Google has recently announced an increase in character limits for meta descriptions on desktop devices.
A meta description is the text shown within each search result snippet, providing users with information about the page’s content. A good meta description will help drive better click-through rates (CTRs) to your website. However, if a meta description exceeds the character limit, it will usually be truncated in the results page, which can have a negative effect on CTR.
Previously, the maximum length for meta descriptions on desktop devices was set at 156 characters. With this new update, the limit has increased to 230 characters. Monitoring the search engine results pages (SERPs), we can see that this has impacted the majority of search results already, extending the SERPs significantly.
This move by Google feels counter-intuitive to many, as shorter meta descriptions (especially on mobile) allow users to review more options in a shorter space of time. However, Google may be experimenting to see whether they can decrease bounce rates by giving users more information before they click through to a webpage.
What do you need to know about this change?
Potential losses in visibility on desktop
The longer descriptions mean desktop SERPs are now extending further down the page. This means if you are not ranking in the top position organically, your site will automatically lose visibility, as users have to scroll further to see the same number of results.
Considerations for mobile search
While meta descriptions can now be longer on desktop, the character limit for mobile is still capped at 113. So any companies choosing to write longer descriptions for desktop need to bear in mind the impact this could have for mobile users.
This is especially important because Google is moving towards a mobile-first index. Ensuring a good experience for users on mobile will become increasingly important for gaining and maintaining visibility across all devices.
What should you do next?
You may instinctively want to take advantage of the opportunity to say more in your meta descriptions. Our recommendation is to do one of the following two options:
1) The mobile first approach: Create meta descriptions with a length of 113 characters to ensure complete mobile friendliness.
2) The compromise approach: Create meta descriptions with a length of 230 characters, but ensure the most important information is contained within the first 113 characters, and that this content can stand alone when truncated in mobile results.
In Three Whiskey’s opinion, the first option will help companies prepare for Google’s move towards a mobile-first index. However, in some circumstances there may be a benefit to using longer meta descriptions, in which case the second option is a good compromise.
In May 2018, Google effectively reversed the decision, with snippets returning to a character limit in the region of 155-160.
In May 2018, Google effectively reversed the decision, with snippets returning to a character limit in the region of 155-160. Google’s Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, stated:
“Our search snippets are now shorter on average…There is no fixed length for snippets. Length varies based on what our systems deem to be most useful.”
Based on this information alone it’s unclear whether this is a permanent reversal, and so Three Whiskey’s recommended advice following this news is to assess organic traffic data for sites with metadata changes since December 2017 to understand if there has been any impact from this change, before proceeding to shorten web page meta descriptions that now exceed this average character limit.