Google recently announced that queries longer than three words would receive longer snippets. The theory being that the more detailed the query the more information necessary to provide context to the user.
This change comes right on the heels of research that shows that longer queries are becoming more frequent.
Do longer snippets change meta description strategy?
Probably not, but it's a good time to review your meta description strategy.
First off, meta descriptions do matter. Even if they don't have an impact on rank they will on your click through rate. The snippet, whether derived by Google or provided through a meta description, is where you 'sell' the listing.
Any PPC marketer will tell you that copy testing can have a significant impact on click through rate. The meta description is just a bigger block of copy. Use it.
Currently, most write meta descriptions that are between 145 and 160 characters in length. However, the date prefix Google uses often interrupts a well crafted meta description. (Note that date prefixes are not searchable but are solely there as user signposts.)
You might want to think about writing shorter meta descriptions if you are consistently getting a date prefix.
The date prefix takes up 17 characters (including spaces) which means your total two line meta description should be 128 to 143 characters. For the sake of rounding go for between 130 and 140 characters.
Length or characters?
This doesn't mean you won't get the dreaded ellipse (...) at the end of your listing. The wrapping of a long word could push the second line beyond the max length. While we talk about characters, evidence suggests it's about length instead. (That's what she said!) I've seen 87 characters in a line, which seems impossible, but with parentheses and other thin characters ... it fits.
Character length is still a good proxy until a tool delivers the ability to measure the actual length of each line of text.
New meta description tools
I'm surprised an AdWords-like tool (aka plugin) hasn't been developed that would show what the listing would look like on Google. This wouldn't be limited to meta description, but would provide a complete visual of your listing as it would appear on a Google SERP.
The tool would let you toggle the date prefix on or off and might even crack the length issue by determining the maximum pixel (px) line length. Just like AdWords, you'd see an example of your listing as you type. (It turns out SEOmofo has developed a SERP Snippet Optimization Tool.)
Should you write longer meta descriptions?
This assumes that Google will honor and display the full meta description provided instead of searching out relevant text on the page to match the query.
Given the opportunity, yes, I would want to control what the user reads. I want the ability to market my content the way I see fit. I think know I can do it better than Google. Here's Exhibit A.
A search for 'bicycling lance armstrong mountain stage jan ullrich' returns this four line snippet.
The longer snippet might display all of the keywords in my query but it doesn't tell me a lot about what this page is really about. A longer meta description (even a regular one) might have done a better job.
Are longer snippets better?
Sometimes. If there's no meta description in the first place then matching more keywords in the snippet would probably be an enhancement. If there is a meta description, I'd posit that the longer snippet degrades the experience.
The choppy nature of the snippet construction indicates that the keywords exist on the page but often fails to deliver the true context or topic of the page. A good meta description will do the latter.
Let the algorithm select the item based on the query terms but provide the human written meta description.
Will Google honor longer meta descriptions?
It doesn't seem like Google will honor longer meta descriptions. If the longer meta description doesn't contain the keywords from the query I'm guessing that Google will disregard the carefully crafted text and piece together its own snippet. In fact, it looks like they won't even use the normal meta description.
But you know what they say about assuming. So I will test longer meta descriptions on this post and others and track what is displayed when searching with long queries.