You Can Now Take Up Less Space in the SERPs If That’s What You Want

On September 24, Google announced the imminent rollout of new preview markup — namely one new HTML tag and three new meta robots attributes — that promised site owners stricter control over the preview snippets that represent their pages in search results. By “preview snippets”, they mean the descriptive paragraphs in each search result that show below the page’s title and URL. You know, these:

This one did actually come from our meta description, but don't be fooled into thinking that's how it always goes.

If you’re in SEO, the phrase “meta description” began knocking around in your head after reading that sentence; isn’t that what they’re talking about? Why don’t they just say that? Well, although preview snippets were for many years pulled exclusively and faithfully from meta descriptions, they have become less predictable in recent years as to their source, sometimes being pulled instead from page copy in cases where Google seems to think that some chunk of the copy makes a better match for the user’s query than the meta description does. (Snippets have also been subject to a few length-related experiments over the past few years, rather infamously doubling in length in certain cases beginning in November 2017, and then reverting to their previous ~155-character maximum just as abruptly in May 2018.)

Now of course, we’re all playing Google’s game and Google can change the rules whenever they want, but the rupture of what was historically a reliable one-to-one correspondence between meta description and preview snippet was a tough moment for those of us in the SEO game. After all, the preview snippet is the only call-to-action in all of search marketing that you get for free. It was nice to have total control over that field during the many years when we did. I remember a number of cases where I collaborated with clients to modify a meta description on a consistently high-ranking page in the interest of measuring the effect of the change on the page’s click-through rate. Sometimes the variation spurred more clicks than the original and sometimes it didn’t; the point is that the total control that we used to wield over the text in the preview snippet gave us the power to run these kinds of experiments in the first place, and every such experiment taught us something, whatever the result.

So you can be sure that we all stood at attention when we saw a post go up on the Google Webmasters Blog with a title like “More options to help websites preview their content on Google Search”. Were we about to get some relief from the stress of having our sites’ preview snippets decided by the arbitrary whims of the algorithm? If you don’t want to click over to read the post in full, here is the critical excerpt:

…we recognize that site owners may wish to independently adjust the extent of their preview content in search results. To make it easier for individual websites to define how much or which text should be available for snippeting and the extent to which other media should be included in their previews, we’re now introducing several new settings for webmasters.

Hmm. I guess I like the part about “to define… which text should be available for snippeting”, but the word “available” is kind of curious in that it seems to indicate that Google is still retaining the power to choose, i.e. you tell them which text is available for snippeting, but they still make the ultimate selection. And what’s with all the talk of “extent”?

As one should, I chose to carry on and read the fine print for each of these “several new settings” before investing too heavily in unpacking that introductory language. So as to afford the same experience to you, the reader, here are the three new meta robots tag attributes that are central to this unveiling, as they are each described in the post itself:

  • “max-snippet:[number]”New! Specify a maximum text-length, in characters, of a snippet for your page.

  • “max-video-preview:[number]”New! Specify a maximum duration in seconds of an animated video preview.

  • “max-image-preview:[setting]”New! Specify a maximum size of image preview to be shown for images on this page, using either “none”, “standard”, or “large”.

This is what they meant by emphasizing “extent”: specify a maximum, specify a maximum, specify a maximum. Those are your new powers. Well, the power to place a ceiling on the size of your preview snippet is a power! But is it one that anybody working to maximize their site’s SEO potential would ever want to exercise?

What about that new HTML tag that they introduced alongside the three meta robots attributes; what’s up with that? Let’s quote the post again, and this time we’ll include the example that they offer up about how to use it:

A new way to help limit which part of a page is eligible to be shown as a snippet is the “data-nosnippet” HTML attribute on span, div, and section elements. With this, you can prevent that part of an HTML page from being shown within the textual snippet on the page.

For example:

<p><span data-nosnippet>Harry Houdini</span> is undoubtedly the most famous magician ever to live.</p>

Oh! So in addition to the power to insist that your preview snippets be shorter, they are now also granting you the power to exclude sections of your page’s copy from snippet eligibility altogether. Wondering how you might ever use such a power? Google invites you to imagine that you had a page about Harry Houdini, and you wanted to make sure that the name “Harry Houdini” couldn’t be included in a preview snippet for that page about Harry Houdini. That would be an understandable desire, right? No it wouldn’t.

On Wednesday of last week, new announcements stated that support for this new markup would begin to materialize in live SERPs any day now. Here’s the announcement as it was dryly worded by the Google Webmasters Twitter account, linking back to the original post:

…and here’s how Danny Sullivan put it in an appropriately less dry tweet thread of his own, also linking back to the original post:

Sullivan’s tone echoes that of the original post on the subject: “sites can now choose”, and “allow[ing] sites to specify”, which reinforces the original post’s language of “we recognize that site owners may wish…” and “to make it easier”. They heard your wishes, and decided that you should be able to choose something that you couldn’t choose before! You are now allowed to specify something that was previously left to the mercies of the big uncaring algorithm! That’s empowering, right? Never mind the fact that the only power these tools grant you is the power to make your presence in search results smaller.

In the same way that a sheer size advantage is the most obvious and substantial edge that one fighter can have over another, the clearest way for a search result to stand out from the rest on the page is by taking up more space. This is why, in conversations with clients over the past seven years about the value of investing in structured data markup for rich snippets, I’ve always followed up my brief, ecstatically nerdy monologue about the semantic web by stating the simple fact that rich snippets award more SERP real estate to the pages that earn them, and that this benefit alone makes the work worth doing. It has never surprised me that this talking point has so reliably been the one to cement the client’s interest.

This most primal of SEO arguments compels site owners never to specify a maximum on any aspects of its SERP presence, and instead to pray that Google makes their site look as big as possible as often as possible, in as many types of search results as possible. Therefore, I don’t know who or what these new tools are for.

A fellow SEO in the @-replies to the Google Webmasters announcement tweet expressed the same confusion:

As of this writing, that question has earned no official response.

In a world where SEO gamesmanship wasn’t a thing — a world where every facet of a site’s search visibility was somehow left to Google and there was nothing a site owner could do to a page to make it stand out in a SERP — one could maybe imagine a meticulous site owner reaping some aesthetic benefit by using these new tools. For example, a site offering a completely immersive, visually thrilling experience might conceivably choose to use “max-image-preview: none” so as not to give away the game in the truncated and cheapened capacity that a small SERP thumbnail would force it into, instead saving the goods to unleash in full force upon the visitor after the click. But in that world, the owner of that site would have to be convinced that they were going to get the click in the first place, despite that choice to make the site take up less space, and appear less prominent, than its competitors’ sites in the SERP in question. And it’s virtually impossible to justify that logic, and therefore to imagine that world. That’s precisely why these new attributes seem not just useless for SEO, but potentially costly enough to a site’s search visibility that the wisdom of using them at all becomes questionable.

To make matters weirder still, I don’t even know what Google gets out of site owners using this markup. It’s no surprise at all that they took the “betterment of the web” tone in the messaging surrounding this release; that’s their rhetorical ace card and they play it every time. But in most cases when you can’t see their new thing as actually bettering the web, you need only to shift your focus slightly to see how it betters Google’s bottom line, most often by 1) making more or clearer user data available for them to harvest, or 2) incentivizing more spend on Google Ads. But this new preview-snippet-limiting markup — of which they seem proud, and which they are as happy as ever to try to sell us — mystifies me utterly as to its purpose. What do you think? What’s the point of this? What am I missing? What do we stand to gain from using this markup, and at the very least, what do they stand to gain by creating it?

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