we never know when Google changes that and goes back to the previous length of 160 characters.

    So it will be better to writer longer meta desc for the new blog posts and also tweak your top 10 high traffic pages to see if you can get better results or not.

    Thanks so much for the post. It’s really informative and I think every SEO enthusiast should read and implement to know how it actually works.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Good to hear you found our post useful!

      I understand you find a bit hard to ‘trust’ Google, whether they will not just change the meta description back to 160 characters. In that case, you could make a backup of all of your meta’s before changing them and reinstall these if Google decides to switch back.

  12. Luca Vasirani
    Luca Vasirani  • 6 years ago

    Thanks very much.

  13. Noor Alam
    Noor Alam  • 6 years ago

    Thank you for doing this in-depth experiment.

  14. John
    John  • 6 years ago

    Interesting post, but almost zero substance to it sadly. Was hoping for more detail on the results for each test group.

    What was the effect on CTR within the different groups? How do you know you reached statistical significance after two weeks for all four groups? I would think CTR would have been your primary success/failure metric (as your meta description can DIRECTLY influence that metric than INDIRECTLY for rankings) rather than the average rank in Search Console which is arbitrary and can be easily be skewed.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Sorry to hear that you are not completely satisfied with our post. We wanted to investigate how Google picks up the meta description. Therefore, the CTR is not such an interesting factor to look at. We looked at how Google handled the meta descriptions after we changed them.

  15. Ferdinand
    Ferdinand  • 6 years ago

    Nice to know. I would love to see how it would look like on sites with less content.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Me too! After we have investigated that, we will definitely write about post about that as well, so stay tuned!

  16. Basit
    Basit  • 6 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing your researching with us.

  17. Michael Kohlfürst
    Michael Kohlfürst  • 6 years ago

    1.000 characters is the “right size” as I use to say since many years – which most of the SEO industry is blaming me for. But let’s take a look from a SEO technical and marketing prospective.
    1. put the most important information in the forst 160 characters
    2. continue with very important additional information until 320 characters
    3. continue as long as you want but stay focused
    Google will show the information you want Google to shwo soemthing like this … and here it continues on and on and on.
    I am quite unhappy, that the Yoast! Tools shows a warning when I write more then 320 characters and I tell everybody why this is wrong (in all Tools).
    Even on my grave stone there will be more then 320 characters :-) and then you will maybe agree with the ole PromoMaster

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      If I understand you correctly, you would recommend writing meta descriptions of 1000 characters? I don’t see why you should do that since I haven’t seen an example from Google yet which shows such a long meta description.

  18. Guy Willett
    Guy Willett  • 6 years ago

    Thanks Michelle for some really useful insights.

    However, I’d really welcome further analysis from a mobile search perspective.

    On these searches, there’s clearly a significantly reduced meta description limit and given the sheer volume of mobile searches this analysis would be incredibly useful info.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      That’s a great suggestion for a follow-up research! We’ll definitely take that into account.

  19. Standa
    Standa  • 6 years ago

    I’ve also researched quite a bit about this. And I came to the conclusion that Google always took the first paragraph of the article as a description. Therefore, to standardize, you need to set the description to coincide with the first paragraph. This will result in synchronization.

  20. Lucas
    Lucas  • 6 years ago

    Nicely done Michelle. Thanks to you I learned a new thing about SEO today about including meta description in first paragraph. Not an expert in SEO, but I’m always open for new ideas.

  21. Silke Jager
    Silke Jager  • 6 years ago

    Thank you for taking the time to run the test Michelle. I have been wondering about going back and re-writing some of the meta descriptions in my older articles. It’s good to know that writing a good intro to articles is even more important now.

  22. Havi
    Havi  • 6 years ago

    I can only speak for publishers (high content, high number of images, high domain authority, high traffic as well) but crafting a meta description (long or short) that is in perfect alignment with the article’s content and intent, works perfectly. We rarely have Google change the meta description. Long meta descriptions are better because you take over more real estate and could imply a higher CTR. Of course, Google will change the snippet text to show the piece of content that responds to that particular query (thank you Google) but if you use a longer meta description we have noticed that they replace it with a longer one as well. My personal advice: Go long.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Good to hear about your experiences with a high content and high traffic website and we agree with your advice: just do it!

  23. Serge-Jérôme
    Serge-Jérôme  • 6 years ago

    Merci beaucoup pour votre article. Thank you from France.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      De rien!

  24. ngscholar
    ngscholar  • 6 years ago

    Thank you Michelle for this research, I have be wondering about the update myself. Thanks for making things clear

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      You’re welcome!

  25. Anette Mossbacher
    Anette Mossbacher  • 6 years ago

    Thanks so much for this article, I was already wondering how Google performs with such, as I did not see any change in my website. I have seen sometimes that Google grabs it’s own description from my pages when I do a search for my website. However, I changed my homepage meta to 300 characters, what I have seen so far is no impact at all. Same as it was more or less. As I do have a photographer website, as you mentioned above, it is not easy to do lots of content for my landscape and wildlife photography. You have a few options to write about, I cannot write always about what I do or sell.
    Writing content about a single image!!! 300 words under a image or above in a gallery! How would that look? For sure not good and I am not sure if someone is anyway interested how I accomplished this or that image! In know Google is! Nevertheless, there are images which you can do blog posts about, of course. But there are also some images you just have not much to say about, accept camera settings and the “keywords/tags” which are related to that image. And even then with keywords you run into a problem with images. I have 1000s of lion images, I just cannot use the keyword lion, lions, African lion, African lions more then ones in my website! Tricky indeed sometimes. So I will go on and wiggle my way.
    Thanks again for the article.

    Ciao Anette

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      I understand your struggle with writing for a photography website, that is indeed a hard job. But thinking about when it’s possible and when it’s not is definitely a step in the right direction! Maybe you can just pick some ‘cornerstone’ pages which you are going to optimize content-wise and make sure to internally link to all of the pages that are related to it. Good luck!

  26. Craig Johnston
    Craig Johnston  • 6 years ago

    I would strongly suggest making these edits. I have had a client e-commerce site that has the old shorter meta description then random text to make up the rest of the character count such as currencies and amounts. It really doesn’t look good. After updating the description it shows what was inserted.

  27. The Baby Spot
    The Baby Spot  • 6 years ago

    Thank you Michelle! Great to know this.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      You’re welcome!

  28. Albelli
    Albelli  • 6 years ago

    Hi! Did you also conclude that the Yoast SEO plugin shows the preview of the length and that when checking in Google, the titles are actually cut shorter by Google?

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      In the Yoast SEO plugin we have determined the space you have for your page titles by the number of pixels. Our plugin shows you when you cross that line, and that’s exactly the space you’ve got in Google.

  29. AutographSale
    AutographSale  • 6 years ago

    Thank you for the update. I just signed up with a new “SEO Expert” and the pages he working on he made the title longer than the usual 65 characters, he’s used 132.

    Is this a bad thing as all SEO analyzers I’ve used go between 60-70 title characters.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      It’s not a bad thing, but I don’t really see the point in it. You only have limited space to display your page title in Google. Once you use a longer title, it gets cut-off. Potential visitors are therefore not able to see all of the information you are displaying in your title. So you can better create shorter page titles.

  30. Walter
    Walter  • 6 years ago

    Even before extending the characters in the meta description I noticed google ignored our site’s meta and replaced it with search term keywords. It displayed whatever portion of the content matched the search term keywords (Usually long tail). For one page I couldn’t see our meta even by searching only for the main keyword. We do have a niche practice, though, with only a few other competitors on first page.

    For a different website offering info, google did not replace the one sentence meta description from a long time ago. That one I updated and all the info pages one by one. Google displayed the exact meta I wrote.

    Both sites are for a respective niche practice with different content, and similar traffic. I always use incognito mode or proxies to different areas we service to see how our results are displayed, but it seems google really customizes meta displays for users.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Google is getting more sophisticated in how they provide information for every user. Therefore, it can indeed be possible that you are seeing a different meta description when using the regular browser compared to incognito.

  31. Andy Kuiper
    Andy Kuiper  • 6 years ago

    Nice test – thanks Michelle :-)

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      You’re welcome!

  32. Ilias
    Ilias  • 6 years ago

    I did a test in an ecommerce site and changed category meta descriptions to 250 characters. I have to say that google showed the first 200 characters, but then added something else related to page content. I should also mention, that (unfortunately) category pages do not have enough static descriptive text in the main content.

  33. PingSunday
    PingSunday  • 6 years ago

    Thank you Michelle.
    I’ve also played with the meta description for post, and I found the same observation:
    – If a post doesn’t have a meta description, Google will select automatically the meta, normally the first paragraph. But not all the case, for example, in one of my post, Google select the listing part, which captures the most “retention time” of the audience. Or the heart of my article.

    – If a post has a meta description by Yoast Plugin, it’s not 100% that Google will display it.

    – In any case, I highly recommend admin to include the meta description in your post. In all my high-ranked post (normally rank 1 in my niche), they all have the meta description.

    – I’m not the SEO Expert, but I found that, meta description do increase CTR. And google also highlighted the keyword, or related keyword in the SERP. So do please add some “related keyword” to your article. For example, my niche is “table tennis”, and the related keyword is “ping pong”, “techniques”, “coachings”. Add these relevant keywords in the meta description.

    • Michelle Foolen
      Michelle Foolen  • 6 years ago

      Thanks for your sharing your experiences. They are really similar to ours! We also noticed that Google sometimes uses lists from the text as a meta description.

      And you are absolutely right about meta descriptions increasing the CTR! This is really something every website owner should think about.

  34. Aayush
    Aayush  • 6 years ago

    much similar to what I was feeling for four weeks now. Google often skips the provided meta description, especially when ranking on the first page.