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What Google’s Meta-Description Expansion Means—AND What It Means to YOU!

In the SEO world, we watch everything Google says and does with interest and care. If they take the time to tell us about something they’ve done – added, removed, or just changed, it usually means it’s likely fairly important to the way we do (and should) optimize our sites.

For a while now, many SEO “experts” have diminished the importance of the site’s meta description – as well as the meta description on individual posts and pages – in relation to rankings.

The meta description is the information a webmaster, web designer, or SEO can add in the html header of a site, page, or post, to tell the search engines what it’s about in summary. Previously, you were allowed 160 characters or less to do this.

Google then uses this information as the “snippet” that appears under the hyperlinked page title (meta title) on search engine results. Well, most of the time. They can choose to override what you enter with their own “summary” (snippet) but that’s another discussion.

If you’re not familiar with the meta description, it appears something like this in the html header:

<meta name=“description” content=“This is what this webpage is about.”>

Some of the time, you’ll notice the meta description has obviously been crafted with attention and intention. Other times, it might not seem to even relate to the searched terms, the page’s content, or even anything that makes “sense” based on what was searched. Worse, it may not be reader-friendly (believe it or not, I have seen some that contain html code or gibberish).

For those SEOs who have been disregarding the optimization of the meta description – and snippet – as “unimportant,” they can’t really be blamed. Google itself said they didn’t consider custom meta descriptions in ranking. Instead, they said they pulled their own “snippet” from the content on a page to determine how and where to rank that content (even in cases where they display what was manually entered in the search results).

On the other hand, for those SEOs who did focus effort on customizing the meta description, many did so because they remained dubious of that idea and so, continued to make sure the meta description was optimized both for keywords and relevancy to page content.

Well, it looks like the latter group may have been right. Maybe.

Google’s still not giving away the “goods” on the precise intent behind the change, but this past week, they announced they were expanding the allowable-character length of the meta description to 320 characters. Likewise, they’re also increasing the snippet length shown with search results as well.

Website Magazine says this still might not mean Google is moving toward including the manually-entered meta description into their ranking factors. Instead, they suggest the change could just be a move the search giant is taking to review the accuracy of their algorithms.

Alternatively, the change could be a sign. It is possible that this expansion represents a hint that Google’s artificial-intelligence-driven “spiders” that determine rank most of the time these days, are deriving page content and context clues, as they relate to ranking, from what is entered into a crafted meta description.

So, what does all this mean for website owners, webmasters, and the SEO efforts we all take to make websites and web pages rank and especially, rank better or higher?

 Well, Google says nothing has really changed. They still claim that the manual meta description does little to influence how – or for what – a site, page, or post is ranked. Instead, they say they’re merely testing how the longer length snippets impact user search and click behavior.

Seemingly, this likely means they will be watching to see if the longer description and snippet length give better insight into page content. Consequently, delivering search results for content that searchers really want to see.

Yet, if this is true, it should also mean users are more likely to know before clicking whether search results truly line up with what they were looking to find. Thus, only the most relevant sites get the most clicks. Since both clicks and bounce rate are proven search ranking factors, indirectly, the expanded description would impact positioning after all.

The bottom line then, basically, is that if you’ve been crafting your meta descriptions “right” – to demonstrate what content is truly and genuinely in your site or on a web page – you really need do nothing different with this change. You just have a few more words to play with when you add the description yourself. This is especially true in light of Google’s tweets on the subject which said that even if you do enter the full 320 characters in a manual description, they still may or may not use your version.

Here’s my best advice…

If you’re currently happy with what Google is showing for your meta description in search snippets, then you probably shouldn’t upset the applecart.

Contrastingly, if you feel like your snippets are “cut off” or don’t give a good idea of what is on the page, then ask whoever optimizes your website to take a look at them. Can a few words be added to make the content of the page clearer? So that the visitor can have a better idea of what they’re going to get on the page, before they click, when they see your listing in the search results?

If so, then make the change. Then, keep an eye on your click-thru rate and your bounce rate to see if they improve. If so, you should see your ranking improve over time too. Thus, in the end – the big question – whether expanded meta descriptions matter, would likely answer itself.

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