google-testing

"Your description tags should be under 160 characters" goes prevailing SEO wisdom. But is it accurate?

True, 160 is the approximate number of characters Google will show in a snippet (see a great two-year old but still current information post from SageRock listing the length of title and description tag for each search engine: and it's actually 156 according to him).

And everyone seems to think that the recommended length of the tags you write is the same as the length of characters shown.

For example, the incredibly helpful All-in-One SEO Pack plugin for WordPress has a character counter under the meta description field so you can see how long your description is, with the explanation, "Most search engines use a maximum of 160 chars for the description." SEOMoz also recommends using 150-160 characters in the description so it won't truncate.

all in one description length counter

But have you ever been frustrated trying to stuff your keywords (especially if you have more than one keyphrase) into 160 characters and still make it sounds like compelling ad copy?

You may not have to.

While doing keyword research for one of our clients, I noticed that a competing site had quite a nice snippet with the keyword, but when I checked the page, that text wasn't there. It also wasn't in the beginning of their ridiculously long description tag (probably more text in the tag than on the page). These people don't know how to write description tags, I said to myself immediately. Except, the more I looked, the more I realized that maybe they knew more about description tags than I did. (Or maybe it was just a fortunate mistake.) Because – about 200 characters into the description, there began a sentence that contained the keyword in question – and it was that sentence and the one afterwards that had been used as the description snippet I had seen in the search results.

Hmm… does Google see and use more of the description tag than the 160 characters – even though it will only show about 160 at a time?

I decided to run an experiment to find out.

The Experiment

Step 1: I created a page on our site with a nonsense title and quite a few nonsense words in the text.

long description page

Step 2: I gave it a really long description, with a good number of nonsense words that weren't in the text of the page.

long description tag

Step 3: I linked to it from within the site and waited until Google indexed it.

Results

I searched for some of the keywords in the description. Trying the "main keyword" of our page – "Yarky Halli Hooskel" gave me:

long description yarky

Okay – that seems normal. It"s either coming from the page or the description tag (it's in both), and it cuts it off at about 153 characters.

Next, "Midi Apri Pondor":

length of description tag goes beyond first 156 characters

147 characters over there, but – something interesting.

  • The first two sentences are on-page: "Did you ever see a Midi Apri Pondor? Foraging in the deserts for some itsel quetzel quay?"
  • The next sentence comes from the description tag: "No? Well maybe we'll have more luck with other creatures"
  • And that entire snippet, from "Did you ever…" to "…other creatures" is actually characters 85-231.

So Google is showing more than just those first 160 characters, possibly with the caveat/benefit that there's a new sentence that it can start from prior to the keyword being searched for. Note how above the snippet starts from "Did you ever see a Midi Apri Pondor?" which is the third complete sentence in the description tag.

Onwards! Let's try "ebilitansk":

Google shows description tag starting beyond the 160 character length

Curiouser and curiouser. "Ebilitansk," which starts at character 255 of the description tag, triggers the snippet. In fact, the entire snippet is characters 231-380 of the description tag – well beyond the pale of our 160 character limit.

Yes! you cry. The sky's the limit!

But not quite. More like 265 characters.

Let's take a look at the word right after "ebilitansk": "Fosaiedoff".

Google will not show every single description length

And this was the result for any succeeding nonsense phrase in the description that I tried. It was also the result for a search for "ebilitansk fosaiedoff."

But wait! In the last description, Google brought "Fosaiedoff" in the snippet. And "Jarivallsky Ridge." It's obviously reading them!

Must be. But it's not returning them for search results.

Conclusions

So… the conclusions I draw from this little experiment (which is obviously one isolated experiment. Please check on your own, and I'd be happy if you updated me on any conflicting results):

  • Google reads way more of the description than just 160 characters.
  • If you use sentence breaks, you can have your snippet show for a keyword search if that keyword appears before the 265th character in your description.
  • You can potentially have up to the 380th character in your description show in the snippet if the keyword searched for appears before the 265th character (my guess is that it would go up to character 410 or so – if your keyword starts a sentence and its last letter is just before that 265th character).

So write some long descriptions. Write them wisely. Use good English (no run-on sentences). Place keywords strategically – one compelling sentence for each one. And see what happens. Let me know. And if you see any Yarky Halli Hooskels, you can let me know that too.

Aviva Blumstein

Aviva Blumstein believes that to actually attract customers online, you don't have to market more - you have to market smarter. She teaches practical, hands-on workshops to business owners in which they build and implement effective marketing plans custom-designed for their businesses at her company, Speciphilia. Aviva recently put together a free interactive presentation for creating your own marketing plan called "The 5 W's of Attracting Customers Online."

Speciphilia Marketing Strategy Blog

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22 Responses to “Tested: The Best Length for a Description Tag is Longer Than You Think”

  1. Beautiful article. Beautiful SEO experiment. And, yes, you're right. Google has been extracting text from deeper within meta descriptions for quite some time. This is a good intermediate or advanced SEO technique for people to master.

    • Hi, Michael! Thanks for the positive feedback. You definitely have to put thought into using it, but properly implemented I think it can give you more opportunities to attract different searchers to click-through on the SERPs.

  2. Aviva,
    Descriptions do not affect ranking and are useful to entice people to click through to the website from SERPs. Keywords in description show relevance to the query. It is better to have a great call-to-action in the description than stuff it with keywords.
    I see what you are saying, and it is great to know how descriptions are shown. But isn't it better to stick to shorter descriptions so you (not Google) control what the perspective visitors are seeing in SERPs? That way it is easier to practice your marketing magic to convince them to visit your website.

    • Chris Koszo says:

      I agree Lyena, except I see the point of this is to have even more of control what SERP visitors see. Especially if there are multiple keyword variations that bring in traffic to a given page.

      For example, the way I would utilize this tactic is to have one main call-to-action in the beginning of my description at around 50-75 characters, but after that have several other supporting sentences(each with a keyword in it), and let Google pair them up according to the search query and display a customized call-to-action in the SERP. I would still have full control over it, but it would be auto-customized.

      The good thing is, if your page also ranks for a keyword phrase not in the title or description at all, Google will automatically override your Description tag and pull text from the page as the description to show.

      Time to start trying this out :) Thanks, Aviva!

    • Hi, Lyena! You're 100% correct that the description should be about encouraging click-through, and that's exactly why this information is useful. While the purpose of the description is marketing, Google will only display it if the keywords that are searched for appear in your description tag. So you can write a beautiful description – if the searcher used a word that you left out – he'll never see it. So especially if you want to target more than one keyphrase, if you restrict yourself to 156 characters, you either are "keyword-stuffing" and it doesn't sound appealing, or it sounds great but you have to leave keywords out, reducing chances of searchers seeing it. With this insight, you can now write descriptions that have the room to let you "market" as well as include more keywords, increasing chances that people will actually see it. Hope that was clear – if not, let me know!

    • Thanks for your input, Chris – I actually didn't see it before I posted my own reply (I guess it was waiting for moderation). Your approach sounds good – good luck with trying it out!

  3. Sal Surra says:

    Nice test and good find for SERPs. I've been one that always tried to write the best description without worrying so much about the 160 character limit, but now I'm even more convinced that it's not good to just stick with the 160 characters as Google will show what is relevant based on the keyword search.

    • Let us know what happens, Sal. Just one point to emphasize: it does seem like it matters where the sentence breaks are (although that could use further testing). Meaning, if your entire description is one long run-on sentence, I think Google really may only count the first 156 as pertains to what it will show for the description.

  4. Marie Haynes says:

    Cool test! Thanks for doing and publishing this test!

  5. Steven Graff says:

    Good experiment, As Lyena mentions general wisdom says they have no effect on ranking, but using this technique you could string two or three keyword differentiated calls-to-action.

  6. Nice experiment Aviva, thanks for this post!
    I suppose it makes sense that Google selects the most relevant snippet from a larger description tag, in the same way it can select the most relevant snippet from the actual content of a page.
    But I'm not entirely sure the limit is at 265 characters, as I would guess the reason Google didn't show results for 'Fosaiedoff' is actually because this word is only present in your description tag, but not your content (again proving that Google doesn't rank based on keywords in description tags).
    Plus, try a search for 'halitansofadometer' (which is the 310th character or so) and this does bring back your page in the results, with a snippet including this keyword.
    So yeah I

    • Good point about Fosaiedoff, Hannah – it would take a further test to prove that it was a length issue only, and not a content issue, or a content+length issue. About "halitansofadometer," though – the snippet Google shows is from the content, and not from the description, unlike "ebilitansk" which is also in both, but Google shows a snippet from the description, and not from the content. So length does appear to be at play over there.

  7. Nick says:

    Thank you for the post Aviva. The first time when I learnt about the seo aspect of having less than 160 characters in meta description, I sat one day and reduced the length of the descriptions on all my web pages. And, I use 'All-in-One SEO Pack' plugin for my blog and it actually warns me about using more than 140 characters and not even 160. Well, thanks to your experiment I won't worry about these any more.

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  9. Has anyone implemented Aviva's test on their website or for clients' websites? I'd really like to hear if anyone else had positive results as I'm about to re-write my description tags to 160 characters. Now, I don't know whether or shorten them or write better ones – albeit more than 160.

    thanks

  10. Cathy says:

    Very cool experiment! Do you know if it still applies now (2012)? I'm just rewriting meta-descriptions for a client right now, and am wondering what word count I should be aiming for.

  11. Hi Cathy,
    I just reran the searches I wrote about above, and the same results are still showing up, displaying the description tag beyond the 156 characters. (Although there are a bunch of new pages also, like this blog post and its scrapers. ;) So it seems to still apply. Happy rewriting!

  12. Terrific experiment, Aviva! Will have to be careful now because the 140 character limit has been keeping me succinct, and succinct writing tends to be better.

  13. Lee Johnson says:

    Aviva,

    Now that we are in 2013, have you found that this still holds true? I plan on rewriting the descriptions to my websites. I have previously copied the entire Meta description as an H1 tag in the page content. What I gather from your article, the page content may not have to include the entire description verbatim. Is this true? Thank you for a very interesting article.

  14. Thomas Lartin says:

    I am guessing this information is the same, has anyone done any tests recently though?

  15. James says:

    Appears the search goes well past 380 now. I stumbled upon this site when I noticed a site I visited had a paragraph long description. Full length is 961 charactors. I did a search on 5 words clustered at the end, and Google found the page. Also, the description then wrapped and continued at the begining in order to have a full description. Search (with strings to make it the first page): "year on 14 analytical systems"