Pinpoint vs. Floodlight Content and Keyword Research Strategies – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

When we’re doing keyword research and targeting, we have a choice to make: Are we targeting broader keywords with multiple potential searcher intents, or are we targeting very narrow keywords where it’s pretty clear what the searchers were looking for? Those different approaches, it turns out, apply to content creation and site architecture, as well. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand illustrates that connection.

Pinpoint vs Floodlight Content and Keyword Research Strategy Whiteboard

For reference, here are stills of this week’s whiteboards. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about pinpoint versus floodlight tactics for content targeting, content strategy, and keyword research, keyword targeting strategy. This is also called the shotgun versus sniper approach, but I’m not a big gun fan. So I’m going to stick with my floodlight versus pinpoint, plus, you know, for the opening shot we don’t have a whole lot of weaponry here at Moz, but we do have lighting.

So let’s talk through this at first. You’re going through and doing some keyword research. You’re trying to figure out which terms and phrases to target. You might look down a list like this.

Well, maybe, I’m using an example here around antique science equipment. So you see these various terms and phrases. You’ve got your volume numbers. You probably have lots of other columns. Hopefully, you’ve watched the Whiteboard Friday on how to do keyword research like it’s 2015 and not 2010.

So you know you have all these other columns to choose from, but I’m simplifying here for the purpose of this experiment. So you might choose some of these different terms. Now, they’re going to have different kinds of tactics and a different strategic approach, depending on the breadth and depth of the topic that you’re targeting. That’s going to determine what types of content you want to create and where you place it in your information architecture. So I’ll show you what I mean.

The floodlight approach

For antique science equipment, this is a relatively broad phrase. I’m going to do my floodlight analysis on this, and floodlight analysis is basically saying like, “Okay, are there multiple potential searcher intents?” Yeah, absolutely. That’s a fairly broad phase. People could be looking to transact around it. They might be looking for research information, historical information, different types of scientific equipment that they’re looking for.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b15fc96679b8.73854740.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Are there four or more approximately unique keyword terms and phrases to target? Well, absolutely, in fact, there’s probably more than that. So antique science equipment, antique scientific equipment, 18th century scientific equipment, all these different terms and phrases that you might explore there.

Is this a broad content topic with many potential subtopics? Again, yes is the answer to this. Are we talking about generally larger search volume? Again, yes, this is going to have a much larger search volume than some of the narrower terms and phrases. That’s not always the case, but it is here.

The pinpoint approach

For pinpoint analysis, we kind of go the opposite direction. So we might look at a term like antique test tubes, which is a very specific kind of search, and that has a clear single searcher intent or maybe two. Someone might be looking for actually purchasing one of those, or they might be looking to research them and see what kinds there are. Not a ton of additional intents behind that. One to three unique keywords, yeah, probably. It’s pretty specific. Antique test tubes, maybe 19th century test tubes, maybe old science test tubes, but you’re talking about a limited set of keywords that you’re targeting. It’s a narrow content topic, typically smaller search volume.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b160069eb6b1.12473448.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Now, these are going to feed into your IA, your information architecture, and your site structure in this way. So floodlight content generally sits higher up. It’s the category or the subcategory, those broad topic terms and phrases. Those are going to turn into those broad topic category pages. Then you might have multiple, narrower subtopics. So we could go into lab equipment versus astronomical equipment versus chemistry equipment, and then we’d get into those individual pinpoints from the pinpoint analysis.

How do I decide which approach is best for my keywords?

Why are we doing this? Well, generally speaking, if you can take your terms and phrases and categorize them like this and then target them differently, you’re going to provide a better, more logical user experience. Someone who searches for antique scientific equipment, they’re going to really expect to see that category and then to be able to drill down into things. So you’re providing them the experience they predict, the one that they want, the one that they expect.

It’s better for topic modeling analysis and for all of the algorithms around things like Hummingbird, where Google looks at: Are you using the types of terms and phrases, do you have the type of architecture that we expect to find for this keyword?

It’s better for search intent targeting, because the searcher intent is going to be fulfilled if you provide the multiple paths versus the narrow focus. It’s easier keyword targeting for you. You’re going to be able to know, “Hey, I need to target a lot of different terms and phrases and variations in floodlight and one very specific one in pinpoint.”

There’s usually higher searcher satisfaction, which means you get lower bounce rate. You get more engagement. You usually get a higher conversion rate. So it’s good for all those things.

For example…

I’ll actually create pages for each of antique scientific equipment and antique test tubes to illustrate this. So I’ve got two different types of pages here. One is my antique scientific equipment page.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b161fa871e32.54731215.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

This is that floodlight, shotgun approach, and what we’re doing here is going to be very different from a pinpoint approach. It’s looking at like, okay, you’ve landed on antique scientific equipment. Now, where do you want to go? What do you want to specifically explore? So we’re going to have a little bit of content specifically about this topic, and how robust that is depends on the type of topic and the type of site you are.

If this is an e-commerce site or a site that’s showing information about various antiques, well maybe we don’t need very much content here. You can see the filtration that we’ve got is going to be pretty broad. So I can go into different centuries. I can go into chemistry, astronomy, physics. Maybe I have a safe for kids type of stuff if you want to buy your kids antique lab equipment, which you might be. Who knows? Maybe you’re awesome and your kids are too. Then different types of stuff at a very broad level. So I can go to microscopes or test tubes, lab searches.

This is great because it’s got broad intent foci, serving many different kinds of searchers with the same page because we don’t know exactly what they want. It’s got multiple keyword targets so that we can go after broad phrases like antique or old or historical or 13th, 14th, whatever century, science and scientific equipment ,materials, labs, etc., etc., etc. This is a broad page that could reach any and all of those. Then there’s lots of navigational and refinement options once you get there.

Total opposite of pinpoint content.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b1622740f0b5.73477500.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Pinpoint content, like this antique test tubes page, we’re still going to have some filtration options, but one of the important things to note is note how these are links that take you deeper. Depending on how deep the search volume goes in terms of the types of queries that people are performing, you might want to make a specific page for 17th century antique test tubes. You might not, and if you don’t want to do that, you can have these be filters that are simply clickable and change the content of the page here, narrowing the options rather than creating completely separate pages.

So if there’s no search volume for these different things and you don’t think you need to separately target them, go ahead and just make them filters on the data that already appears on this page or the results that are already in here as opposed to links that are going to take you deeper into specific content and create a new page, a new experience.

You can also see I’ve got my individual content here. I probably would go ahead and add some content specifically to this page that is just unique here and that describes antique test tubes and the things that your searchers need. They might want to know things about price. They might want to know things about make and model. They might want to know things about what they were used for. Great. You can have that information broadly, and then individual pieces of content that someone might dig into.

This is narrower intent foci obviously, serving maybe one or two searcher intents. This is really talking about targeting maybe one to two separate keywords. So antique test tubes, maybe lab tubes or test tube sets, but not much beyond that.

Ten we’re going to have fewer navigational paths, fewer distractions. We want to keep the searcher. Because we know their intent, we want to guide them along the path that we know they probably want to take and that we want them to take.

So when you’re considering your content, choose wisely between shotgun/floodlight approach or sniper/pinpoint approach. Your searchers will be better served. You’ll probably rank better. You’ll be more likely to earn links and amplification. You’re going to be more successful.

Looking forward to the comments, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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The Meta Referrer Tag: An Advancement for SEO and the Internet

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

The movement to make the Internet more secure through HTTPS brings several useful advancements for webmasters. In addition to security improvements, HTTPS promises future technological advances and potential SEO benefits for marketers.

HTTPS in search results is rising. Recent MozCast data from Dr. Pete shows nearly 20% of first page Google results are now HTTPS.

Sadly, HTTPS also has its downsides.

Marketers run into their first challenge when they switch regular HTTP sites over to HTTPS. Technically challenging, the switch typically involves routing your site through a series of 301 redirects. Historically, these types of redirects are associated with a loss of link equity (thought to be around 15%) which can lead to a loss in rankings. This can offset any SEO advantage that Google claims switching.

Ross Hudgens perfectly summed it up in this tweet:

Many SEOs have anecdotally shared stories of HTTPS sites performing well in Google search results (and our soon-to-be-published Ranking Factors data seems to support this.) However, the short term effect of a large migration can be hard to take. When Moz recently switched to HTTPS to provide better security to our logged-in users, we saw an 8-9% dip in our organic search traffic.

Problem number two is the subject of this post. It involves the loss of referral data. Typically, when one site sends traffic to another, information is sent that identifies the originating site as the source of traffic. This invaluable data allows people to see where their traffic is coming from, and helps spread the flow of information across the web.

SEOs have long used referrer data for a number of beneficial purposes. Oftentimes, people will link back or check out the site sending traffic when they see the referrer in their analytics data. Spammers know this works, as evidenced by the recent increase in referrer spam:

This process stops when traffic flows from an HTTPS site to a non-secure HTTP site. In this case, no referrer data is sent. Webmasters can’t know where their traffic is coming from.

Here’s how referral data to my personal site looked when Moz switched to HTTPS. I lost all visibility into where my traffic came from.

Its (not provided) all over again!

Enter the meta referrer tag

While we can’t solve the ranking challenges imposed by switching a site to HTTPS, we can solve the loss of referral data, and it’s actually super-simple.

Almost completely unknown to most marketers, the relatively new meta referrer tag (it’s actually been around for a few years) was designed to help out in these situations.

Better yet, the tag allows you to control how your referrer information is passed.

The meta referrer tag works with most browsers to pass referrer information in a manner defined by the user. Traffic remains encrypted and all the benefits of using HTTPS remain in place, but now you can pass referrer data to all websites, even those that use HTTP.

How to use the meta referrer tag

What follows are extremely simplified instructions for using the meta referrer tag. For more in-depth understanding, we highly recommend referring to the W3C working draft of the spec.

The meta referrer tag is placed in the <head> section of your HTML, and references one of five states, which control how browsers send referrer information from your site. The five states are:

  1. None: Never pass referral data
    <meta name="referrer" content="none">
    
  2. None When Downgrade: Sends referrer information to secure HTTPS sites, but not insecure HTTP sites
    <meta name="referrer" content="none-when-downgrade">
    
  3. Origin Only: Sends the scheme, host, and port (basically, the subdomain) stripped of the full URL as a referrer, i.e. https://moz.com/example.html would simply send https://moz.com
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin">
    

  4. Origin When Cross-Origin: Sends the full URL as the referrer when the target has the same scheme, host, and port (i.e. subdomain) regardless if it’s HTTP or HTTPS, while sending origin-only referral information to external sites. (note: There is a typo in the official spec. Future versions should be “origin-when-cross-origin”)
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin-when-crossorigin">
    
  5. Unsafe URL: Always passes the URL string as a referrer. Note if you have any sensitive information contained in your URL, this isn’t the safest option. By default, URL fragments, username, and password are automatically stripped out.
    <meta name="referrer" content="unsafe-url">
    

The meta referrer tag in action

By clicking the link below, you can get a sense of how the meta referrer tag works.

Check Referrer

Boom!

We’ve set the meta referrer tag for Moz to “origin”, which means when we link out to another site, we pass our scheme, host, and port. The end result is you see http://moz.com as the referrer, stripped of the full URL path (/meta-referrer-tag).

My personal site typically receives several visits per day from Moz. Here’s what my analytics data looked like before and after we implemented the meta referrer tag.

For simplicity and security, most sites may want to implement the “origin” state, but there are drawbacks.

One negative side effect was that as soon as we implemented the meta referrer tag, our AdRoll analytics, which we use for retargeting, stopped working. It turns out that AdRoll uses our referrer information for analytics, but the meta referrer tag “origin” state meant that the only URL they ever saw reported was https://moz.com.

Conclusion

We love the meta referrer tag because it keeps information flowing on the Internet. It’s the way the web is supposed to work!

It helps marketers and webmasters see exactly where their traffic is coming from. It encourages engagement, communication, and even linking, which can lead to improvements in SEO.

Useful links:

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Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 3

Posted by Trevor-Klein

Welcome to the third installment of our short (< 2-minute) video tutorials that help you all get the most out of Moz’s tools. Each tutorial is designed to solve a use case that we regularly hear about from Moz community members—a need or problem for which you all could use a solution.

If you missed the previous roundups, you can find ’em here:

  • Week 1: Reclaim links using Open Site Explorer, build links using Fresh Web Explorer, and find the best time to tweet using Followerwonk.
  • Week 2: Analyze SERPs using new MozBar features, boost your rankings through on-page optimization, check your anchor text using Open Site Explorer, do keyword research with OSE and the keyword difficulty tool, and discover keyword opportunities in Moz Analytics.

Today, we’ve got a brand-new roundup of the most recent videos:

  • How to Compare Link Metrics in Open Site Explorer
  • How to Find Tweet Topics with Followerwonk
  • How to Create Custom Reports in Moz Analytics
  • How to Use Spam Score to Identify High-Risk Links
  • How to Get Link Building Opportunities Delivered to Your Inbox

Hope you enjoy them!

Fix 1: How to Compare Link Metrics in Open Site Explorer

Not all links are created equal. In this Daily SEO Fix, Chiaryn shows you how to use Open Site Explorer to analyze and compare link metrics for up to five URLs to see which are strongest.

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Fix 2: How to Find Tweet Topics with Followerwonk

Understanding what works best for your competitors on Twitter is a great place to start when forming your own Twitter strategy. In this fix, Ellie explains how to identify strong-performing tweets from your competitors and how to use those tweets to shape your own voice and plan.


Fix 3: How to Create Custom Reports in Moz Analytics

In this Daily SEO Fix, Kevin shows you how to create a custom report in Moz Analytics and schedule it to be delivered to your inbox on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.


Fix 4: How to Use Spam Score to Identify High-Risk Links

Almost every site has a few bad links pointing to it, but lots of highly risky links can have a negative impact on your search engine rankings. In this fix, Tori shows you how to use Moz’s Spam Score metric to identify spammy links.


Fix 5: How to Get Link Building Opportunities Delivered to Your Inbox

Building high-quality links is one of the most important aspects of SEO. In this Daily SEO Fix, Erin shows you how to use Moz Analytics to set up a weekly custom report that will notify you of pages on the web that mention your site but do not include a link, so you can use this info to build more links.


Looking for more?

We’ve got more videos in the previous two weeks’ round-ups!

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 1

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 2


Don’t have a Pro subscription? No problem. Everything we cover in these Daily SEO Fix videos is available with a free 30-day trial.

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Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We all know by now that not just any old content is going to help us rank in competitive SERPs. We often hear people talking about how it takes “good, unique content.” That’s the wrong bar. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about where we should be aiming, and how to get there.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about something that I really have a problem with in the SEO world, and that is the phrase “good, unique content.” I’ll tell you why this troubles me so much. It’s because I get so many emails, I hear so many times at conferences and events with people I meet, with folks I talk to in the industry saying, “Hey, we created some good, unique content, but we don’t seem to be performing well in search.” My answer back to that is always that is not the bar for entry into SEO. That is not the bar for ranking.

The content quality scale

So I made this content quality scale to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. You can see that it starts all the way up at 10x, and down here I’ve got Panda Invasion. So quality, like Google Panda is coming for your site, it’s going to knock you out of the rankings. It’s going to penalize you, like your content is thin and largely useless.

Then you go up a little bit, and it’s like, well four out of five searchers find it pretty bad. They clicked the Back button. Maybe one out of five is thinking, “Well, this is all right. This solves my most basic problems.”

Then you get one level higher than that, and you have good, unique content, which I think many folks think of as where they need to get to. It’s essentially, hey, it’s useful enough. It answers the searcher’s query. It’s unique from any other content on the Web. If you read it, you wouldn’t vomit. It’s good enough, right? Good, unique content.

Problem is almost everyone can get here. They really can. It’s not a high bar, a high barrier to entry to say you need good, unique content. In fact, it can scale. So what I see lots of folks doing is they look at a search result or a set of search results in their industry. Say you’re in travel and vacations, and you look at these different countries and you’re going to look at the hotels or recommendations in those countries and then see all the articles there. You go, “Yeah, you know what, I think we could do something as good as what’s up there or almost.” Well, okay, that puts you in the range. That’s good, unique content.

But in my opinion, the minimum bar today for modern SEO is a step higher, and that is as good as the best in the search results on the search results page. If you can’t consistently say, “We’re the best result that a searcher could find in the search results,” well then, guess what? You’re not going to have an opportunity to rank. It’s much, much harder to get into those top 10 positions, page 1, page 2 positions than it was in the past because there are so many ranking signals that so many of these websites have already built up over the last 5, 10, 15 years that you need to go above and beyond.

Really, where I want folks to go and where I always expect content from Moz to go is here, and that is 10x, 10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today. If I don’t think I can do that, then I’m not going to try and rank for those keywords. I’m just not going to pursue it. I’m going to pursue content in areas where I believe I can create something 10 times better than the best result out there.

What changed?

Why is this? What changed? Well, a bunch of things actually.

  • User experience became a much bigger element in the ranking algorithms, and that’s direct influences, things that we’ve talked about here on Whiteboard Friday before like pogo-sticking, and lots of indirect ones like the links that you earn based on the user experience that you provide and Google rendering pages, Google caring about load speed and device rendering, mobile friendliness, all these kinds of things.
  • Earning links overtook link building. It used to be you put out a page and you built a bunch of links to it. Now that doesn’t so much work anymore because Google is very picky about the links that it’s going to consider. If you can’t earn links naturally, not only can you not get links fast enough and not get good ones, but you also are probably earning links that Google doesn’t even want to count or may even penalize you for. It’s nearly impossible to earn links with just good, unique content. If there’s something better out there on page one of the search results, why would they even bother to link to you? Someone’s going to do a search, and they’re going to find something else to link to, something better.
  • Third, the rise of content marketing over the last five, six years has meant that there’s just a lot more competition. This field is a lot more crowded than it used to be, with many people trying to get to a higher and higher quality bar.
  • Finally, as a result of many of these things, user expectations have gone crazy. Users expect pages to load insanely fast, even on mobile devices, even when their connection’s slow. They expect it to look great. They expect to be provided with an answer almost instantaneously. The quality of results that Google has delivered and the quality of experience that sites like Facebook, which everyone is familiar with, are delivering means that our brains have rewired themselves to expect very fast, very high quality results consistently.

How do we create “10x” content?

So, because of all these changes, we need a process. We need a process to choose, to figure out how we can get to 10x content, not good, unique content, 10x content. A process that I often like to use — this probably is not the only one, but you’re welcome to use it if you find it valuable — is to go, “All right, you know what? I’m going to perform some of these search queries.”

By the way, I would probably perform the search query in two places. One is in Google and their search results, and the other is actually in BuzzSumo, which I think is a great tool for this, where I can see the content that has been most shared. So if you haven’t already, check out BuzzSumo.com.

I might search for something like Costa Rica ecolodges, which I might be considering a Costa Rica vacation at some point in the future. I look at these top ranking results, probably the whole top 10 as well as the most shared content on social media.

Then I’m going to ask myself these questions;

  • What questions are being asked and answered by these search results?
  • What sort of user experience is provided? I look at this in terms of speed, in terms of mobile friendliness, in terms of rendering, in terms of layout and design quality, in terms of what’s required from the user to be able to get the information? Is it all right there, or do I need to click? Am I having trouble finding things?
  • What’s the detail and thoroughness of the information that’s actually provided? Is it lacking? Is it great?
  • What about use of visuals? Visual content can often take best in class all the way up to 10x if it’s done right. So I might check out the use of visuals.
  • The quality of the writing.
  • I’m going to look at information and data elements. Where are they pulling from? What are their sources? What’s the quality of that stuff? What types of information is there? What types of information is missing?

In fact, I like to ask, “What’s missing?” a lot.

From this, I can determine like, hey, here are the strengths and weaknesses of who’s getting all of the social shares and who’s ranking well, and here’s the delta between me and them today. This is the way that I can be 10 times better than the best results in there.

If you use this process or a process like this and you do this type of content auditing and you achieve this level of content quality, you have a real shot at rankings. One of the secret reasons for that is that the effort axis that I have here, like I go to Fiverr, I get Panda invasion. I make the intern write it. This is going to take a weekend to build versus there’s no way to scale this content.

This is a super power. When your competitors or other folks in the field look and say, “Hey, there’s no way that we can scale content quality like this. It’s just too much effort. We can’t keep producing it at this level,” well, now you have a competitive advantage. You have something that puts you in a category by yourself and that’s very hard for competitors to catch up to. It’s a huge advantage in search, in social, on the Web as a whole.

All right everyone, hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday, and we’ll see you again next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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I Can’t Drive 155: Meta Descriptions in 2015

Posted by Dr-Pete

For years now, we (and many others) have been recommending keeping your Meta Descriptions shorter than
about 155-160 characters. For months, people have been sending me examples of search snippets that clearly broke that rule, like this one (on a search for “hummingbird food”):

For the record, this one clocks in at 317 characters (counting spaces). So, I set out to discover if these long descriptions were exceptions to the rule, or if we need to change the rules. I collected the search snippets across the MozCast 10K, which resulted in 92,669 snippets. All of the data in this post was collected on April 13, 2015.

The Basic Data

The minimum snippet length was zero characters. There were 69 zero-length snippets, but most of these were the new generation of answer box, that appears organic but doesn’t have a snippet. To put it another way, these were misidentified as organic by my code. The other 0-length snippets were local one-boxes that appeared as organic but had no snippet, such as this one for “chichen itza”:

These zero-length snippets were removed from further analysis, but considering that they only accounted for 0.07% of the total data, they didn’t really impact the conclusions either way. The shortest legitimate, non-zero snippet was 7 characters long, on a search for “geek and sundry”, and appears to have come directly from the site’s meta description:

The maximum snippet length that day (this is a highly dynamic situation) was 372 characters. The winner appeared on a search for “benefits of apple cider vinegar”:

The average length of all of the snippets in our data set (not counting zero-length snippets) was 143.5 characters, and the median length was 152 characters. Of course, this can be misleading, since some snippets are shorter than the limit and others are being artificially truncated by Google. So, let’s dig a bit deeper.

The Bigger Picture

To get a better idea of the big picture, let’s take a look at the display length of all 92,600 snippets (with non-zero length), split into 20-character buckets (0-20, 21-40, etc.):

Most of the snippets (62.1%) cut off as expected, right in the 141-160 character bucket. Of course, some snippets were shorter than that, and didn’t need to be cut off, and some broke the rules. About 1% (1,010) of the snippets in our data set measured 200 or more characters. That’s not a huge number, but it’s enough to take seriously.

That 141-160 character bucket is dwarfing everything else, so let’s zoom in a bit on the cut-off range, and just look at snippets in the 120-200 character range (in this case, by 5-character bins):

Zooming in, the bulk of the snippets are displaying at lengths between about 146-165 characters. There are plenty of exceptions to the 155-160 character guideline, but for the most part, they do seem to be exceptions.

Finally, let’s zoom in on the rule-breakers. This is the distribution of snippets displaying 191+ characters, bucketed in 10-character bins (191-200, 201-210, etc.):

Please note that the Y-axis scale is much smaller than in the previous 2 graphs, but there is a pretty solid spread, with a decent chunk of snippets displaying more than 300 characters.

Without looking at every original meta description tag, it’s very difficult to tell exactly how many snippets have been truncated by Google, but we do have a proxy. Snippets that have been truncated end in an ellipsis (…), which rarely appears at the end of a natural description. In this data set, more than half of all snippets (52.8%) ended in an ellipsis, so we’re still seeing a lot of meta descriptions being cut off.

I should add that, unlike titles/headlines, it isn’t clear whether Google is cutting off snippets by pixel width or character count, since that cut-off is done on the server-side. In most cases, Google will cut before the end of the second line, but sometimes they cut well before this, which could suggest a character-based limit. They also cut off at whole words, which can make the numbers a bit tougher to interpret.

The Cutting Room Floor

There’s another difficulty with telling exactly how many meta descriptions Google has modified – some edits are minor, and some are major. One minor edit is when Google adds some additional information to a snippet, such as a date at the beginning. Here’s an example (from a search for “chicken pox”):

With the date (and minus the ellipsis), this snippet is 164 characters long, which suggests Google isn’t counting the added text against the length limit. What’s interesting is that the rest comes directly from the meta description on the site, except that the site’s description starts with “Chickenpox.” and Google has removed that keyword. As a human, I’d say this matches the meta description, but a bot has a very hard time telling a minor edit from a complete rewrite.

Another minor rewrite occurs in snippets that start with search result counts:

Here, we’re at 172 characters (with spaces and minus the ellipsis), and Google has even let this snippet roll over to a third line. So, again, it seems like the added information at the beginning isn’t counting against the length limit.

All told, 11.6% of the snippets in our data set had some kind of Google-generated data, so this type of minor rewrite is pretty common. Even if Google honors most of your meta description, you may see small edits.

Let’s look at our big winner, the 372-character description. Here’s what we saw in the snippet:

Jan 26, 2015 – Health• Diabetes Prevention: Multiple studies have shown a correlation between apple cider vinegar and lower blood sugar levels. … • Weight Loss: Consuming apple cider vinegar can help you feel more full, which can help you eat less. … • Lower Cholesterol: … • Detox: … • Digestive Aid: … • Itchy or Sunburned Skin: … • Energy Boost:1 more items

So, what about the meta description? Here’s what we actually see in the tag:

Were you aware of all the uses of apple cider vinegar? From cleansing to healing, to preventing diabetes, ACV is a pantry staple you need in your home.

That’s a bit more than just a couple of edits. So, what’s happening here? Well, there’s a clue on that same page, where we see yet another rule-breaking snippet:

You might be wondering why this snippet is any more interesting than the other one. If you could see the top of the SERP, you’d know why, because it looks something like this:

Google is automatically extracting list-style data from these pages to fuel the expansion of the Knowledge Graph. In one case, that data is replacing a snippet
and going directly into an answer box, but they’re performing the same translation even for some other snippets on the page.

So, does every 2nd-generation answer box yield long snippets? After 3 hours of inadvisable mySQL queries, I can tell you that the answer is a resounding “probably not”. You can have 2nd-gen answer boxes without long snippets and you can have long snippets without 2nd-gen answer boxes,
but there does appear to be a connection between long snippets and Knowledge Graph in some cases.

One interesting connection is that Google has begun bolding keywords that seem like answers to the query (and not just synonyms for the query). Below is an example from a search for “mono symptoms”. There’s an answer box for this query, but the snippet below is not from the site in the answer box:

Notice the bolded words – “fatigue”, “sore throat”, “fever”, “headache”, “rash”. These aren’t synonyms for the search phrase; these are actual symptoms of mono. This data isn’t coming from the meta description, but from a bulleted list on the target page. Again, it appears that Google is trying to use the snippet to answer a question, and has gone well beyond just matching keywords.

Just for fun, let’s look at one more, where there’s no clear connection to the Knowledge Graph. Here’s a snippet from a search for “sons of anarchy season 4”:

This page has no answer box, and the information extracted is odd at best. The snippet bears little or no resemblance to the site’s meta description. The number string at the beginning comes out of a rating widget, and some of the text isn’t even clearly available on the page. This seems to be an example of Google acknowledging IMDb as a high-authority site and desperately trying to match any text they can to the query, resulting in a Frankenstein’s snippet.

The Final Verdict

If all of this seems confusing, that’s probably because it is. Google is taking a lot more liberties with snippets these days, both to better match queries, to add details they feel are important, or to help build and support the Knowledge Graph.

So, let’s get back to the original question – is it time to revise the 155(ish) character guideline? My gut feeling is: not yet. To begin with, the vast majority of snippets are still falling in that 145-165 character range. In addition, the exceptions to the rule are not only atypical situations, but in most cases those long snippets don’t seem to represent the original meta description. In other words, even if Google does grant you extra characters, they probably won’t be the extra characters you asked for in the first place.

Many people have asked: “How do I make sure that Google shows my meta description as is?” I’m afraid the answer is: “You don’t.” If this is very important to you, I would recommend keeping your description below the 155-character limit, and making sure that it’s a good match to your target keyword concepts. I suspect Google is going to take more liberties with snippets over time, and we’re going to have to let go of our obsession with having total control over the SERPs.

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