For those keeping track at home, Google’s gone ahead and done what they do best: they made some pretty big changes without too terribly much in terms of announcements. Meta descriptions, the snippets of text that are pulled from your pages, have seen an increase from about 160 characters on average to just about 230.
Google’s pulling a Twitter on us.
Let’s put this into a visual perspective:
At face value it doesn’t appear like too terribly large of a change, but we’ve got a few concerns hovering around that we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on going forward.
1. Clickthrough Rate
More text available typically leads to more information available, which is exactly what Google wants. Ever since the introduction of featured snippets in search, we’ve started to become aware of a running trend within Google’s updates: why send a user to a website at all if the information can be found with a single search?
Obviously this is a perk to Google since their users will get the information they’re looking for immediately, thus making the process of using Google to find an answer to a question painless and easy, and further reinforcing the “Google has all answers” mantra. Why dig around looking for something when you can get an answer almost immediately with a click (or tap) of the search button?
The good: It’s obviously a good thing if your content is the one popping up to answer a user’s search query, and these expanded meta descriptions could essentially allow you to answer a user’s question entirely.
The bad: If your content answers a user’s question with the meta tag alone, they’re not going to need to visit your site. If they’re not going to visit your site, they’re not going to be exposed to a potential funnel you’ve created, or do any further digging around. Clickthrough rate could see decreases along the way here, and the only way you’ll know that your work is doing its job is via constant surveillance of rankings for your important terms (which you should be doing anyway, but alas).
2. How meta descriptions are written
With the potential impact of clickthrough rate in mind, how should we write our meta descriptions?
Our go-to as of yet has been to write something tantalizing enough to warrant the user clicking onto our website to continue reading; our website is where our conversion goals take place, and where we can sell what it is we’re pitching. Users can’t see that from Google’s search results page.
…But now that the standard is shifting to emphasize providing more complete answers to a subject, you really have to wonder if your meta description with the goal of getting somebody onto your page will stack up against a competitor’s who point blank gives the user the answer they’re looking for. Why click elsewhere if the answer is right there?
Do you give a longer teaser now? Do you give a complete answer? We can’t say for sure that we know which tactic will be the one that ends up victorious, but we’re definitely going to be keeping an eye on it.
The good: We’ve got more space to be creative. Everybody’s been in a position writing meta descriptions before where you’re stuck trying to think of different, shorter ways to say what it is you’re trying to say — that doesn’t quite seem like it’ll be the case anymore.
The bad: This is still new enough that it may flip strategy on its head. If all of your competitors are spilling their guts in the expanded meta description, should you be? How will you measure how effective that is if the users aren’t actually visiting your page to begin with?
3. Search visibility
Scoring a spot in Google’s first position is obviously the goal of anybody doing SEO, but sometimes with super competitive topics a lower position (albeit one that’s still on the first page) can still be extraordinarily valuable, especially if you’re talking about ranking on a national level.
Let’s consider the following search results page for “dog adoption” below:
Standard search results page, and you’re seeing mostly the standard-sized meta descriptions here. But what happens when websites catch up and start expanding theirs?
The extra line and a half will bump the result after it down a little bit. The one after that will bump the next one, and so on, until you’re ultimately seeing fewer results at first glance without scrolling. But this isn’t exactly new.
Local packs — the pack of three results that show up for your local area — bump results down, as seen above.
Featured snippets bump results further down the page.
Ads (via AdWords) bump results further down the page.
…And now expanded meta descriptions have the potential to do the exact same thing.
The good: There’s now more incentive to be keeping track of your competitors that rank higher than you to do what they do, but better. Featured snippets are increasing in value, as are local pack positions.
The bad: Well, everything above. More competition inherently makes your job more difficult, and now there’s even more pressure to rank higher out of fear of potentially being lost in the sea of results — even if you’re already ranking on the first page. Fourth+ positions just may not cut it anymore.
This was touched on briefly above, but it’s important enough that it justifies elaboration.
You have a website for a reason; you’ve got something you want a person visiting your website to do. Whether it’s calling you to set up an appointment, buying a product, or downloading your newest ebook, everything done on your website is done with the intention of gradually pushing people further down that funnel that leads to them accomplishing that task.
Considering the above, there’s a pretty decent chance you may see your site’s visitors dropping a bit. Less visitors means less people potentially able to get into your funnel and accomplish what you want them to, simply because they never made it to your site in the first place.
How do we help with this? Well, there are a few supplemental options.
- Up your social media presence. Social shouldn’t be too terribly affected by this change. Engaging with an audience and putting your information out there is still valuable as ever. Share your latest articles and products, answer questions, and encourage your users to visit your site there.
- Invest in some PPC. Ads show up at the top of the search engine results page — this isn’t new. If you’re not in a super competitive market, this little bump could help keep your conversions flowing without breaking the bank.
- Keep your conversion in view. If you might see a decrease in visitors, you want your conversion to be pretty obvious without being overbearing. Throw a call to action into your post, have a sidebar inviting the user to do what you want them to do — whatever it is, just make sure there isn’t too much digging needed so that you can get the most out of the traffic you do get.
The good: This may force you to keep better track of your conversions. Making sure everything (even conversions you may not have counted before) is recorded will always guarantee you a more accurate ROI, which we’ll never argue with.
The bad: The obvious is a potential decrease in conversions. Having to look objectively at your entire conversion process and visibility could be seen as good, but realistically speaking it’ll take a lot of effort to make sure it’s being done properly.
5. How content itself is written
Just when you thought things may be tossed up and changed enough as-is with these changes, a final wrench is thrown into the equation. Per Rand Fishkin over at Moz:
One important note that a lot of folks have been asking about — yes, it’s true that Google is pulling many of the snippet texts from the web page content rather than the meta description tag.
Yes, you read that right. You may spend time meticulously changing up your meta descriptions to fit perfectly within your (bigger) box, only to have Google ignore your work entirely.
This is a big deal.
Does that mean you want to abandon the practice of setting meta descriptions entirely? Absolutely not. It’s important to note that this isn’t always happening, which means you should be prepared in the event that your declared meta description is the one pulled for the results page.
With that being said though, you’ll also want to analyze your content itself. If your entire goal of a piece is to answer a specific question, you’d do well to make sure you have that question summarized somewhere in a pretty succinct paragraph. If a user searches for “how do I write a meta description” you’d want a pretty brief summary answering exactly that so that Google might find it and choose to prioritize that result as the most accurate to the user’s search.
Of course, you can elaborate and go into further detail throughout the rest of the post, but writing somewhere as if you’re writing your own featured snippet that answers a user’s question can have its perks.
The good: Content is king in the land of Google, and better quality content across the internet is always a good thing. Forcing a focus on subject material with content can help your piece’s performance by discouraging tangential discussion that doesn’t focus on the core issue.
The bad: Knowing that any one of your paragraphs could be pulled for your meta description puts some heavy pressure on whoever is writing the content, and it’s fairly unpredictable – something that those in data-focused positions aren’t a big fan of.
So how will the new expanded meta descriptions affect me?
For starters, you may see a decrease in clickthrough rate and conversions, your pages may be further down the list of search results, and you’ll definitely want to focus a bit harder on your content optimization, but at the end of the day there’s simply no way to tell yet until we’ve seen the changes in action for longer.
With that being said, at the end of the day, content is still one of the most important aspects of SEO, and as long as your content is high quality and answers the questions of people searching for it, it’ll do nothing but work well for you. If you aren’t sure about how exactly you should be optimizing your content, we’d be more than happy to help you.
Until then, we’ll be keeping an eye on these changes and continuing to adapt to the regular wrenches Google seems to enjoy throwing. What do you think of these changes? Let us know.
Taylor is a digital strategist at JSO Digital. He graduated from Millersville University, and currently resides in rural Pennsylvania.