How to Write Meta Descriptions in a Constantly Changing World (AKA Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away)

How to Write Meta Descriptions in a Constantly Changing World (AKA Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away)

Note, though, that both of these snippets come from Wikipedia, which is an exception to many SEO rules. This leaves 42,863 snippets (just under half of our data set). If you want to rewrite shorter Meta Descriptions for your most important pages, that's perfectly reasonable, but keep in mind that some results are still showing longer snippets and this situation will continue to evolve. (4) Write length-adaptive descriptions Is it possible to write a description that works well at both lengths? What if we took this approach to meta descriptions? In other words, why not write a 150-character "lead" that summarizes the page, and then add 150 characters of useful but less essential detail (when adding that detail makes sense and provides value)? According to our new research (May 2018), the limit is back to 155-160 characters. Line 2 dives into a few details and gives away just enough data (hopefully) to be intriguing. If we look at just SERPs with a maximum display snippet length of 160 characters (i.e. no result was longer than 160 characters), the featured snippet occurrence was 11.4%. In many cases, though, these longer snippets are rewrites or taken directly from the page, so even then there's no guarantee that Google will use your longer meta description.

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Summary: As of mid-May 2018, Google has reverted back to shorter display snippets. Our data suggests these changes are widespread and that most meta descriptions are being cut off in the previous range of about 155–160 characters.

Back in December, Google made a significant shift in how they displayed search snippets, with our research showing many snippets over 300 characters. Over the weekend, they seem to have rolled back that change (Danny Sullivan partially confirmed this on Twitter on May 14). Besides the obvious question — What are the new limits? — it may leave you wondering how to cope when the rules keep changing. None of us have a crystal ball, but I’m going to attempt to answer both questions based on what we know today.

Lies, dirty lies, and statistics…

I pulled all available search snippets from the MozCast 10K (page-1 Google results for 10,000 keywords), since that’s a data set we collect daily and that has a rich history. There were 89,383 display snippets across that data set on the morning of May 15.

I could tell you that, across the entire data set, the minimum length was 6 characters, the maximum was 386, and the mean was about 159. That’s not very useful, for a couple of reasons. First, telling you to write meta descriptions between 6–386 characters isn’t exactly helpful advice. Second, we’re dealing with a lot of extremes. For example, here’s a snippet on a search for “USMC”:

Marine Corps Community Services may be a wonderful organization, but I’m sorry to report that their meta description is, in fact, “apple” (Google appends the period out of, I assume, desperation). Here’s a snippet for a search on the department store “Younkers”:

Putting aside their serious multi-brand confusion, I think we can all agree that “BER Meta TAG1” is not optimal. If these cases teach you anything, it’s only about what not to do. What about on the opposite extreme? Here’s a snippet with 386 characters, from a search for “non-compete agreement”:

Notice the “Jump to Exceptions” and links at the beginning. Those have been added by Google, so it’s tough to say what counts against the character count and what doesn’t. Here’s one without those add-ons that clocks in at 370 characters, from a search for “the Hunger Games books”:

So, we know that longer snippets do still exist. Note, though, that both of these snippets come from Wikipedia, which is an exception to many SEO rules. Are these long descriptions only fringe cases? Looking at the mean (or even the median, in this case) doesn’t really tell us.

The big picture, part 1

Sometimes, you have to let the data try to speak for itself, with a minimum of coaxing. Let’s look at all of the snippets that were cut off (ending in “…”) and remove video results (we know from previous research that these skew a bit shorter). This leaves 42,863 snippets (just under half of our data set). Here’s a graph of all of the cut-off lengths, gathered into 25 character bins (0–25, 26–50, etc.):

This looks very different from our data back in December, and is clearly clustered in the 150–175 character range. We see a few Google display snippets cut off after the 300+ range, but those are dwarfed by the shorter cut-offs.

The big picture, part 2

Obviously, there’s a lot happening in that 125–175 character range, so let’s zoom in and look at just the middle portion of the frequency distribution, broken up into smaller, 5-character buckets:

We can see pretty clearly that the bulk of cut-offs are happening in the 145–165 character range. Before December, our previous guidelines for meta descriptions were to keep them below 155 characters, so it appears that Google has more-or-less reverted to the old rules.

Keep in mind that Google uses proportional fonts, so there is no exact character…

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