Why has Google extended the character limit on meta descriptions?

Google rolls out a lot of updates; daily, in fact. Because of this, most of the smaller ones don’t get a share of the limelight, but they’re still worth knowing about so that you can better understand how Google uses the information you give it. One such update, is that Google is increasing the limit on the number of characters you can include in a meta description.

What is a meta description?

A meta description is what Google (and other search engines) use to describe your site in the search results. It’s a snippet into what that web page contains and should be as relevant as possible to the query the user has searched for. Here’s an example:

How long is a meta description?

The original length of a meta description was 160 characters; however, it has now been extended to 230 characters. That is an increase of 70 characters, or, the length of this sentence.

Why has Google done this?

The official line from Google is that it will “provide more descriptive and useful snippets, to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches.”

This makes sense, and should provide a better user experience all round. Websites will be able to use more words to describe their offering should they choose to (that doesn’t mean stuffing more keywords in there though!) and users will get a better understanding of what the page offers in relation to their search query.

What can we do with this information?

As I see it, there are two options:

  1.  We can update and extend all of our meta descriptions, especially on our main pages.
  2. We can let Google pick what it wants for our meta descriptions.

What should we do?

As with lots of things in search – it depends!

  • It depends on the current state of your meta descriptions. Are they already unique, engaging, relevant, and do they contain a call to action?
  • It depends if you expect to get such an increase in click-through rates, that it makes the cost of doing this laborious task worth it.
  • It depends if we trust Google to choose the right content to include in our descriptions for us.

WWHD?

What Would Home Do, I hear you ask! Well, firstly I wouldn’t panic… In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a major concern. Secondly, I’d do a quick assessment of the current state of your descriptions. Based on where you rank in this handy scale, we can start to make recommendations on a course of action to take.

If you sit in the quality and above section, you probably don’t need to dedicate resource to this. I would however try and monitor your key pages to understand what Google is adding into this extra space. I would say that any extra content that’s added will be to personalise the results, based on search history and the user’s perceived intent – which is amazingly cool.

If you sit in the lower half of the scale, you have two options. Either spend time and resource getting your meta descriptions to a better standard and increasing their length to accommodate this update, which I would recommend. Or, don’t change anything and allow Google to change your descriptions and increase their length for you.

If you go with option two, you may get some amazing click-through rates, but, if the descriptions are built on personalisation then I would expect the improved rates to be isolated to a small number of pages and queries. As a result, your overall click-through rates would still be lower than if you took the time to improve them manually.

Saying this, even if you do take time to increase the length of your descriptions, there is still the chance that Google may alter them anyway (for specific users on specific queries)!

Bringing it all back together

Description lengths have increased by 70 characters to improve user experience. You don’t need to panic and immediately change everything; take stock and reflect on whether your descriptions are okay as they are or whether they could do with some updating.

If you’re not sure what would be best for your site, ask us! We won’t have the magical answer (there isn’t one) but we will be able to advise you based on best practice and what tactics just might help support your overall digital strategy. Drop us a line here.