Just as we all got used to writing short, pithy snippets for our content, Google changed its mind about just how many characters it will display in search results. In the past Google displayed a description of about 160 characters; now that’s been bumped up to 360 characters.
This might be good news; it gives writers more space to explain why you should read their information. Here’s a brief overview of why you should learn to love your metadata, even if you aren’t a code-wonk.
What is metadata?
Metadata are bits of code that tell Google, Facebook, and other sites how you want your webpage described. You won’t see metadata on the page in your browser; it’s invisible coded instructions for robots, not people. This structured data is how you tell Google who you are, and what your webpage is about. Metadata is your chance to explain why your information is relevant to a searcher and should be read.
Here’s an example of how Google displays search results for an entomology website with clear metadata:
And here’s the code; it matches the description perfectly (including the typo):
With metadata, you get to choose the words Google will describe you with, and what images you want to show on Facebook and other media channels. You choose how to be described and how to tell your story.
Why should you care about metadata?
If you are an entomologist or scientist, including metadata helps your webpages compete with all the other, sometimes not great, information on the Internet. You’d better believe commercial and quack websites know all about how to optimize search.
Additionally, if you don’t include metadata on your website, Google, and Facebook will grab whatever they think is relevant. Or, not show much about you at all. Here’s an example of search results from a site that doesn’t have a meta description:
This doesn’t tell me what Extension is, or what it does. The new longer meta description definitely did show up in these Google Search results, but it’s not adding much useful information.
Why does metadata not display consistently?
Of course, even with metadata, you are at the mercy of Google anyway. Sometimes Google knows best, or so they tell us. Here’s Google’s explanation:
“sometimes even pages with well-formulated, concise, descriptive titles will end up with different titles in our search results to better indicate their relevance to the query.
There’s a simple reason for this: the title tag as specified by a webmaster is limited to being static, fixed regardless of the query. Once we know the user’s query, we can often find alternative text from a page that better explains why that result is relevant. Using this alternative text as a title helps the user, and it also can help your site.”
If I’m searching for “undergraduate entomology programs”, Google may choose to show me results from the text of a page rather than the metadata:
In this case, their search results actually are an improvement on the metadata for that page, probably written to fit the old 160 character limit:
To sum up:
Metadata is your friend. It’s data about your data.
I’ve shown the gnarly code bits here, but most web content systems have an easy way for inputting metadata that doesn’t require you to fiddle with scripts. Find it and use it! Yoast SEO is one of the most popular plugins, and your web host or local tech guru can help too.
If you’ve put time and energy into creating good information, a little extra effort to also include good metadata on your website helps you stand out in web searches. You want to encourage readers to choose your content.
You can do a quick test to look at what Google robots see on your website with their structured data tool. There are many types of metadata descriptions you can use; everything from maps to music can be specified.
Moz has handy metadata templates for major social media channels.