Google updated their search snippet documentation to clarify what influences Google’s algorithm for choosing what to display as the snippet in the search results. This change may represent a big change in how meta descriptions are written and how content is optimized.
Google Search Results Snippets
A webpage displayed in the search engine results pages (SERPs) consists of a title, a URL breadcrumb and a one to two sentence description of what the webpage is about. That last part is called a snippet. A snippet is defined as a concise or brief description of what the webpage is about.
Traditionally the snippet was derived from the meta description. But that hasn’t been the case for awhile now.
Google Clarifies Snippet Guidance
Google updated their Search Central documentation to clarify that the content of the page is the main source of where the snippet comes from. The changes also made it clearer that the structured data and the meta description are not the primary source of the search snippets.
The official documentation for the change says:
“What: Clarified in our documentation about snippets that the primary source of the snippet is the page content itself.
Why: The previous wording incorrectly implied that structured data and the meta description HTML element are the primary sources for snippets.”
What Changed In Google’s Snippet Documentation
Google removed a substantial amount of words from the previous version of the documentation.
This is what the first part of the documentation previously advised:
“Google uses a number of different sources to automatically determine the appropriate snippet, including descriptive information in the meta description tag for each page. We may also use information found on the page, or create rich results based on markup and content on the page.”
The previous version implied that the snippet was derived mostly from the meta description and said that Google “may” also select on-page content for the snippet.
The updated documentation now makes it clear that the page content is the main source of the snippet and uses the word “may” for the meta description.
This is the new version of the documentation:
“Google primarily uses the content on the page to automatically determine the appropriate snippet. We may also use descriptive information in the meta description element when it describes the page better than other parts of the content.”
Significant Amount Of Content Removed
Google also removed an entire paragraph of content and replaced it with new documentation. Both the removal and the addition dramatically change the message of the documentation.
This section was removed:
“Site owners have two main ways to suggest content for the snippets that we create:
Rich results: Add structured data to your site to help Google understand the page: for example, a review, recipe, business, or event. Learn more about how rich results can improve your site’s listing in search results.
Meta description tags: Google sometimes uses <meta> tag content to generate snippets, if we think they give users a more accurate description than can be taken directly from the page content.”
This is the new wording:
“Snippets are primarily created from the page content itself. However, Google sometimes uses the meta description HTML element if it might give users a more accurate description of the page than content taken directly from the page.”
What Change In Guidance Means For SEO
Many SEO guides that are published online (wrongly) advise that the best way to optimize a meta description is to use it as “advertising copy” and to use “target keywords” in it. The idea is that keywords displayed in the snippets are bolded in the SERPs, making them stand out, so keywords in the meta description will gain bolded keywords which will call attention to it and inspire a higher click through rate.
That is 100% wrong advice and is outdated. Adding keywords to the meta description is not important (meta descriptions are not used for ranking) and the purpose of a meta description is not to entice clicks from the SERPs. That’s old and outdated advise and will cause Google to not use the meta description for the snippet.
The correct use of the meta description is to accurately and concisely describe what the webpage is about, period.
The official W3C HTML specification for the meta description outlines the correct use of the meta description:
“The value must be a free-form string that describes the page. The value must be appropriate for use in a directory of pages, e.g. in a search engine. There must not be more than one meta element with its name attribute set to the value description per document.”
Google isn’t interested in displaying search optimized snippets. They want to show a description of what the webpage is about and Google’s advice on how to write a meta description conforms with the official meta description HTML specification.
This is how Google advises to write a meta description:
“Google will sometimes use the <meta name=”description”> tag from a page to generate a snippet in search results, if we think it gives users a more accurate description than would be possible purely from the on-page content. A meta description tag generally informs and interests users with a short, relevant summary of what a particular page is about.”
Google then describes the content of a meta description using a simile that compares it to promoting something in the form of a pitch:
“They are like a pitch that convince the user that the page is exactly what they’re looking for.”
Google doesn’t say to write a pitch to use for the meta description. The word “like” is used which signifies a simile, a comparison.
The big takeaway from the updated snippet guidance is that the primary source of the snippet is content and that Google “may” use the meta description. Lastly, Google makes it clear that the structured data plays no role in the selection of words to use as a snippet.
What then means for SEO is that the days of packing keywords into the meta description are most definitely over. Use them properly and it may help you better control the snippet that Google uses in the search results.
Read Google’s updated guidance on search snippets: