July 9, 2018
Why do I believe that Meta Descriptions are going to disappear? First, let’s clarify what they are and what they have been used for.
When your website or webpage appears in search, displayed first is the Meta Page Title followed by a snippet describing what the page or site is all about. Traditionally this piece of text would be the scripted Meta Description, although Google has always reserved the right to show an alternative. The importance of this snippet, which has no SEO value, was the opportunity to entice a visitor to click the link through to the website.
Last December Google surprised us by increasing the length of the “snippet” in Search Results from 160 to 320 characters. It was suggested, or recommended, that webmasters do not attempt to revise and increase existing meta descriptions but to leave it to Google to decide whether to use the existing one or expand on it if appropriate.
I wrote a Blog Post on the 17th December entitled “Will Google kill Meta Page Descriptions?” It didn’t get a lot of traction, but some people did comment that they agreed this might well happen.
So what’s new? Google has now reverted to a shorter snippet, only five months after introducing the expanded one. In effect, they are back to around 160 on desktop and 120 on mobile.
However, that is not all. According to Danny Sutherland “There is no fixed length for snippets. Length varies based on what our (Google) systems deem to be most useful”. He added Google will not state a new maximum length for the snippets because the snippets are generated dynamically.
Note the phrase “ because the snippets are generated dynamically”. What does that mean? Let’s go back to what Google said in December in their official statement “our snippets are dynamically generated”. Sometimes, they use what’s in a meta description tag. More often, they are generated by showing content from the page itself and perhaps parts of the meta description tag, as is appropriate for individual queries”.
All this leads me to believe that Google’s Rank Brain AI is being used to decide what snippet to display based on the search term and page content. The meta description tag is taking less and less prominence and becoming almost irrelevant.
Some research by Yoast in April this year, and before the return to shorter snippets, seems to bear this out. Their study showed most of the snippets Google were showing were not from the meta description, but rather from the content on the web page. It also seemed to indicate that the snippet came from the opening sentences on the page rather than content deeper inside the text.
So what does this mean for the future of Meta Page Descriptions?
It is probably too early to tell and I would not recommend dispensing with them at this moment in time. However, I believe the writing is on the wall and it may not be too long before they disappear into obscurity in the same way that Meta Keywords did several years ago. I think Google has decided that AI is better at deciding what snippet to display based on search terms.
It could also be that Google has decided that the scripted Meta Description Tag has been inappropriately used to entice searchers to click through to pages or sites that do not actually provide the information the searcher is looking for. Effectively using the meta description as “click bait” instead of giving an accurate description of the page content.
As mentioned above, Meta Descriptions have never had a value for SEO, but well designed they can encourage clicks through to website pages and, as a result, can have a major impact on the number of site visitors.
It will probably take some time before we can accurately judge how these changes will affect the way webmasters and website owners will need to adjust how meta descriptions are written and page content is scripted to continue to maximize clicks.
As it seems that Google may either use the meta description or use part of the content it may well be necessary to look closely at the opening sentences to ensure that these accurately describe the content of the page and will still encourage visitors to click the link. It may also be appropriate to try to limit these to something close to the new reduced snippet length.
I suspect that the more flexible limit means that instead of text being truncated, as was previously the case, Google will attempt to offer complete sentences. So if your opening sentence or sentences total 165 characters you gain a little, but if the length is 155 characters and the next sentence would take you to 200, the snippet will be cut off at 155.
Google has been telling us for some time that RankBrain has been proven to be more accurate in providing search results and I think this is the next natural step in allowing AI to take more control in deciding what is displayed in search.
On that premise I think we will soon say goodbye to Meta Descriptions and Google will tell us to rely on their dynamically generated snippets.
Adrian has been involved in website design and SEO for some 18 years. He lives in the Dominican Republic and apart from designing and managing websites as well as undertaking SEO work for clients, he enjoys relaxing under palm trees with a cold beer or a pina colada! He can be contacted at repdomwebs.com