Google’s meta description snippets have always been a bit of an arcane art. Prior to a few weeks ago, the character limit for a meta description was 165 characters, more or less. Sometimes Google would waive the limit a bit in one direction or the other, to allow for a full sentence or to avoid truncating a word. Sometimes they would happily cut you off mid-word. Some types of queries would have specific, more informative descriptions with a longer character limit. Most of the time when you set a description with the meta attributes, Google takes it, but sometimes they chose not to.
For the most part, marketers are able to rely on Google accepting meta information and using at least the first 165 characters of it in the snippet. It was only when you didn’t specifically set a snippet that they would do something funky to pick one from your page. A lot of tools would actually have a 165 character limit on their meta description field just to prevent you from truncating yourself.
Google has now doubled the character limit for the snippet in their search results pretty much across the board. At 320 characters, it’s slightly longer than the new Tweet format. Interestingly, 165 characters was also slightly longer than the previous Tweet format. I wonder, actually, whether or not the Twitter character limit had any influence on this decision. Don’t count this as a quote or anything, I don’t think Google actually made their decision based on Twitter’s actions. That gives Twitter far too much importance in the grand scheme of things.
Essentially doubling the character limit for search result snippets is actually pretty important.That’s a lot of extra room to work in keywords and make human-readable descriptions. Some content will be pretty hard to describe while taking advantage of the space, but a lot of content could easily have used at least 250, so a bump up to 320 is very welcome.
How does this new longer character limit affect your marketing?
Longer Limits Allow More Information
Perhaps the most immediately impactful consequence of the change is that longer snippets allow for more information in the snippet. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it allows users to answer informational queries without ever visiting the site in question. For example, if you were to Google “What is Net Neutrality”, you’ll see the top result from SaveTheInternet.com with a solid description of Net Neutrality in the snippet. This is distinct from the usual Google informational boxes, like their Wikipedia snippet off to the site in the same query.
On the one hand, this is likely to reduce traffic to your site from very basic informational queries. Anything that can be answered in a single sentence or short paragraph is likely to be answered without visiting your page. On the other hand, this is beneficial to your bounce rates. All of those satisfied users who bounce because their questions are answered never actually arrive, so they aren’t counted as bounces. Whether that’s beneficial or not is up to you, though I would say it’s probably a small detriment. After all, if they don’t show up, they don’t have the opportunity to click to other pages at all. There are also event-based ways to minimize those non-bounces as well.
I would anticipate this to have a negative effect on click-through rates from the search results pages, but at the same time, a positive effect on conversion rates. After all, the people with a conversion intent aren’t going to be satisfied with a snippet; they’ll be clicking on your page regardless. Those who would be fine reading a page and bouncing aren’t going to click through quite as often, so your conversion rates will increase implicitly.
In a way, this also competes against Google’s own information boxes. If your snippet description is better than the basic Wikipedia description Google would choose, your site will get more attention than the basic wiki link. Conversely, if your description doesn’t appropriately use the new space, you’ll be out-done by the search results alone, not even your competitors.
Longer Limits Make the Search Results Longer, Hurting Lower Sites
Another interesting side effect of having longer snippets is just the physical – well, digital – space they take up. Longer snippets mean taller search results pages. It might not seem like much difference, but when each search result is an additional 1-2 lines, it pushes the bottom couple of results even lower on the page.
Now, it’s not really a problem to scroll down a page and look at all the results on the first page, but what if you’re on mobile? You have a more limited amount of screen real estate, and you have to swipe-scroll even lower to get to lower search results. For most people, that won’t be a big deal, but for some percent of the population, it’s just tedious and they won’t do it.
Overall, this will likely result in slightly lower traffic to the people ranking #9 or #10 on the first page, which are already pretty thin pickings for the first page of Google. I don’t imagine it’s going to be a hugely noticeable difference, but you never know; if you’re positioned low on the first page for some queries, it might be worth keeping an eye out to see how it does.