It’s been over three years since Google began increasing the amount of text shown as a description for results found in the search engine results page (SERP). For many SEO professionals, this has been a time of following best practices and updating descriptions of their pages and content to meet the new, larger minimum. So much for that, it would seem. Since the initial change in early May, the average description length has settled to around 165, in-line with the previous best practice limit of 160 characters. It’s always wise to stay up-to-date on changes that Google implements to their search product, so what do you need to know with this description length cut?
Google Cuts SERP Description Results
While the decisions behind the change aren’t clear, the data are. On May 5, 2018, RankRanger showed a sudden drop in average description lengths in search engine results. Following a small comeback, these averages settled at just over 160 by May 12. This is in stark contrast to the 320 character limit that Google had set in December 2017.
As of August 24th, we see that description lengths are stable at around 166 characters, with little daily or monthly fluctuation. What this means for all of you that were holding out hope is this: time to get back to changing your SERP descriptions if you already haven’t.
The practical effects of this change back to 160 character limits are issues of truncation with pages that haven’t been optimized or had their descriptions updated to the new reality. Meta descriptions that exceed the 160 character limit will be truncated with ellipses (those sets of three dots), and in potentially unpredictable ways. As you know, while descriptions have no direct effect on SEO and SERP results, they do have an effect on your click-through rate, which in turn does have an effect on your search performance.
Those websites that have descriptions in excess of 160-170 will have their descriptions truncated, as may those sites that do not have a meta description tag to begin with. Meta descriptions serve a vital role as advertising copy, encouraging potential readers to visit your website. While it has no effect on search results, it does directly impact your online visibility and more clickable content moves higher up the search engine results page!
Google and their Search Algorithm(s)
One thing that we should all keep in mind is that Google keeps changes to the way their search engine results function fairly close to the chest. There has been no official recommendation from Google help documents or forums to lower descriptions to 160, but there was also no notice in regards to the increases that were noted over the last two years. Google’s Search Console article about meta descriptions, they offer a wide range of best practices for how to write good descriptions, but no length limits to be found. The enterprise Google Search Appliance’s specifications do, however, identify a 160 character limit, but this may be product specific as it was published when SERP descriptions were near their peak in size.
That’s not the end of the murkiness surrounding meta description lengths either. The 166 average does show us that there are results coming in over the limit, and that’s because some queries are still returning longer description lengths. For example, the above search for a Thanksgiving turkey recipe shows a top result with a 259 character description.
Meta Description Best Practices and Conclusions
The fact of the matter is that the maximum description available for most results in Google’s search engine results page is 160 characters. While there are cases where this rule is not enforced, the data overwhelmingly shows results at or near the 160 character limit. Google changes their rules and their algorithms at will, and as digital marketing professionals we need to be ready for whatever they throw at us. For now, our best practice is to write meaningful, descriptive and engaging descriptions that are limited to 160 characters, and ideally maybe just a few characters less to be safe.