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Technology 12.19.17 BLOG 

Making Do with More: Expanded Google Snippets an Opportunity for International SEO

By Colt Foutz, with Tamara Parliament and Megan Kuchta

cookies in a Christmas-decorated tin

Making Do with More: Expanded Google Snippets an Opportunity for International SEO

Year after year as fall wound into winter, my grandmother Foutz faithfully baked Christmas cookies, packed them in tins, then stashed them in hidden corners of her house—only to discover, come Christmas morning, her tins were a bit lighter in their cookie payload.

“Oh, they must have just settled,” my uncles would explain, flashing foxes’ grins, never letting on they knew all of Grandma’s hiding places. And for years, that delicious ritual continued.

For years, those of us in the SEO space have observed our own sort of ritual when it comes to clients’ meta content, squeezing titles and meta descriptions into prescribed limits of 70 and 160 characters, respectively. But this year, we got an early Christmas present when Google nearly doubled the space available in search engine snippets.

Snippets are the free real estate that is so valuable in SEO. Instead of paying for an ad, your page titles, URLs, and meta descriptions show up in search results. If you’ve done a good job optimizing that content with keywords, and if your snippet is descriptive and enticing, you can earn a valuable click and a resulting visit to your website page.

In the past few weeks, SEO industry watchdogs including Search Engine Land, SERoundtable, and Moz noticed a change in Google’s SEO results. Instead of the usual one-and-a-half-line snippet, descriptions below website titles and URLs were running three or even four lines long, the equivalent of up to 320 characters.

Making Sense of Longer Search Results

How fast has this change occurred? According to software company SISTRIX, as recently as Nov. 21, 2017, less than 2% of search results were longer than two rows. As of Dec. 4, 2017, more than 51% are three or more rows long. That’s a dramatic and speedy overhaul of search engine results pages when we’re used to Google’s periodic tinkering shaking out over much longer periods.

In another relative rarity, Google confirmed the update, telling Search Engine Land, “We recently made a change to provide more descriptive and useful snippets, to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches. This resulted in snippets becoming slightly longer.”

What does this look like in results? For now, as brands and their SEO teams work to catch up to the change, you’re likely to see a mix of short and long snippets. For example, searching for “certified translation” could yield both the optimized, short meta description of TransPerfect’s translation services page…:

… and the longer snippet, taken from the on-page text of TransPerfect’s certified translation services page:

This does not represent a change, per say. Google has always chosen between your coded meta description in the page’s html and your on-page text, depending on which is more relevant to the search query, and which is an accurate summary of the page.

What’s different, for the moment, is that not many brands have optimized their meta descriptions or on-page text with an eye toward the longer snippets. So search results are going to be a mix of concise meta descriptions following the old standard, rambling page text that fits the query but likely gets cut off in ellipses as characters run out, and, rarest for now, expansive meta descriptions crafted with the new lengths in mind.

Implications for International Search

So how can you use this change to your advantage, particularly in international SEO?

One of the obstacles our global clients face, much like trying to cram too many cookies into a tin, is when they’ve crafted the perfect meta description in English, bumping right up against character limits, only to have translated content—such as German, with its long words and articles and general verbosity—expand well beyond SEO standards. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and other Asian languages present similar constraints due to double-byte (double-width) letters.

In our survey of German and French search engine results pages, about half draw from page meta descriptions and half from on-page text, and snippets top out just shy of 320 characters. For Japanese and Chinese results in Google, the maximum length was a bit shorter—247 for one Japanese snippet, and an average length of 122—with about half coming from meta descriptions and half from body content.

So the new snippets provide a bit more leeway for lengthier translation—but it’s not quite as simple as all that.

Our recommended best practices for SEO in any language still start with keyword research by native language SEO specialists to determine the right focus keywords for a website page. With Google’s emphasis on finding the best answers to customer search queries in page content, it’s more crucial than ever to think about what makes a website URL different from others on the site, and to consider more deeply the range of keywords that may match the context of page content.

For example, TransPerfect’s translation services page may rank for certified translations but speak to a range of services beyond that keyword, including document translation, machine translation, CAT tools, patent translation, etc. And the dedicated certified translations page will delve more deeply still into our linguist certification program, linguistic testing, industry and vertical specialization, and more. With lengthier snippets comes the opportunity to summarize in more detail the range of topics a URL covers, with a greater likelihood of hitting on more relevant keywords in search results—which means a longer keyword set per page than the old days of hammering one, two, or a few keywords repeatedly.

Because Google is more intent on providing longer snippets, even if it has to go into longer page content to grab them, it’s even more important to look beyond merely optimizing meta content and headers and give page content an SEO edit as well. This ties back to user experience, answering a customer’s question in the search query. Maybe your URL goes into several topics, separated by headers. It’s important to craft the body copy beneath each header with an eye toward where Google may look to summarize that section in a snippet. Of course, it could be that a long page covering a range of topics may better serve customers if it’s split into multiple URLs, so the keyword-content connection is more important than ever.

The takeaway for us is that we have more room in snippets—probably around 280 to 300 western characters, and a safe 140 to 150 double-byte characters—to cover a deeper keyword set for a given website URL and summarize the page in meta descriptions as an answer to customer search terms. But optimizing the entire page’s content for your target language ensures more potential refined snippets Google can draw from.

As with all things digital, what works today may be old hat—or stale cookies—tomorrow. The lesson? Don’t settle for the same old routine for keyword optimization or translations. Adapt to the new opportunity Google has provided. And test, test, test to see what works best for your website.

Erma Foutz, left, celebrates the holidays in 1949. Her sons Donn, Bob and Fred were too young, then, to know where her Christmas cookies were hidden. But they would catch on.

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