Back in May 2016, Google extended the lengths of the fields that it displays within the organic search results for any given page. And in the last few weeks – forever keeping us on our toes – the search giants have again moved the goalposts by displaying noticeably longer snippets in search, changing the way that webmasters craft their meta descriptions.

The search community first began noticing that something was afoot in mid-November. And sure enough, when pressed, Google provided Search Engine Land with the following statement at the start of December:

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.

What’s Changed?

For years, technical writers and onsite optimisation specialists have been of the opinion that meta descriptions over 150-160 characters would be ‘cut off’ in the listings. We know from experience that whenever we’ve typically written anything that exceeds 155 characters, including spaces, the tail-end of our content trails into oblivion.

Now, SEOs are reporting that Google is displaying an average of 230 characters per listing. In some cases, they’ve seen snippets up to 270 characters in length. This is just under one and a half times the previous limit – and it gives marketers a lot of extra space to work with.

Of course, some people work in pixel width as opposed to character limits. The above-mentioned character limits convert to the following values:

  • 155 characters = 1240 pixels
  • 230 characters = 1840 pixels
  • 270 characters = 2160 pixels

This doesn’t apply to ALL cases. Google does sometimes generate snippets dynamically, based on its bots’ interpretation of the content. But if the crawlers do decide to go with the meta description you’ve specified, you’re going to be able to write a longer message for your potential customers.

Why is this a big deal for the SEO community?

Rand Fishkin of Moz has provided SEOs with an in-depth commentary on the topic in his latest Whiteboard Friday piece. It makes a great watch (or read) for those who are concerned about the impact this latest change will have on their onsite SEO practices. Rand argues that, although it may be a huge job for webmasters with large sites, making the effort and updating meta descriptions with the new character limit in mind may stand them in better stead for the start of 2018. Site owners should make the most of the extra characters available to them and capitalise on these changes ahead of their competition.

In our opinion, longer snippets definitely pave the way for more accurate meta descriptions that could potentially lead to higher click-through rates (for those who are willing to take the time to extend them). They’ll make it easier to sum up the premise of a page. But that said, white space should never be filled with repetitive, unengaging content, nor should these extra characters be used for old-school keyword stuffing purposes.

If you are happy with your meta descriptions and are enjoying high engagement from the organic listings, don’t rush to make drastic changes to your meta data. As the old adage says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, we would always urge you to keep an eye on your competition in the SERPs and monitor the adjustments made by other webmasters in your niche. If they seem to be benefitting from longer descriptions, or they are using them to better communicate their USPs, it may be time for you to take this approach, too.

And remember, best practice still applies when creating optimised meta data, including descriptions. Make sure your key phrase is in the text, but write primarily for the user and always create an accurate summary of what the reader can expect from your content. Follow these simple rules and you won’t go wrong, regardless of how many characters Google decides to grant you!