Through most of its existence, Google+ has provided webmasters with the means to control the appearance of a page shared on Google+. By marking up a web page with the correct data, it was possible to reliably generate the desired title, image and description accompanying a link shared on Google+.
However, a recent update has removed descriptions altogether from Google+ snippets for pages. While titles and images still accompany Google+ web page links, the description has been replaced by the URL of the page in most circumstances.
For example, a shared or pasted link to this page would at one time generate this Google+ snippet:
Today, that same URL generates a Google+ snippet that looks like this:
I decided to conduct some simple experiments to determine if any of the methods that previously generated descriptions in snippets would work now, and to determine if webmasters could still control the appearance of snippet titles and images.
Descriptions are gone, but images and titles can still be declared
The documentation for Google+ snippets on the Google+ Platform site lists the following hierarchy of data points that are used to generate the title, image and description accompanying a page shared on Google+:
- Schema.org microdata (for what it's worth the page lists it exactly like this – no mention is made of RDFa)
- Open Graph protocol
- Title and meta "description" tags
- Best guess from page content
As you'll see below, my experiments confirmed that this hierarchy holds true for snippet titles and images, but not for descriptions. Descriptions were absent regardless of the data types present on the page.
Schema.org microdata, Open Graph, <title> and <meta> description and page content
Here the snippet correctly selected the schema.org "name" and "image" properties declared using microdata.
Here the snippet correctly selected the schema.org "name" and "image" properties declared using microdata, but ignored the "description" itemprop.
Open Graph only
Here the snippet correctly selected the snippet title from the og:title and og:image tags respectively. og:description was ignored.
<title>, <meta> description and <img> only present
Here the snippet correctly selected the snippet title from the <title> field, and displayed the first image present in the code (<img> alt attributes were not used in any of the variations). The <meta> description tag was not used.
No metadata present
Here the Google+ took its best guess in the absence of any metadata except the necessary "src" attribute for the <img> tag: the <h1> and some subsequent text, along with the first image on the page. Yet again, no description accompanied the snippet.
I should note that in all cases Google+ gave me the option of selecting the second image on the page.
In conclusion, Google+ is still respecting the data hierarchy for the generation of titles and images in Google+ snippets, but has replaced descriptions with the page URL or (apparently if the URL is too long to be displayed) the domain portion of the URL.
So have descriptions vanished from Google+ snippets for web page URLs? Not quite.
Descriptions live on in interactive posts
In the course of writing this piece, I stumbled across this post in my Google+ stream:
How did that post get an accompanying description? And what's with the "View" button? I was especially perplexed because I was unable to replicate the Googe+ snippet by copying and pasting the URL into a Google+ compose box.
It turns out that Mashable is leveraging the power of interactive Google+ posts.
If you were to go to Mashable and click on the "G+ Share" button accompanying a post (this is the post used in the example) you would be presented with this dialog:
Once I provided the app with permission to do its stuff (I had changed the sharing notification to "Only you" from the default "Your circles") and added a comment, this was the Google+ snippet generated:
The snippet mirrors the post title, description and image declared with Open Graph tags, which suggests that Google+ is still respecting the data hierarchy outlined above (while the Open Graph title and description content is identical to the <title> and <meta> description content, the image displayed mirrors the one declared with og:image, rather than the wider post image). And one way or another – unlike that same URL copied and pasted into Google+ – a description is included in the Google+ snippet.
Was the move to replace descriptions with URLs for "simply" shared links a design decision, or a mechanism intended to drive webmasters to embrace interactive posts? Given the nature of the Google+ redesign that coincided with this change (bigger and bolder) and the fact that I've found nothing actually announcing the change I would heavily lean toward the former explanation. It is worth noting in general, though, that richer Google+ snippets can be produced by using interactive posts.
UPDATE (8 May 2014) – Snippets are back, at least for articles and blog posts with images declared of a certain size and aspect ratio. Full specifications on the on this Google Developers help page. Hat tip to Mr. Dan Scott!