Case Study: Will a Longer Meta Description Increase CTR?

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Case Study: Will a Longer Meta Description Increase CTR?

Brodie Clark
Case Study: Will a Longer Meta Description Increase CTR?
Please note this post is published under “Opinion” category and reflects the personal views of the author. If you disagree or have an opinion you would like to offer, feel free to discuss in comments!

Should we or shouldn’t we update our Meta Descriptions?

This seems to be the question on the minds of the whole SEO industry right now.

Every good SEO Manager has the best of intentions for their clients. And we only want to make changes when we know that there is going to be a measurable impact.

Although there is one Google update that many are still unsure of the best way forward – and it is difficult to say with much certainty the correct answer. Meta Descriptions have gone from being ~920 px before truncation to ~1840 px, although it is not as black and white as it sounds.

Meta Description Test - Brodie Clark

Instead of just simply showing more text, Google has made it more of a ‘dynamic process’ where the landing page content will be displayed in some cases, rather than the text inputted within the following tag:

<meta name="description" content="text” />

This begs the question; “What’s the point of setting your new Meta Description?”.

My thoughts on this almost lean to the fact that those who previously set their Meta Description correctly to the old limit of ~920 px are now disadvantaged.

Although this might just be the pessimist in me trying to come out...

For instance, if you had never set your Meta Description in the first place, you would now be displaying a longer snippet in SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) while dynamically pulling the content from your landing page.

Whereas I am seeing time and time again, pages that still display as the previous length, and look naked in comparison. The truth is that Meta Data length (Title Tags and Meta Descriptions) have always been a contentious topic.

Personally, I tend to go for longer Title Tags and Meta Descriptions to really maximize the space within the Organic listings.

Let’s get into the experiment that you have come here to read all about.

Experiment Outline

Firstly, we will start with a clear hypothesis as every structured experiment should:

Increasing Meta Description length will result in a greater CTR from Google's SERPs. This is due to taking up more results page real estate, along with pushing the page below further down, resulting in a greater chance of being clicked.

I set out to do a small-scale Sequential Test of my own, with Meta Description length as the variable in question. Here is what the Control and *some of the Variations looked like:

Note: I say '*some of the Variations' because, at times, the search term is what determines what is shown. 

Meta Description Test Variations - Brodie ClarkMeta Description Test Experiment Outline

For Variation #1, this was the Meta Description that was set in the backend:

meta-description.png

For Variation #2, this was the Meta Description that I found to be showing for the majority of the time (for the duration of the experiment). The snippet in this Variation is where the landing page content has been dynamically taken because Google deems it as the best answer to the query.

This experiment is particularly unconventional because if we were going to compare a Variation against the Control, we would need to focus on just one search term with considerable search volume.

The top search term that our landing page ranks in Google for is: 'interstate removalists'. According to the Adwords Keyword Planner tool, this keyword gets searched 6,600 times per month on average in Australia.

There are, however, several variables which will need to stay virtually unchanged. Otherwise, the results will not provide a statistically significant result:

  1. Average Position: The average position of the landing page in Google's results will need to not fluctuate by more than 1 position. The number of clicks received depends greatly on the position, so we want to control this as much as possible.
  2. Search Results Structure: Depending on the search result, Google will often show map results at the top. For our example, the map results display at all times due to the intent of needing a local business for the service.
  3. Copywriting Ability: When creating the experiment outline, I wanted to keep the Control the same, and simply expand upon the length. This was however not possible due to the poor wording of the second sentence within the Meta Description: "If you're moving interstate, contact the removalists you can trust when moving."... I will, therefore, need to create a brand new snippet.
  4. Branded Searches: We can't use a page that gets a considerable amount of brand searches. This would mean if the page had a large portion of visitors arriving from a Google search using 'Allied Pickfords Interstate Removalists', then this would skew our results. This is because the click-throughs would depend on word of mouth factors, offline advertising, etc. 

I can say with some level of confidence that the key differentiator among Variation #1, Variation #2, and the Control is the length of the snippet itself.

The key indicator of performance is Click Through Rate (CTR) = Clicks / Impressions, which is the primary function of the Meta Description in Google’s SERPs.

Results

Interestingly, I found that Variation #2 was showing for the term ‘interstate removalists’ for the majority of the time:

meta-description-dynamic-brodie-clark.pngDynamically Generated Meta Description

The experiment was run across 84 days in total, having 42 days of the Control compared to 42 days of Variation #2, with a difference in ranking of 0.5, according to Google Search Console (GSC).

Unfortunately, due to tight security precautions, I can't give the exact numbers for Clicks and Impressions (Allied Pickfords are one of the worlds largest mover companies). However, considering that the Average Position was ~7th and the search term 'interstate removalists' gets searched 6,600 times each month on average in Australia, you can estimate a sample size which will get you fairly close.

Here are the results:

Experiment Results - Search Terms CTR Report - Brodie ClarkGoogle Search Console Beta Query Report

The difference in CTR for the 'interstate removalists' term increased from 2.8% to 3.9%, which is an approximate 36% improvement with the full-length Meta Description. Using a Bayesian A/B testing calculator, the Variation was the winner with a 99.85% probability based on the number of Clicks and Impressions. 

Discussion

Although the sample size wasn’t enormous (i.e., statistical significance), I would still like to categorize this experiment as a success. And I would also like to employ someone out there to carry out this same experiment on a much larger scale (greater sample size, more pages, across different domains).

A major variable that could have caused some issues is the ‘Average Position’. If for instance, the position in SERPs increased/decreased dramatically, this would make the results far less reliable.

This is also a reason why we can’t compare results from this year to last year because the ranking is considerably better. Even though we are testing a distinct Control against a Variation.

There are plenty of interpretations that could be made using this data, although let’s stick to proving the original goal: “What’s the point of setting your Meta Description”.

The point is that your previous Meta Description is now too short with the changes that Google has rolled out.

And I’m not sure why Google continues to show the shorter lengths for old Meta Descriptions, although once you have updated your snippet, it then becomes a dynamic process…

This seems a little counterintuitive, although perhaps the reasoning is not to startle those who had optimized their Meta Descriptions in the past.

I would be curious to know that if I had just removed the Control Meta Description completely (content would be dynamically inserted to the new px limit), that the results of this experiment overall would have been just as positive.

Key Takeaways

While performing this experiment, I noticed that if you set your Meta Description on the home page of your site (which will generally show 100% of the time for brand searches), you can have a good amount of control over the text that displays:

Meta Description - Home Page - Brodie ClarkHome Page Meta Description

My goal here is to have some competition with Adwords, by attempting to capture more brand search clicks from the Ad that tends to be directly above.

Now that I have taken a bit of a tangent let’s get back to the core experiment.

The key takeaway is that a longer Meta Description that even has truncation at the end, i.e., “...” and takes up the entire pixel limit set by Google, has resulted in a 36% higher CTR in the study I have conducted.

Knowing this, I will most definitely be running similar tests with other clients. The key as with any experiment is to focus on higher sample sizes for statistical significance.

With that in mind, I am going to be updating the home page Meta Description for all clients, and also any top performing organic landing pages that are already ranking well.

Also, if I were to write a Meta Description from scratch going forward, I believe the best way will be to use the new longer pixel limit specifications.

It seems like any case study within the SEO realm gets looked at in extra close detail by the community – so just for the record, I understand this and welcome any feedback! :)

Thanks for reading and I hope this gave you some confidence in going ahead with your updates.

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Brodie Clark is an SEO Specialist at one of Melbourne’s leading SEO agencies, Optimising. Brodie has held both in-house and agency roles in Australia, developing digital strategy for a wide range of clients such as Allied Pickfords. He has been featured in some of the most well-known publications in Digital Marketing such as Search Engine Land, BuzzSumo, and Search Engine Roundtable. When he isn’t in the office, you can find him writing on his personal blog over at BrodieClark.com.
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I agree with the results, but the logic isn't quite right. Google was using variation #2 before and after your test began. Variation #2 is the real control.

Since variation #2 was showing just as often before and after the test began, the real comparison is between the "control" and variation #1. This test shows that when Google used your custom meta description, the longer variation outperformed the shorter variation by 36%. There is no way to compare the performance of either against the dynamic meta descriptions generated by Google.

Thanks for sharing your research. I'm excited to use it "in the field." :)
Brodie Clark
Ben Sibley
Hey Ben, thanks for reading! Although I'm not quite sure I follow: "Google was using variation #2 before and after your test began". What makes you think Google was using variation #2 before I started the test?
Brodie Clark
Google has always generated meta descriptions on its own. It's not something you can turn on or off which is why I say it's been using variation #2 already. Since a sequential test was used, I am assuming that the Google-created meta descriptions were just as frequent in both testing periods. This means the difference we're comparing is between the control and variation #1. Longer custom meta descriptions seem to have increased the CTR effectively in this test.

If writing longer custom meta descriptions affects the length or frequency of Google-created meta descriptions that is very interesting but I don't think that was tested here.
This is such a great read Brodie and so glad i stumbled on it.
Brodie Clark
Marianne McDougall
Thanks Marianne! I really appreciate it :)
Great tool. One question: Given the chance some people throw in special symbols (ie high ascii's or html entities) into the meta-description. Your tool does not seem to be able to calculate with these. Does that mean Google might als struggle with those?

For example: ✅

Thanks,

Jurgen
Per @ SERPsim.com
Jurgen Gardenier
Thanks for your feedback Jurgen! SERPsim has a registry with a width for each character and some characters might be missing a width in which case they are logged and will be added to the registry within 24 hours. The character you tried has now been added, thanks! :) Glad you liked the tool and don't hesitate to get back to me if you have any other questions :)
Per @ SERPsim.com
Great read Brodie! I wrote a tool that is quite useful when it comes to optimising title and meta description and its built upon the new pixel limits. The accuracy is down to a hundred of a pixel and is update daily, would love some feedback! It's using a pixel limit of 1860px for meta description as I have found meta descriptions in the wild that is up to 1856px.

https://serpsim.com
Melanie Phung
Per @ SERPsim.com
I like that your tool is clean and simple. Bonus points for being something I can send to clients without needing to apologize for the name or logo :)
Per @ SERPsim.com
Melanie Phung
Thanks Melanie! The comment about "that other site" had me laughing :)
Melanie Phung
Per @ SERPsim.com
What "other site"? Did I say something about another site? That was just a pre-emptive thank you apropos nothing at all ;p
Per @ SERPsim.com
Nice one! The tool looks great. Have shared the link with our team :)
Brodie Clark
Per @ SERPsim.com
Hey! Thanks for having a read, glad you liked it. Your tool is the first that I've come across that actually gives a correct estimation on Meta Description px limit - props to you!
Per @ SERPsim.com
Brodie Clark
Glad you like it Brodie! I just implemented a new feature to SERPsim.com that I think you may like. You can now bulk download title & meta using sitemap.xml urls in the fetch field. Feel free to try it with: https://www.optimising.com.au/sitemap.xml (it takes approx 5 mins to finish son sit tight!). Let me know what you think! Thanks :)
Great test Brodie! I would add however, that there was another variable in this test introduced, that of first line metadata now having two words together that get bolded with your highest exact match KW search ("interstate removalists"). I would love to see a test where that added variable was removed, i.e., your variation #1 and control also have that exact word on the first line of your metadata displayed in a similar position. I think you are correct that a longer metadata likely benefitted you from your control, but how much would be debateable for me.
Brodie Clark
Charlotte Castillo
Thanks for checking out my case study Charlotte! And that's a fantastic point. I also would be very interested in seeing a test where there's greater control over the keyword bolding variable.
Simon  Cox
That's a great test Brodie! One aspect I have been thinking about is writing the longer meta to meet both Bing and Google parameters - so that the meta description makes sense when reduced for Bing - makes writing compelling descriptions more difficult!
The other aspect that I think would be interesting is to extend the tests with variation 2. Is that page likely to rank well for more terms on average because Google is adding appropriate descriptions from different parts of the page to answer the users intent? Would we then get greater coverage, and possibly traffic, for different terms than focusing in on particular intent we think people want?
Brodie Clark
Simon Cox
Cheers Simon! Two fantastic points that you've made. Here's my thoughts on each:

1. Aside from development of a Bing Places listing, when trying to think of ways that you can optimise for Bing alongside Google gives me a headache. It seems that anything Google implements, Bing will do the same at some point also (similar to what we've just seen with support for JSON-LD formatted schema markup - which I love btw!). A trait of Bing SERPs that makes it difficult to optimise meta data to a similar px limit to Google are the Ads on the righthand side. I think if you were to keep your Meta Description to the old specifications at ~920px it might display the same, although for the new limit it may become a dynamic process... I'm hoping Bing just follows Google on this one 😅

2. This would be a great test, and one that I would love to see some data for. I think the only way you could run something like that would be to not set your Meta Description and see what happens. Might be a bit of risky one to try on a page that receive a fair bit of Organic Traffic though!
Emmanuel Okorie
Please i would like to know the recommended number of meta tags for an ideal website. Is it 200, 2000 or can I add up to a million meta tags in one page without being penalised by google?

Thank you.
Brodie Clark
Emmanuel Okorie
Hey Emmanuel, you only need one Title Tag and one Meta Description per page - which is what we refer to as the "Meta Tags".

In the html of a page i.e. submitting 'view-source:https://www.semrush.com/blog/will-longer-meta-description-increase-ctr-case-study/' into your browser, you'll be able to see the Meta Tags which sit within the 'head'.

The Meta Tags are what Google show in their search results after you submit a search, so it's worthwhile spending some time writing them in a way that will entice a visitor to click-through to your site.

There's heaps of info online about the best way to write them :)
Melanie Nathan
There's a certain group of rockstar SEOs who will tell you that meta data doesn't matter anymore and you're wasting your time if you're filling out meta tags. A thorough SEO won't ignore this important aspect of optimization though. Especially when you consider that it could be your first online contact with a potential buyer. (And no I won't mention any rockstar names. Or maybe I should??)
Melanie Phung
Melanie Nathan
I agree. As a marketer, I think every contact I have with a prospective visitor/customer is an opportunity to tell a story, pique their interest, maybe sneak in a CTA (if appropriate), clinch that microconversion. I definitely want to use whatever prime real estate Google gives me to set my listing apart from the competition, to show users that I have the answers or solutions they want, and to encourage them to "click here! no, not those other guys, this one!" (not literally, ha). Crafting meta data isn't a waste of time if you do it right, for the reasons Melanie Nathan states.
Brodie Clark
Melanie Phung
I like your approach, Melanie! Doing it right the first time can be a great time saver in the long-run!
Joseph Hall
Melanie Nathan
Meta description length is always a low priority item with in my SEO audits. The best advice I once read about meta descriptions is to write them as if you are writing PPC ad copy, which means providing a really great CTA (as Melanie suggested). And, maybe even a few emojis LOL. Either way if the goal is to increase CTR than length isn't going to move the needle alone, you also have to write something worth clicking.
Brodie Clark
Joseph Hall
Hey Joe, can definitely appreciate each of your points! I've tried emojis in the past although they don't seem to be supported for most queries these days - unless I'm missing something? :)
Brodie Clark
Melanie Nathan
Hey Melanie, thanks for sharing your thoughts! And I definitely agree on meta tags being a necessity :)
Simon  Cox
Melanie Nathan
Agreed Melanie, if the page content is flat and boring then that description could mean the difference between the click or not - it is a marketing opportunity that might be the only one you get. You cannot let Google decide on the context of that description - who knows what it might show.
Vertucon
Depending on the industry, meta description should be kept short, simple and sweet! They should be just short enough to include a keyword or two and an action word to encourage users to click on your link. We try to aim at 120 characters max.
However, for highly competitive keywords we like to maximize the meta description to 300 characters.

Is that a good strategy?
Brodie Clark
Vertucon
Appreciate the input, Vertucon!

The only issue I foresee with having an extra short Meta Description is you're giving your competitor more space in the SERPs i.e. if it's longer, you'll potentially push their Organic landing page down if you're ranking directly above.

In my opinion I don't see why you should alter your Meta Description strategy for a highly competitive keyword as opposed to one that isn't as competitive. I do however think what's more important than the whole "length" debate is your actual copywriting skills - which I'm sure you have down pat :)
Matt Tutt
Hey Brodie, thanks for sharing your research! I'm working on something similar currently, but actually wondered in your example whether you've looked at the difference from mobile devices (if possible?) to see how the impact varied. With mobile having a more limited SERP area it would be interesting to see how that changed the CTR with the new description tags.
Brodie Clark
Matt Tutt
Hey Matt, that's a great point! Here's the CTR data for Desktop and Mobile:

Desktop:

Control = 3.6%

Variation #2 = 4.8%

% Difference = +33%

Mobile:

Control = 1.9%

Variation #2 = 3%

% Difference = +59%

I purposely left out this data because it's a whole nother beast in itself. For the 'interstate removalists' query, on an iPhone 7 the snippet actually displays to the same length as Desktop. Although the issue is that it tends to vary depending on the device that you're using.

Also, adding this new data set to my analysis would have decreased my sample size greatly if looking at only Desktop or Mobile.

Keen to hear what your findings are from your experiment!
I went the other direction - short meta descriptions, fits on one line in SERPs. Everyone doing long, i'm doing short. Stands out! Is it working? Who knows :)
Brodie Clark
Ack Thpt
Thanks for your input, Ack! Only way to know for sure is to run your own CTR test. Would love to hear what your findings are. With everyone moving to longer Meta Descriptions - maybe you're standing out from the crowd :)

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