29 Mar 2018

How the Increased Meta Description Tag Length Affects Your Strategy

Last December, Google officially changed the max length of the meta description tag from the long-time SEO best practice of 170 to 320. So, what does this mean for your strategy? Is there value with taking the time necessary to rewrite them all across the entire website?

Before I give you a final recommendation, let’s review what we currently know.

Meta descriptions are a (surprisingly) highly-debated topic

Our team gave a SEOmeter score of 35/100. That’s not very high on the priority scale, but exactly why this needs to be discussed. There are a ton of very urgent technical SEO issues: mobile-first index, HTTPs, page load speed, etc. Focusing the time and energy into meta description revisions may not be the best use of your SEO resources at this time.

Meta-Description-Length-SEOmeter

If you feel that it’s important to jump into rewriting your descriptions site-wide, there are a few things that you should consider first.

Want to see more from our SEOmeter? Check out Jim’s webinar on SEO Trends for further insights!

Meta descriptions have no algorithmic impact

In 2009, Google announced that neither the meta keywords or meta description data are used in the algorithm.

That being said, they still have some intrinsic value. A well-written description is very useful, from a marketing perspective, to entice the searcher to click through to your website from the results page. A thoughtful description can make your listing stand out from the other nine on the first page of the SERPs.

Google may not even use your meta description

You could spend a ton of time rewriting descriptions and they may not even use it in the search results. For example, consider a Vertical Measures article that we published back in 2015. It still ranks on the first page for the search “how much does content marketing cost”.

This was the meta description that we used, and was shown in the search results back in 2015:

Meta-Description-Length-SERP-Result-2015

This was the snippet that was used last month (February 2018):

Meta-Description-Length-SERP-Result-Feb

This is the description today (April 2018). Notice that it’s not even close to the new character length:

Meta-Description-Length-SERP-Result-Mar

And this is the actual meta description our team wrote for the page!

Meta-Description-Length-Team-Wrote-For-Page

So, the algorithm decided that using a chunk of on-page content was a better experience than the one our team created. We disagree with that choice – but I’ll save that argument for another post.

Google is inconsistent with the presentation

Google is all over the map with how they use meta descriptions in the search results. As an example, I chose to use search results from a very competitive vertical: car insurance.

The query is “car insurance companies”. You’ll notice the listings vary significantly based on the way Google uses the description to build the snippet. The character lengths range from 142 to 325, and sometimes, they use the actual on-page description, but often just concatenate chunks of on-page content.

This is the results page for the search “car insurance companies”. As we analyze each of the listings, it difficult to determine exactly what they are looking for, making it tough to understand how our strategy should change.

Result #1 – SafeAuto

Meta-Description-Length-SafeAuto

Character count: 312

Uses on-page description: No

Interestingly, this is the listing that I grabbed just 3 weeks ago for a recent webinar!

Meta-Description-Length-SafeAuto-Old

Character count: 142

Uses on-page description: No

Result #3 – Clark Howard

Meta-Description-Length-Clark

Character count: 214

Uses on-page description: No

Result #4 – Nationwide

Meta-Description-Length-Nationwide

Character count: 142

Uses on-page description: Yes

Result #7 – State Farm

Meta-Description-Length-State-Farm

Character count: 325

Uses on-page description: No

If you were to look at the rest of the listings on the first few pages, it’s more of the same… a wide range of character lengths, and no consistency in use of the on-page description. We are seeing this same presentation across many verticals.

Google is testing with bolding of semantic words

It’s also interesting to note that Google is testing with bolding semantic words. It has been a standard SEO best practice to include the targeted keyword phrases in your meta descriptions as they will be bolded in the search results – making them stand out from the others.

Here are the search results for “outdoor lighting.” You can see that not only are the verbatim words in the query bolded, but also “lights,” “interior” and “exterior.”

Meta-Description-Length-Outdoor-Lighting

My takeaway: There’s no reason to purposely repeat your keywords. Make sure that they’re included once, and then focus on writing the most compelling description possible to entice searchers to click through to your site.

Vertical Measures’ Recommendations

1.  Search for your keyword phrases

Do a few manual searches on Google to see how they are presenting the meta descriptions in the search results. If they’re inconsistent, then you’ll need to decide whether the effort is worth the risk of Google not using your revisions.

2. Test and iterate

Before doing anything site-wide, identify a handful of pages and do some testing.

Use Google Search Console (GSC) data to identify the best pages to begin with. Look for pages with low click-through rate (CTR), or pages with high impressions and low clicks. Low CTR indicates that the HTML title and meta description are not doing their job to entice the searcher to click through to the webpage.

Here’s how to do this:

  • Open GSC > click Status > select Performance in the left navigation.
  • Toggle from Queries to Pages.
  • Hover over Filter Rows and select all the goodness that’s available.
  • Then, hover over the Export Data icon to the right.
  • Once the data has been downloaded, filter by Impressions.

This will allow you to select pages that are underperforming and stay away from the ones that are winning.

Meta-Description-Length-Google-Search-Console

Be sure to document the baseline metrics and check against those each month. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when you test:

  • Test the length of the new 300-320 character range: You now have the flexibility to add detail that you couldn’t before. For example, a higher education client can now add specific details regarding program pages.
  • Include semantic words: As we have discussed, Google is tinkering with this. Use words that are related to your targeted phrase, as it could add more bolded words to make it stand out.
  • Write with the conversion in mind: The description should no longer be viewed as an SEO tool, but a marketing tool.
  • Use a unique one for each page: They should always be written to accurately describe the content of each page.
  • Try different calls to action: With more of the SERP real estate being taken up by longer descriptions, there is the likelihood that searchers will scan a little more than they have in the past. It may be possible to get a conversion right from the search results. Consider testing with a phone number if it makes sense for your business.

Final Thoughts…

We feel that this topic has received quite a bit more discussion than it’s worth. We’re confident that there are more impactful action items on your team’s list that deserve more focus. Your solid SEO strategy is what landed your listing on page one. However, the quality of the description tag is the key to turning that visibility into actual clicks. It’s your one shot at convincing the searcher that your listing is the best match for their query over the other nine.

As this evolves, Google will eventually become more consistent with the presentation. Until you see that happening in the SERPs, we recommend testing so you are ready to roll out the appropriate strategy to implement when you need to.

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