Like the terror-stricken Kevin McCallister here, you too could be forgiven for turning round and hiding under the bed covers when your hear that Google is making changes to its SERPs or algorithms! So what's the change this time? And, do you need to be doing anything to your SEO strategy and landing pages?
With the New Year nearly upon us, Google obviously felt we all needed extra work and has made a fundamental change to how search results are displayed; from the 1st December, Google has been rolling out an increased allowed snippet length from around 160-170 characters to, a much larger, limit that is between 230-320 (the official number is still up for debate).
The snippet or, also-known-as, the 'meta description' is the small piece of content that sits underneath the main title and URL of a search result. Googling anything will display this content.
Now, although we have been aware for some time that this has no direct relationship to your ranking position and does not form any part of Google's PageRank algorithm, it does affective landing page click-through-rates (CTRs), acting essentially as 'ad copy' for the page.
Getting the balance right was key as Google's limit of around 165 characters meant webmaster had to juggle what was said in this section. Too long, and your content was cut using an ellipsis; too short, and you were wasting valuable ad space that could be used to convince potential customers to come to your site! Rock and a hard-place right!
Should you care?
If Google doesn't bother including it in its PageRank algorithm should you even care about your snippet length if won't effect your page's ranking? Although the simple answer is probably no, as with any change from Google there is an opportunity to excel.
Thinking about CTRs for a moment, an increased snippet means you will be able to get more 'ad copy' onto Google's SERPs. This extra content could be used to increase the likelihood of searcher clicking onto your content, as you could answer any other queries they were having about the subject they search for.
This point seems to be the motivation behind the increased snippet length, as searchers look to get a snapshot summary of a particular subject rather than a full understanding.
In his - frankly excellent - Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fiskin notes that users searching about complex social issues will be better served by the longer snippets; if a user was to search "brexit" they perhaps would only want / need the 300 character summary to get a satisfactory answer, thus meaning that they will no longer need to click-though to get they information they need. This could see CTRs drop as users just browse search results for their info!
With this in mind, what are the other likely impacts?
1. It alters how webmasters and marketers write their snippets.
With more space comes more opportunity. As mentioned earlier, the extra space allowed by Google means you have more words to entice users onto your page and get across exactly why searchers should be clicking through!
This could have a longer term effect on your ranking, as more click-through's onto your page rather than a competitor could mean that you will begin to rank higher for specific search terms... so go get 'em tiger!
2. It could lead to lower results having less click-through's!
Once all search results are showing this longer snippet, it is a spacial fact that lower results will now be even lower on a page! Although above-the-fold is not considered best practice for web development, on some screens it will certainly mean that some results will no longer appear on that first screen and some scrolling will be required to reach them.
At this stage this is just a hunch, but data over the next 3-4 months will show us if there is any truth to this; it could also mean that AdWords take even more space up at the top of SERPs, pushing organic rankings lower still! Time will tell.
Action stations! What should you be doing?
With Christmas coming up, there is an opportunity to leap-frog your competitors and get in there before they do. You should be looking to find your key pages, with regards organic acquisition, and optimising the snippets (meta-descriptions) for the new longer lengths. Although it is worth checking if the search terms you are focusing on display the longer length as Google hasn't rolled this out universally... yet!
Get cracking, your visitor numbers and sales could be directly related to optimising your snippets to the longer 230-320 limit!