New longer descriptions in Google: should we do anything?

You may well have noticed the expansion of the description snippets in the Google search results over recent weeks. Where once there was a strict limit of around 160 characters, which equated to two lines of text on desktop PC screens, suddenly we’re seeing many description snippets ramble on to a fourth line. Sometimes Google will bung in some extra stuff too, for example with LinkedIn entries. Compare these two results on a search for my name – the first is one where I’ve written the title and description in the traditional recommended manner, the second is where Google has just scooped up loads of text from the page:

What’s happened? Long descriptions actually started appearing back in 2016, but now we’re seeing them everywhere. The big question is: do they make a difference to ranking or click-through rate, and should we rewrite all of our descriptions to take advantage of what’s happened?

It won’t surprise you to know that there’s no definitive guidance from Google, but I’ve been reading around the experts, and the consensus is that there’s no mad rush to make widespread changes. On Yoast.com, they say: “While we’re still actively determining new best practices, there’s no harm in experimenting with this new meta description length. Pick a couple of posts and pages first. Check if Google picks up your newly written meta descriptions. Do your own testing before you go all in and change everything. These longer meta descriptions give you enough room to show people what you’ve got, without giving away everything your article contains, of course.”

A few days ago, I rewrote the description meta tag for the nonsense page about “4-20mA aerospace widgets” that I created long ago to test these things. I forced Google to crawl it by submitting it via Search Console, and the result was there within a day or two. You can see what it looks like here. Is it an improvement? Maybe.

However well crafted your description meta tag, there’s never been any guarantee that Google will use it. The best chance of it appearing has always been when the description contains the user’s search term, and should therefore provide a good summary of the page. However, if the result is appearing for a search which does not appear in your description, it’s always been likely that Google will ignore what you’ve suggested and select a chunk of text from your page which does contain that search term, like this.

Now we have the additional possibility that Google’s algorithms might just consider a four-line chunk of text selected by them to be a better choice than your hand-written, two-line description, even if your description contains the search term. We can’t be sure what’ll happen.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • We don’t know if four lines of description is more likely to make people click on your result than two did. “Bulking up” the result like this does work with extensions to AdWords ads, so the answer is probably yes.
  • If you’re writing a description for a new page, you may as well take advantage of the new limit, which appears to be up to about 300–320 characters.
  • If you want to revisit existing pages and update the description, don’t do it in isolation. Look at how people are finding the page (in Google Search Console), and think about adding content on the page, as well as to the description.
  • Get a list of existing descriptions (we can provide this, if you’re a client of ours – just ask) and see if any seem to have been truncated by their writer to squeeze the description into 160 characters. You can now expand them out.

I would take a look at the searches which are driving most people to your website, and see what the results look like. Are competitive results now making yours look less substantial? Using the results for my name again as an example, you can see here that although I have the top two entries for my name, another (more talented) ‘Chris Rand’ has had his result bulked out in a way that my results above have not. In fact, his page has no description meta tag, so Google has taken a chunk of text from the page and used the opportunity to show one of the new long descriptions. Maybe I should expand mine to compete.

There’s a good Moz.com ‘Whiteboard Friday’ on this topic from last month, which you might like to read or watch.