Earlier this month, Google confirmed that the length of meta descriptions – the snippets that appear in the engine’s search results – had been slightly shortened, only five months after increasing them to display upwards of 300 characters. RankRanger’s tracker tool now puts average length of the description snippets at around 160 characters on desktop, and 130 characters when viewed on a mobile device.
Changes like these aren’t uncommon and Google are always quick to point out that they don’t issue recommendations for the length of meta descriptions, but the move has left some digital marketers who took December’s expansion too literally scrambling to trim snippets back down.
Yet if truth be told, if the meta descriptions on your website’s pages are longer than 160 characters, it’s not worth worrying too much. Google might truncate the result, leaving an ellipsis where the rest of your text would be, but getting penalised for having longer descriptions is rare. If penalties are ever issued, it’s usually for excessively short snippets instead.
Even if you write a snippet that’s bang on the average character count, Google may disregard this and use something else. A recent Yoast study revealed that most of the snippets displayed by Google are taken from the page’s content, not the meta description.
But what does this mean for SEO? Well, it seems to depend what kind of website you are. Generally speaking, results from non-commercial or informational queries are more likely to have retained a snippet length around the 280-character mark, whereas commercial searches appear to have been truncated at around 160. A search for “SEO company” brings up only two lines of description per result, while results for “SEO” on its own brings up results with longer snippets.
As long as both your page and your meta description are what Google considers to be ‘quality content’, the amount of characters in your search snippet is unlikely to affect your ranking. If anything, shorter descriptions may provide an SEO boost to lower-ranking pages on mobile devices by making the first page marginally less competitive. With less information per result, visitors will be more inclined to scroll down, allowing pages placing further down to be seen.
John Mueller, Senior Webmaster at Google, pointed out that Google is always testing to establish what works best for their users. They also won’t be issuing a maximum length for meta descriptions as they generate snippets dynamically.
This has made my already rubbish Monday morning worse. 320 character limit has been in rolled out for months. I’ve spend time/money expanding & improving client’s meta descriptions in line with the new limit. We’ve launched sites in line with said limit. What’s going on @JohnMu? https://t.co/hEKMMTlBP8
— 𝕮𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖎𝖘 (@callis1987) May 14, 2018
Ultimately, Google have maintained that this decision, like any of the changes they’re continually making, is based on encouraging quality content and it’s important to not get hung up on numbers. Based on experience, we have our own idea of what works best, but the priority is always creating something that’s of value to search engine users and visitors to your site.