Ever spent time crafting meta descriptions only to find Google displays something completely different? You’re not alone.

Although they aren’t a ranking factor, meta descriptions are important for SEO. They allow you to write a short description of each page and embed appropriate calls to action. This means that when somebody searches Google and spots one of your pages, they know what that page is about and will have sufficient reason to click through to your site.

There have been various recommendations over the years for writing good meta descriptions that fit within the search results. A few years ago, 160 characters appeared to be the recommended character limit, more recently this dropped and then moved over to a pixel width instead. Now, it appears Google has started to write your descriptions for you.

Long meta descriptions - search result

The image above shows a Google search result with a description that is clearly beyond the 160-character limit. Although the width looks the same, the height has increased by an extra row.

The page does contain a meta description although, as you can see, this differs from the text Google has opted to use:

<meta property=”al:android:url” content=”fb://page/146214266618″ /><meta name=”description” content=”BBC Strictly Come Dancing. 745,337 likes · 58,652 talking about this. This is the official page for BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and It Takes Two.” />

A little research shows we’re not the only people to spot this, and it appears Google has been testing this throughout the year. We carried out our own tests, this time searching for the waterfront location within which our offices are housed.

Multiple search results with longer meta descriptions

Google hasn’t simply used the first couple of sentences, instead opting to skip past the first block of text (a price list) before taking one sentence from the top of the body text and one from mid-way through the page:

Text from various points making a longer meta description

During our tests, the longer descriptions commonly appeared when a brand term was included in the search term – but not exclusively. The result below appeared without referencing a brand.

Long meta description Wikipedia entry

Key takeaways

What can we learn from this?

  • Brand terms helped to trigger the longer descriptions in many of our test searches, but certainly not in all.
  • It’s likely that Google shows the longer descriptions for results it has identified as being particularly relevant, or when it can provide the information you’re looking for directly in the search results. If this is the case then the brand terms may simply have given a clearer indication which websites we were looking for.
  • The results included a mixture of home pages and deep pages.
  • In many cases the text came from the top of the paragraph text. In other cases, it included text from the first paragraph and text from elsewhere on the page.

What should you do?

  • Keep writing meta descriptions. This automated text only appears for a low percentage of websites at present.
  • Longer descriptions will be particularly important to sites that have others competing for their brand name – for example a hotel that competes with a third party booking site.
  • It may be a good idea to make sure you have an appropriate call to action in the first few sentences of your main body text. The text must make sense in both of the places it may appear – on the page and as a description in the search results.

There are many reasons why Google may have started to do this, ranging from improving the user experience to wresting some control back from the SEO industry as to who can choose what displays in the organic results – however the exact motivation remains unclear for the moment.

Have you spotted any long search results in Google? Tweet me  -I’d love to hear from you!