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Hey Google! What are you doing with my Meta Descriptions?

According to Danny Sullivan, head of Google Search Liaison, Google will not be migrating the meta description length warning to their new Search Console. Those who follow my Facebook group, Marketing Secrets, might recall my (rather frustrated) rant from a few weeks back when Google announced that they’ll be displaying fewer characters for meta descriptions in search results – and at the same time refused to specify a recommended length. Given all of that, his new announcement is hardly surprising and is perhaps long overdue.

Google has been screwing with meta descriptions for a loooooong time…

I first recall seeing “odd” looking page titles and meta descriptions toward the end of 2011. At the time I owned an education-focused website and Google seemed to be offering alternative page titles and meta descriptions, apparently based on perceived user intent. For example, a search for “recognition of prior learning university degree” would yield a completely different set of page titles and meta descriptions in search results to “recognition of prior learning”- for the exact same page. It wasn’t long after this that the Big G announced they were, in fact, serving results in this manner. In other words, this has been happening for close to seven years now.

More recently (as in late last year) Google decided to display more characters in the meta descriptions of the search results they delivered. Description lengths went up from an average of 160 to 320 characters, causing a frenzy, with webmasters editing and extending their visible messages. Just a few weeks ago Google rolled that back and we again have an average of about 160 characters being displayed in search results. The only difference now is that Google is refusing to state what the ideal length of a meta description now is. That sounds to me like they may again extend or even shorten the length of meta descriptions in search results.

Clearly, this has been a work in progress for a long time.

Controlling Your Meta Descriptions

In spite of what Google has been doing for a long time, I’ve tried to exercise some degree of control over what page titles and meta descriptions appear in search results. I’ve achieved this for my own websites and those of many clients by ensuring that both of those items closely match the on-page content, with a special focus on H1 and H2 tags, plus the primary message of the page. By and large, I’ve been successful in making sure that the desired message is being presented. I’m wondering how much longer we’ll be able to do that for?

Because I’ve been doing this a long time, I can recall a time when Google took note of meta keywords. They stopped doing that so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when it was. The reason why they started disregarding that signal was that webmasters figured out that they could “stuff” that meta area with the keywords they wanted to appear for in search results. Much the same thing has happened with page titles and meta descriptions, which is undoubtedly why Google has been paying them less and less attention. Given the awesome combined power of latent semantic indexing and AI, I can easily envisage a time in the not too distant future when Google will disregard both page titles and meta descriptions entirely.

What’s Next for Meta Descriptions?

The upshot of this is that you should probably to take a closer look at the content of your pages and really examine what keywords you might be targeting. Google is now clearly favouring long-form content with tightly focused, high-quality information, within narrow fields. That kind of content seems to be even more highly favoured when the website it’s on is semantically related. Semantically related inbound links power this even more. It looks like a narrow focus on a particular subject is going to score you more and more brownie points as time marches on.

Google already picks and chooses from your web pages what it wishes to display in page titles and meta descriptions. They’ve just told us (without telling us) that this practice is now becoming the norm. You need to start thinking of all of your content as potential snippets of information that are likely to be presented in organic search results. Google is already doing this, but they haven’t quite gotten there in terms of consistently displaying that content in a way that always makes sense. I believe that they will get there – and you can help them (and you) by targeting key, on page snippets of information to conform with a 160 character length protocol – for now anyway.

Welcome to another new normal!