Search results meta descriptions, often referred to in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry as “snippets”, are a poorly-understood component of the overall search visibility picture. Many SEO professionals don’t know how to maximize the information these snippets contain, and Google itself has constrained web developers to very short snippets, making them even harder to use in the SEO picture. Recent changes have changed the landscape, leading the company to make a critical announcement about snippets at the end of 2017.
What are Snippets?
When a Google user is searching for a particular term, he or she is presented with a search engine results page of ranked results. Just below each entry’s title and URL is a short description of the page’s contents – this is the snippet, more properly termed the meta description. While it is intended to serve as a way of illustrating what the site in question contains in terms of content, in reality, this area can display very little in the way of relevant detail, primarily because the snippet was constrained to 160 characters. If a site developer didn’t fill write a meta description on his or her own, Google itself would pull a bit of the page’s text to “fill in the blanks”, sometimes with very unusual results.
Google’s Big Snippet Announcement
Up until very recently, site developers and SEO professionals did not have much to work with in the humble snippet. All that changed in December 2017, when the search engine giant made the announcement that it had extended the length of these small but vital components of search, taking them from their previous 160 characters and stretching them out to a maximum of 320.
The Google announcement came with several caveats: the search engine company may not display the full snippet, nor may they display the snippet at all. In fact, Google may substitute content pulled from the target website on its own to display, as it had done in the past with too-short or missing meta descriptions. After the December announcement, even if site developers added a snippet of their own, Google may display nothing below the target page URL. Google dynamically generates snippets based on what it perceives as search user intent, using the page’s content and its meta description to produce a snippet it believes will help answer user queries in a more accurate manner.
Search Results and Snippets
In search ranking terms, it is generally understood by SEO professionals that the presence or absence of a snippet has little, if any, effect on SERP rankings. These snippets do, however, potentially have a great impact on click-through rate (CTR), as these small bits of information can help provide details to the searcher as to what the page is about and what other information it contains, thus improving the chances that user will click through to the website in question.
Whether or not Google will begin to evaluate the presence of longer snippets in its search algorithm is not clear at this point, but most experienced SEO service providers understand that the fundamentals of good meta description development should apply to snippets. Snippets should be written with an eye toward CTR, adding structured content like contact numbers and pricing information for businesses if applicable, targeted keywords or key phrases, and calls to action. The snippets must each be unique; a website with many individual pages should have original, unique snippets for each page. Done properly, the snippet can improve traffic to the website, and now that they can be longer, site developers have more flexibility than ever before in presenting details to potential site visitors.
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