Welcome to episode 55 of This Week Online Today, where I will be talking to you about the big online news that has been happening this week today to make sure that you are ahead of the game when it comes to running your online brand successfully.
And if you have already subscribed to the newsletter, you will also receive an exclusive bonus tip of the week to help you further about this topic.
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In this episode of This Week Online Today, I talk about the following:
- Google quietly reducing the meta description length
- Google’s ambigious advice on what you should do
- The Twitter storm by other SEOs regarding this topic
- What are your options and what you should do with the new meta description rules
Welcome to This Week Online Today podcast with your host Ahmed Khalifa, where I will be talking about the biggest online news that had happened this week and why you should be aware of it. And don’t forget, if you subscribe to the newsletter, you will also receive a bonus tip of the week of what you should do about it. And you’ll find that link in the share note. In the meantime, let’s get straight onto the show.
What’s up everyone, I am Ahmed Khalifa, and this is episode 55 of This Week Online Today, and boy do I have a good one today. A very wild one indeed, in the world of Google. It seems to be Google all the time, but there you go, they are in the news, and this time it’s to do with everyone’s website.
And to do with this little thing that we call the meta description. For those who doesn’t know, the meta description, this is the part on the search result, under the title, where it tends to be two, three lines, you know, you get that little description about what that page is about, you know, a brief description.
If you think about it, when you go on Google, anything you want, and you can see the tile, underneath the titles, are the meta descriptions. So there has been a lot of confusion and anger, and talks and just plain on crazy, just plain all crazy, that’s what’s been going on. The reason it’s been in the news a lot, is because slowly but surely, Google has decided to, what people are saying, Google give us and take us away your meta description, meaning that they have reduced it.
Our search snippets are now shorter on average than in recent weeks, though slightly longer than before a change we made last December. There is no fixed length for snippets. Length varies based on what our systems deem to be most useful.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) May 14, 2018
The timeline is, traditionally, the meta description had like a character limit of approximately 156, maybe a 160 characters, and that was the historic character limit. But then gradually, Google took into account of the pixel size of the letter. What I mean by that, is imagine the letter O is wider than the letter I, so obviously the letter O took up a lot of space, which means that it’s not always going to be exactly a 156 characters, it’s going to be approximately about that range.
Two years ago, around May, 2016, Google has been testing and doing a lot of changes, as they always do on the search results, and they have decided to extend the meta description that is displayed on the search result. Around 250 to 275 characters, sometimes more.
And then, December 2017 they have extended that again to what it seems to be around 300 characters. But when people had tested it themselves, it seemed to be maximum 320, but you don’t wanna go too far.
Then it all kind of changed again. This week, there had been a very slow rollout, well not slow rollout, kind of quiet rollout, that people are noticing, that the meta description had been reduced again to the historic version, of around 155, 156, maybe a 165, approximately at a push.
That had been happening and people had been asking what’s going on, is this official, is this a test, because that can happen. So slowly you got a confirmation that, you know, on Twitter, that Google had indeed reduced the size of it.
They have kind of partially confirmed, and I said partially because they’re never clearly about anything, they’re just kind of very ambiguous. They have partially confirmed that the average description is indeed shorter. There’s not exactly, there isn’t any fixed length, there isn’t any recommendation about what you should do, because as they say, the length may vary based on what our system deemed to be most useful.
Yeah, because you know better, okay.
It seemed it be, the meta description seemed to be dynamic, and they decided for you, which I’m kinda not too sure about that. I’ll come to that in a second anyway. So why did they change it? You know, I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact reason. They will have their own reason after testing so many different things.
So a few kind of hypotheses that I’ve got in my head, is that one, when it was extended, maybe they thought that, okay, it’s too much text on the search result, and this may have affected them in other ways, like when people engage on the search result, it may have affected their ad revenue, because at the end of the day, they want that to be a big focus.
If anything is going to affect their ad revenue, they’re not gonna be happy with that, so they’re gonna do something about it.
So that might be a reason. And maybe another reason is just they want to go back to that clean, minimalistic look. Who knows, we just don’t know. That’s Google for you, they will say that we have tested it, we have done our research, we know what we’re doing, and yeah, just put up with it, tough one. That’s what it seems like.
So what I should say though, that Google, according to them anyway, they claim that they never did recommend that you do anything in terms of providing a character limit, which is a bit weird because in a Google search console, they almost tell you if they’re too long or too short, so I think that’s a bit of a hypocritical thing to say that you should never, we never provided recommendation. I don’t believe them on that.
As the story says, we actually advised people not to change anything. You're quoting a subhead of the @rustybrick story that doesn't make clear that those who didn't take our advice might have made changes. pic.twitter.com/67Tbs43Hhx
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) May 15, 2018
They have said that, in one of their documentation, I think they have said it in a quote, that you shouldn’t change anything, when they had extended it a couple of years ago the first time, you shouldn’t change it.
And they have said them, and I give them that. But the thing is though, how come not change it? This is an opportunity for all site owners to provide clearer call to action, provide a compelling message and also to understand better the environment that they operate in, in terms of the search result, especially when there’s a lot of competition.
But just saying don’t change it, just sit back and watch and relax, I think that’s a bit of a, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit weird thing to say in terms of like, oh just chill out, relax, don’t worry about it kind of thing. I don’t think you can do that, really. I mean, this is how a website works, you test, you change, you research, that kind of stuff always happened.
And yes, we are in Google’s backyard, we just have to go by that rule, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be a very clear advice, and there had been a lot of criticism about that, and I’ll come to that in a second, but yes, Google has said there was never an official limit, and they never provided any recommendation.
They said that before, a couple years ago, and last year, and they’re saying it again this week, that there was never a recommendation. Because right now their recommendation is, the lengths may vary based on what our system deemed to be most useful. For me, I don’t agree with that. I think, you know, we know better. We know what our audience wants better.
I think we can provide the message clear, it kind of just depends on Google, because at the end of the day Google is constantly getting better and better, which is definitely true.
But I’m not sure if we should depend on a system to provide that message, I’m not a human input kind of thing. That’s my opinion, anyway. So because of that there have been a lot of Twitter storm, and we all love a good Twitter storm.
And when the SEOs get involved, man does it get crazy.
Many SEOs have been very very critical about Google for not being very clear about numbers. I’m not providing further assistance, because they, I guess have been very laissez-faire about it, very laid back about it.
And you know, you got high profile people getting involved in the conversation, people like Rand Fishkin, and Yoast involved as well. Just saying that we don’t agree with your statement, in terms of there’s no recommendation, there’s no character limit, there’s no kind of thing you have to do, just leave it as it is. People criticised Google for that, a lot of people actually.
Sigh… This is so much less helpful than "min is X, max is Y, avg is Z, and most pages should probably aim between R-Q length." Think we'll have to wait for @dr_pete's research to know what those numbers are. https://t.co/kWGZIdLt1v
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) May 14, 2018
In Google’s defence, I agree that, from what they said, I agree that when Google says jump, people say “how high”, “how many”, or that kind of stuff. What I mean by that, when Google says for example, if there are a few sentences in the meta description, people may analyse it too deep and they will say, “how many is a few”, “how long should they be”, that kind of stuff. I think Google is afraid that people will take it out of context when they provide recommendation, and I think it’s a historical thing as well.
So that’s what they said, and I quote, they said:
“The concern is providing a specific count, makes people obsess too much.”
Kind of makes sense, but I still think that they need to make up their mind.
Because even though Google provides good resources, they are getting better in terms of communicating to site owners and SEOs, all that kind of stuff. But as always, they’re still very ambiguous, they’re still very PR like in terms of the way they communicate, it’s not always very clear.
I think there’s a lot of criticism about Google not being very transparent about it. The idea is that we are there to help them, and they are there to help us. This is kind of what I’m seeing, anyway. This is the kind of feeling that I’m feeling, that people are not getting that, because at the end of the day, Google get a lot out of SEOs and site owners optimising their site.
This is the key point. Either you *didn't* consider the business implications, or you completely misunderstood them. You *have* to be more careful when millions of sites will make changes based on how the SERPs look. Your intentional vagueness costs butchers and bakers *millions*
— Jono Alderson (@jonoalderson) May 14, 2018
When people do that, it’s Google that provides better results and have the correct search results, when people search for them, that makes the users happy, which means that they can trust Google to display the result based on whatever they searched for. That’s what Google wants at the end of the day, but at the same time, it’s also up to the site owners to optimise their site, and they have to follow the guideline, as much as they can, and do the best that they can do.
But when Google provide recommendations, just provide good quality content, or just leave it to our system to decide, that kind of thing. I think that’s a bit careless in a way, because you’re asking people to do the best they can, but there are people who spend a lot of time and effort changing these, for example the meta description, and they have to change it back and that takes time, that costs money, all that kind of stuff.
And these businesses, these site owners are trying to do the best that they can for the audience. It’s almost like, as I said, Google give us, and take us away. So I think, I can understand Google’s point of view, but I’m more critical of what they’re doing right now in terms of just being very very ambiguous, very PR like.
Which btw doesn't mean you shouldn't be making the changes, just be slightly more transparent about them and have more empathy for the impact this has on actual people's work.
— Joost de Valk (@jdevalk) May 14, 2018
And you know, they’re kind of defending themselves, and I think that a couple of people, there had been slight differences, which obviously you do, nothing wrong with that, you voice the opinion.
But I think, I’m not sure if they understand what we’re saying. Because they’re saying, but we said this, Google said, we told you, we don’t provide recommendations, don’t do this, don’t do that, that kind of thing.
But at the same time you’re giving us kind of a toy to play with, and you’re telling us not to touch it. But people are gonna touch it, people are gonna experiment with it, people are gonna test it, see how it looks, understand it better. This is how it works, you know, we need to know what works best for our audience. We’re helping them, they should help us.
So what are the recommendations, well this is the thing, there is no clear recommendation, that’s the problem. Google says, you know, just leave it to our system. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think, if people only just leave it to Google and that’s it, I think, honestly, the website will be worse off. I really do think that.
I think you should focus on things that you have to just kind of adapt as you go along, and that’s how Google works anyway, they change the system all the time, they change the algorithm all the time, and you adapt. That is fine, but I do not think we should just leave it as it is.
We always have to test, monitor, measure, adapt, change, all of that, and again, and again, and again. This is what I think you should do. There are several things that you should do. So first of all you should maybe consider making sure that the most important information is at the beginning of the meta description. If you leave it at the end, there’s a chance that it might get cut off.
And because we’re gonna have to say that Google is going to decide what’s the best length, I don’t think you should do that. So make sure that the important information is at the beginning. That’s number one. That’s definitely something that you have to do.
Number two is something that you could consider, is you don’t change it at all. You can leave it as it is. If you want to follow the so-called guideline by Google, they say you know, don’t fix your length, and decide. Okay, you can try. You can maybe leave it to Google to handle.
For me, I’m not sure if that is the best recommendation. You can maybe do it on a few pages and see how that goes, that’s another thing.
And of course, the other thing is, if you have extended it already, you could also leave it. You could maybe leave it as it is and that’s it. If you haven’t extended it, you can also leave it, again. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen next.
If you have extended it, or if you want to do something about it, but you don’t want to invest so much time and effort in it, then maybe you can just focus on the most important pages. Find out what that is, and then just focus on those pages to make sure that you have kind of an optimised meta description, which has a clear message, good call to action, just you know, be descriptive about what that page is about.
It’s not that easy if you think about it, with around a 160 characters, but that is also another option you’ve got.
So try that, all right, and of course don’t forget, if you have signed up in the newsletter, you will receive a bonus tip of the week. If you haven’t, make sure you sign up so that you don’t miss any exclusive tips of the week, every time I talk about a topic on this podcast.
So I put the link in the share note, make sure you look at it and make sure you checK it out, and make sure you subscribe and receive all the exclusive information to help you further. In the meantime, let’s see how it works with Google.
Let me know what you think, let me know have you done anything different or changed anything, and I’m intrigued, I’m intrigued. So thanks Google, you’ve been a great help. Well, kind of.
Thank you for listening to this episode of This Week Online Today. I really do appreciate it, and I hope you find it useful. If you have enjoyed this show, please do leave a review on iTunes, it would mean the world to me. I really would appreciate that.
Thank you again, you rock. And one more thing, I just want to remind you to do your thing, because it matters, and I’ll see you next week.
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