Have you ever wondered how Google determines what to show as the snippet of text between the title and URL for a listing in the organic search engine results pages (SERPs)? Most people think there is no method to Google’s madness for picking snippets. However, if you spend a little time doing searches, looking at the SERPs, and then evaluating the HTML of those URLs being presented, you can quickly see that there is a pattern.
Three sources of Google snippets
It is important to understand “how” Google picks the snippet that they display in the SERPs so that you can use it to your advantage. With the exception of the last source mentioned below, Google’s seems to pick the source of the snippet based on their desire to highlight ALL of the keywords from the search phrase in the snippet.
There seems to be three sources for Google SERP snippets if one is displayed:
• the meta description HTML element,
• snippets constructed from content on the page, or
• the Open Directory Project (ODP or DMOZ).
I’ll discuss these three snippet sources in the sections below.
Meta description value as the Google search snippet
It is well worth the time spent to set the meta description by hand for each page of your site IMO. Optimizing the meta description element does two things:
• Increases the number of times that the meta description is displayed as the snippet in the SERPs.
• Increases the likelihood that users will click-thru to your site when your URL is shown in the SERPs.
Having a great meta description with a call to action is important to click-thru-rates. IMO getting Google to show your meta description if it has been optimized to promote click-thru-rates is MUCH better than simply letting Google construct a random snippet. Why leave the snippet that is shown to chance?
As I mentioned earlier, Google wants the snippet shown in the SERP to contain ALL of the main keywords from the search phrase so that they can highlight them all. You can use this information to your advantage. Whether your page’s meta description is shown as the snippet in Google’s SERPs depends on whether or not it contains all of the keywords from the search phrase.
Assuming your page is well optimized, the targeted keyword phrase(s) found in the title “should” contain the keyword phrase(s) most often used to find the URL in the SERPs. For this reason when you write your meta description for a page, not only should you include a call to action, but you should also try to include ALL of the keywords from the optimized title element. If you cannot include them all, then at least include the keywords that make up the primary keyword phrase from the title element. This will increase the likelihood that your meta description is shown often as the snippet.
The key to getting your meta description to display as the snippet is remembering that it will only be displayed if all of the keywords from the search phrase appear in the meta description. If all of the major keywords from the search phrase do NOT appear in the meta description then Google will attempt to construct a snippet of their own.
Search result snippets constructed by Google
Google excels at constructing snippets of their own using content from the page when a suitable meta description is not found. The problem with this is that you have little to no control over what is being displayed as the snippet for your URL in the Google’s SERPs. They may sometimes construct a “good” snippet that entices the user to click-thru to your site. Other times they may construct unattractive snippets that can hurt your URL’s click-thru-rate.
Google used to simply piece together one or more random sentence fragments from the page that contained the various keywords that made up the search phrase in order to construct the snippet. You can tell when they have done this because the snippet will have several ellipses (…) throughout it.
For example, I found the following constructed snippet as a result of a search for “samsung hdtv troubleshooting”:
Notice how the snippet is made up of 2 sentence fragments and how all of the keywords from the search phrase appear in the snippet and are highlighted.
Google is constantly testing various ways of building snippets. However, as mentioned earlier, they always seem to construct snippets in such a way as to allow them to highlight ALL of the keywords from the search phrase if at all possible.
ODP or DMOZ descriptions as the Google snippet
If for some reason Google does not find a meta description element in the HTML document located at a URL and cannot construct a snippet from the content of the page, the will check the Open Directory Project or DMOZ to see if the URL is listed in DMOZ. If found then they will use the DMOZ description as the snippet. Otherwise, the URL may appear with no snippet.
Length of Google snippets
Google has traditionally limited the snippet length to 150 characters. So it is generally a good idea to limit your meta descriptions to a maximum of 150 characters so that they will not be truncated.
However, Google announced recently that they are now sometimes showing longer snippets for long tail search phrases of more than 3 keywords.
For example, the following listing appears when I search for “samsung hdtv troubleshooting snowy picture”:
Notice how the snippet is about 315 characters in length.
Google snippet takeaways
The main thing that you should take away from this post is that it is important to understand how Google chooses the snippet to display so that you can:
• Maximize the number of times your meta description is shown as the snippet by including all keywords from the title element of the web page.
• Maximize click-thru-rates when your URL appears in the SERPs.
Try searching for random terms at Google and see if you can reproduce the observations I’ve made above about Google snippets.