In November of last year, observers noted that longer link descriptions were showing up in organic search results.
In December, Search Engine Land got confirmation of the change from Google. As quoted in the article:
A Google spokesperson told us: “We recently made a change to provide more descriptive and useful snippets, to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches. This resulted in snippets becoming slightly longer, on average.”
And here’s an example of a longer description:
Until recently, these descriptions were pulled from relevant HTML meta description tags. Their purpose was to give users enough information to determine if they want to click on the links. (Contrary to common understanding, the purpose of the field isn’t search optimization—although it’s often used that way.)
For years, the character count limit for this tag was 154 to 160 characters (depending on a number of factors). I always used 154, just to be safe.
But now the character count limit has increased to 320 characters!
In addition, instead of pulling the description from the HTML meta description tag, Google is now dynamically pulling the information from the meta description and the page itself!
Again from Search Engine Land:
The snippets are more often dynamically generated based on the user query and content found in both the meta description and the content visible on the page. If Google is going to go with a longer snippet, it likely will pull that content from the page.
As you can imagine, SEO pros have been discussing how to deal with this change. Do they need to update existing tags? How should they optimize these tags?
But while these discussions are interesting, I think a more important question has been overlooked: the broader implications of this change.
Implications of Longer Descriptions in SERPs
To explain, let’s take a closer look at a search engine results page:
Are you surprised at the length of this page? I’m not, particularly. As a marketer, I make a habit of scrolling past the fold to the bottom of search pages. And I can attest to the fact that SERPs have been getting longer and more convoluted.
As you can see, there’s a lot happening on this page! For example, we have:
- Top navigation links
- Shopping images at the top and on the right rail
- Four ads at the top
- Map listings
- Organic listings
- Four more ads at the bottom
- Related searches
I counted 37 clickable elements, not including the top navigation (i.e. Shopping; Images; Videos; etc.). If you include top navigation, that adds five more.
SERPs weren’t always so crowded. They used to be much cleaner. Users could easily scan the page to find what they’re looking for.
Here’s our organic search result example again:
As you can see, these longer descriptions (with up to five lines of fine, grey text) make the page much harder to skim.
And even if you do take the time to read the description, you may not find it very helpful.
In fact, the only parts of the SERP that are clear and easy to absorb are—you guessed it—the ads! The ads are easier to skim because of their design. They have multiple colors. They have extensions (e.g. call outs, site links, snippets) to differentiate relevant information. And the description isn’t one long line of running text but is broken into chunks.
Here’s an example:
This ad may not be perfect, but it’s certainly easier to read than the organic search listings—and it contains more helpful information.
From this analysis, we can deduce that organic listings are increasingly taking a back seat to ads. Not only are they getting pushed further down SERPs, they’re becoming harder for users to quickly comprehend and absorb.
What Should You Do?
So where does this leave your business? Here’s my advice:
- Don’t rush out and update existing description tags. (If you haven’t created description tags at all, that’s another story. You should.)
- Instead of using the full 300 characters, stick with 160-200. Shorter descriptions are easier to skim.
- Make sure the keyword(s) you used in the title tag is used in the description. If a user searches those terms, the terms will be bolded and make the listing easier to skim.
- Make sure your page content is clear and relevant! As noted in the Search Engine Land article, Google may dynamically generate the description based on what you put in the meta description and what’s on the page. So make sure everything is good!
Increasingly, SEO is a losing battle. If you’re not getting good organic traffic and/or good visibility into the search terms your target market is using, then it might be time to consider AdWords.
With the degradation in organic search, AdWords online advertising is quickly becoming the only game in town. For some businesses, it’s the only way to avoid getting lost in the sea of bland organic results.
If you’d like to learn more about my AdWords services, let me know. I’m happy to answer your questions!
Postscript – July 2018
Google recently announced it’s going back to shorter descriptions — and that meta descriptions will be dynamically generated based on users’ search queries. As noted above, it’s really important that your website content states exactly what you do and what you offer. Otherwise, your pages could show for search queries that aren’t relevant to your business.