Responding to Google Changes

Responding to the Meta Description Length

Recently, Google announced they’d be rolling back a previous update that had increased the length of the meta description tag. (The meta description tag can be used in the search result and can be an effective way to get more people clicking on a search result.) In response to the earlier change of increasing the meta description tag length, many websites (including some of our clients) had increased their meta description length.

With the announcement of the shorter length, these sites had to decide if they were going to reverse that length. And this is where our clients split, with two distinct camps forming.

  • Some clients went down the road of SEO-nihilism—Google changes everything, and they’ve been changing the way they use the meta description tag so much in particular, that responding to this decrease in length is unimportant. Just keep your head down and ignore this change.
  • Other clients, though, went the other direction and went in a complete panic. Fearing this was the end of their SEO performance, they immediately wanted to update their meta description tags. The question wasn’t if they should be updated, but how short the revised meta description ought to be?

Neither of these extremes is the right response. The meta description tag is important and an effectively written meta description tag can be the difference between a good click through rate from the search result and a mediocre click through rate. That said, it isn’t like a bad meta description tag is going to make or break your SEO performance.

More broadly, this is true for most any change that Google rolls out. Yes, some changes have impacts and can hurt rankings (and therefore hurt traffic from search results and, thus, hurt conversions and business performance). But, most changes are no big deal provided the website is generally doing most things correctly. There are false positives but they have tended to be exceedingly rare.

You can see this with Google’s push toward mobile-friendliness (referred to by many as Mobilegeddon). It turned out, Mobilegeddon wasn’t really all that big of a deal and the bar Google set for mobile-friendly was pretty low. If websites had a responsive design and generally offered an okay mobile experience, they weren’t affected. Some sites were affected but only the worst offenders. But we still have clients with no mobile-support on their website that continue to get traffic from mobile search results—and this is three years after Mobilegeddon was supposed to destroy their business.

Of course, other changes have hurt websites but typically only when the website has done something that deserves it. Google’s Panda update has affected and continues to affect many websites that have a variety of content issues. But, while the Panda update may have been the end of the world for websites that have massive duplicate content or thin content issues, for websites that offer good content, Panda didn’t really have much, if any, impact. If anything, for sites with good content, Panda may have been a net gain as competitors lost rankings. However, it is fair to say that most websites that were generally in good shape had no reason to panic over Panda.

None of this is to say we should ignore what Google is doing. We should pay attention to the changes Google has made and we should adjust our websites accordingly. If we see something like Panda or Mobilegeddon on the horizon, we should see if there are things we ought to alter on our website to prepare. However, we shouldn’t panic in response to every single change Google makes.

On things like the meta description length, it isn’t worth panicking over. Yes, some people might see drops in click through rates from search rates. Most won’t, though. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond in some way. What it means is we need a measured response. For example, we should adjust our meta description on key pages that rank well to improve click through rates and we should probably adjust exceptionally long meta description tags down to a more reasonable length. That said, we don’t need to stress or worry and make this the highest priority. Same time, we don’t want to completely ignore it.

This reinforces a common theme about SEO: SEO is, in many respects, an extension of user experience. Google only really cares about delivering a good experience to people searching. Offering a good mobile experience, reducing thin content, reducing duplicate content, and writing shorter meta descriptions are things Google thinks equate to a better experience.

Seen in this light, the main question we need to figure out is if our website delivers a good experience too with a secondary question of how much our good experience equates to Google’s definition of a good experience. I, obviously, have disagreements about some things Google is doing but even I have to admit that Google’s definition of a good experience is reasonable (duplicate content isn’t great for people, website that don’t work on mobile devices isn’t great either, people don’t like to read a lot of content, etc.).

Given this, so long as we do our best to deliver a good experience, and so long as we do a decent job following what Google recommends where it seems appropriate and relevant, Google will probably deem our website worth of inclusion in at least some search rankings.