What is a search snippet?

A search snippet is a description of or an excerpt from a webpage. The descriptions you see in search engine result pages (SERPs) are search snippets.

This is a search snippet - Rystedt Creative
This is a search snippet

What is a meta-description?

A meta-description is a description of a webpage set by the site itself using structured metadata. Many search snippets you see in SERPs are set by the pages’ meta-descriptions.

This is a meta description defined in a page's HTML
This is a meta-description in HTML

What did Google change?

Google has doubled the maximum length of search snippets from 160 characters to 320 characters.

It is important to note that Google has not expanded all search snippets. So some web pages will show longer search snippets and some will continue to show shorter snippets depending on the meta-descriptions set and the search queries made.

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Will your existing links show longer search snippets?

Your existing links may or may not show longer search snippets. Whether they do or not depends on what is searched for, the content you have written on your page, and the meta description you have set.

There are two types of search snippets that show in SERPs:

1. Search snippets generated from your page’s content

Most of the longer search snippets Google is showing are excepts from webpages. This allows them to better show the context of keywords within the body of a webpage.

When someone searches for something on Google – like a “free coloring page” (hey, I print stuff for my toddlers, alright?) – Google will return results relevant to those keywords. Some of these results will show longer snippets lifted from the webpage.

Coloring page result with a longer search snippet - Rystedt Creative

2. Search snippets generated from your page’s meta-description

Other search snippets are displaying the webpages’ meta-descriptions. Meta-descriptions empower you to set your preferred search snippet.

In that search for a “free coloring page” most of the results were short snippets set by the website’s meta-description.

ShortColoringPageSnippet - Rystedt Creative

There is technically no limit to the length of your meta-descriptions. So, you could write meta-descriptions that are up to 320 characters and still have those show in Google’s SERPs. So far it appears that Google is primarily using these longer search snippets to serve up more contextual webpage excerpts.

Note that in the screenshot below both of our pages have brief meta-descriptions set. However, Google has determined that a lengthier excerpt from our homepage was more relevant to the search query than its meta-description was. This isn’t new. Google has always used whichever snippet type is most relevant to the search query. They have only changed the length of the excerpts.

RystedtCreativeWordPressSearchSnippets - Rystedt Creative
We have a brief meta-description set for the first result but Google deemed this lengthier excerpt more relevant to the search query

So should you lengthen your meta-descriptions or not?

Many SEO experts are exploring the results of using longer meta-descriptions. It is difficult to make definitive statements on such a drastic change this early. Top SEO companies are running tests and compiling data.

Yet we can already draw some conclusions.

A pro of using longer meta-descriptions

Google still prefers meta-descriptions that you set with structured metadata. It is already apparent that if you have a longer meta-description and it is relevant to the search query Google will probably show it.

Pro: Using longer meta-descriptions puts you in control of your lengthier search snippets.

A con of using longer meta-descriptions

Google is not always showing longer search snippets. It is easier for people to read 160 characters than 320 characters. Consequently, some SEO experts are predicting that longer search snippets may reduce click through rate (CTR) if there are shorter snippets displayed on the same SERP. This could mean that your old concise meta-descriptions could actually give you an advantage!

Con: Using longer meta-descriptions could reduce your ability to stand out in SERPs.

Here’s what Google had to say

The fact that our snippets have gotten longer doesn’t change the fundamentals of writing a description tag. They should generally inform and interest users with a short, relevant summary of what a particular page is about. We now display slightly longer snippets, which means we might display more of a meta description tag.

How setting longer meta-descriptions will affect your appearance on social networks

If you don’t set social network specific metadata (like Open Graph for Facebook and Twitter Cards for Twitter) social networks will usually show the meta-description you set for search engines. However, social networks show even briefer descriptions than Google does (often only a single line). If you use lengthier meta-descriptions for Google without separate social network metadata you ensure that your descriptions will be cut off when your pages are shared on these networks.

If you decide to set a longer meta-description for a page be sure to use at least Open Graph (OG) tags to give you the best appearance on social networks as well. We have an introductory article on structured meta-data if this is something you want to begin utilizing.

If you have a WordPress site and are using the excellent Yoast plugin you can use it to set structured metadata for Facebook and Twitter that is briefer than your primary meta description.

YoastSEOSocialMetadata - Rystedt Creative
Use this share pane in Yoast to set OG and Twitter Card metadata

Yoast’s choice to mark longer meta-descriptions in the green may be a mistake

Just because you can use longer meta-descriptions doesn’t mean you should (at least for every page). Yoast’s recent update marking meta descriptions up to 320 characters in the green may be misleading. Just because Google isn’t penalizing you for having a lengthy description doesn’t mean it is helping your search engine optimization. Google is already going to show lengthier snippets of your content (and everybody else’s). Shorter meta descriptions help you stand out in SERPs and may mitigate the reduction in CTR due to these lengthier descriptions.

We recommend not changing your meta description strategy at this time

If you already have an SEO strategy keep writing meta descriptions like you have been (at least for now). Because we predict that longer search snippets will become the norm and standing out in SERPs is a huge part of getting clicks.

Longer Search Snippets - Pinnable Image - Rystedt Creative

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