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SERPs Up! Character Limit Increase Confirmed By Google

If you regularly use Google – and let’s be honest, who doesn’t – you might have noticed quite a significant change to the way results appear on both desktop and mobile devices.

I am of course talking about the recent change made to the length of meta descriptions, and therefore our best friend the rich snippet as these are generally taken from the meta description tag of any given web page.

So what has actually changed?

As many SEOs will testify, we’ve all been working towards the holy grail of 60 and 160 characters for our meta data for what feels like a very long time now – but it appears that run is finally at an end.

Back at the start of December, Google announced that ‘amendments had been made to the appearance of search results’. This specifically relates to the length, the recommended length and the display length that is shown on standard organic results.

If you want to see what I’m on about, type ‘pay per click’ into Google and you’ll hopefully see something like this at the top of the organic search results:

Character Limit Change

As you can see, these meta descriptions are significantly longer than before and in both cases extend to accommodate an entire sentence, rather than simply cutting the text off at the standard 160 character limit.

When did this change happen?

Well, many SEOs hadn’t really had a chance to notice things change – these updates have been near-instantaneous by our reckoning. According to research from SISTRIX, more than 90% of all search results were abiding by the normal 160 character limit prior to the end of November, so we’ve seen quite rapid change in this sense.

Since early December, Google has simply decided to relax the character limit and allow a few more lines of text on each result listing.

The change is consistent across all platforms too, and it’s fair to say it’s even more noticeable on mobile devices where we’re seeing anywhere between three and six lines of text on some search results. Here’s the same search for ‘pay per click’ made through Google on an iPhone:

Character Limit Change

Check out those meta descriptions! And this is a full screenshot from an iPhone 6 too – it’s almost at the point where a user can only see a maximum of two organic search results at a time, making the battle for positions one and two even more crucial than before. Will this impact things like click-through rate? Almost certainly. How much of an impact will we see? That remains to be seen, for now at least.

So why has this change been made?

Well that’s a good question, but I think there’s method to this supposed madness.

If we think back to Google’s mission statement – ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible’ – more content upfront when entering in a search query can only be a good thing right?

Imagine I was a small business owner looking to market my new online store, and I was potentially interested in getting a marketing agency to look after things on my behalf. As a relative novice in this area, I head to Google and type in a search for ‘pay per click’ in an attempt to gain some understanding of what my hard-earned cash would be used for.

If I’d done this in November, I’d have seen the first placed result from with a standard 160 character description underneath, something like:

Character Limit Change

As you can see, the crucial part of the definition of pay per click is cut off, meaning I’d have to click through to the site to read the rest. This apparently isn’t good enough for Google – they’ve had a go at remedying this with featured snippets that sit at the top of the SERP, but the change in meta description length goes one step further.

If I repeat the same search now in December, I see this under the result:

Character Limit Change

As you can see, this is a much more comprehensive result reaching up to a huge 310 characters and ending as a full paragraph of text. It’s fair to argue that this might not be the best or most detailed definition of pay per click, but for a small business owner with limited knowledge in this area – that’ll do pig, that’ll do.

How will this affect SEO going forward?

There are three key ways this could impact SEO as a whole, especially for those of you that work in an agency or work on SEO yourself as part of your store’s marketing campaign:

1 – The way you write meta descriptions has to change

You have a lot more space now, so you need to write in a way that maximises that new space. There’s still a clear need to market yourself and encourage the click (perhaps more now than ever), but you also need to remember that your text has to relate closely to the search term in question. If you do this, you’ve got a better chance of moving higher up the SERP – even if this means sacrificing a potential click.

2 – Click-through rates are going to be affected

The next few days, weeks and months are going to give us a lot of information about this, but one thing is certain – click-through rates are going to change.

Our guess is that you’ll see less clicks on more simple queries which might be frustrating for some, but conversely you’ll likely see more clicks on complicated search terms because users are keen to know more after reading your alluring description.

3 – Positions lower down search results are likely to suffer

As far as we know at this stage, more space is being given to search results across the board. That means there simply isn’t the same amount of space on a screen at any one time – desktop, tablet or mobile. Search results that were visible before won’t be now as results higher up the page push them below the fold, so being in position eight on page one may not have the value it once did – we just don’t know yet.

Businesses need to review their site’s meta descriptions sooner rather than later – especially for their top performing pages.

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What should you do next?

If you take anything away from this post, it’s that you need to review your site’s meta descriptions sooner rather than later, especially for your top performing pages. Re-optimise, re-optimise, re-optimise.

On top of that, the best strategy would be to hop onto Google, look at your highest ranking search terms and see how things stand – what do the limits look like? If you don’t re-optimise your meta descriptions, chances are your competitors will and this could make all the difference.

Stay under 300 characters for now and you can’t go wrong!