What is a snippet?

A snippet is a description of a webpage that is displayed below the URL of an organic search result. It shows the user how the page is relevant to their search and highlights the searched keywords within the snippet. Many snippets are taken from the meta description while others are relevant extracts taken directly from the webpage content itself.

Snippets are on of the main pieces of information influencing the user’s decision regarding which result to click on, so it is very important for SEO in catching the attention of searchers and increasing your Click Through Rate (CTR).

History of snippets

Prior to November 2017, the average length of snippets on US desktops was 162 characters with the occasional fluctuation of a character or two, but rarely more. According to online marketing data company SISTRIX, over 90% of all search snippets were 165 characters or less.  

On November 18th  2017 RankRanger reported an increase of average snippet lengths to 177 characters and then a further increase to an average of 180 characters on the 29th. The last and largest increase came the following day with snippet lengths averaging at 222 characters!

This drastic surge in snippet length was unprecedented and also observed by RankRanger in the wider international SERPs too. The UK, for example, saw an average increase of 26 characters from 155 at the start of November to 181 on November 30th.  

What did Google say about it?

Before the increase at the end of November, Google’s guidelines suggested keeping your meta description tag – the main source of search snippets – to between 160 and 180 characters. Now, however, Google has stated that there is no official recommendation for meta description length.

Danny Sullivan, Google’s public search liaison, tweeted that their approach to deciding snippet length will be based on a more “dynamic process” that will increase focus on the content of the page and the user’s query. He did, however, recommend not exceeding 320 characters when writing meta descriptions.

So what did this mean for SEO?

  • More characters meant that snippets could contain more relevant and valuable information – so more real estate to entice users.
  • Simple queries could be answered more easily without the need to click on the link. This could result in lower CTR for simple searches and increased CTR for detailed, complex snippets. Perhaps another attempt by Google to provide instant solutions – see zero results SERPs
  • Longer snippets take up more space on the SERPs. This means users will have to scroll further down to see the same number of results as before the snippet length increase. Thus websites were able to claim larger amount of SERP real estate, subsequently resulting in CTR falling for pages further down the SERPs.

UPDATE – 2018

In a strange turn of events, Google made further changes to search snippet lengths by reducing it in May 2018. However, this reduction was small and average snippet lengths are still higher than they were before the November increase.  

Many in the SEO community were confused and annoyed by this change as they had already re-optimised their meta descriptions in accordance with the previous update. Danny Sullivan came to the defence of Google on Twitter, reiterating, “there is no fixed length for snippets”. This highlights Google’s increased emphasis on quality content and user intent to not only determine a page’s ranking position, but also the characteristics of its snippets.