Google+ Quietly Removes Descriptions from Snippets

by Aaron Bradley on June 18, 2013

in Social Media

Google+ Quietly Removes Descriptions from Snippets - Except for Interactive Posts

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  While titles and images still accompany Google+ web page links, the description has been replaced by the URL of the page in most circumstances.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:

Old Google+ Snippet - With Description

Today, that same URL generates a Google+ snippet that looks like this:

New Google+ Snippet - Without Description

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+:

  1. Schema.org microdata (for what it's worth the page lists it exactly like this – no mention is made of RDFa)
  2. Open Graph protocol
  3. Title and meta "description" tags
  4. 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.

Google+ Snippet Generated with All Data Points Present

Schema.org only

Here the snippet correctly selected the schema.org "name" and "image" properties declared using microdata, but ignored the "description" itemprop.

Google+ Snippet Generated with only schema.org in Microdata Present

Open Graph only

Here the snippet correctly selected the snippet title from the og:title and og:image tags respectively.  og:description was ignored.

Google+ Snippet Generated with only Open Graph Present

<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.

Google+ Snippet Generated with only Standard HTML Metadata

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.

Google+ Snippet Generated with No Metadata Present

I should note that in all cases Google+ gave me the option of selecting the second image on the page.

Second Image on the Page (No alt Attribute or Structured Data)

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:

An Mashable Post on Google+

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:

Mashable Dialog Generating when Sharing a Post on Google Plus

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:

Mashable Google Plus Snippet Generated from an Interactive Post

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!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colin June 19, 2013 at 1:41 am

I spotted that, wondered if I was doing something wrong at first…

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2 Elroy van Ouwerkerk June 19, 2013 at 2:04 am

Nice tests you did here. It gives a good explanation about the descriptions and sharing on G+. The decision of using the share or just the + button on your website depends on the growth chances.

The + button will most likely be used more often than the share button. Just because of the fact that you have to accept that the app would like to see your profile data. So when you have a large community you have a better chance that the share button will be a success than when you don’t.

@Aaron, does this test make you change your g+ button?

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3 Aaron Bradley June 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Hi Elroy. Nope, no changes to any of my Google+ buttons as a result of this investigation.

I should point out that a Google+ +1 button and Google+ “share button” are one and the same: that is, the +1 button provides you with an opportunity to share the resource on your own Google+ timeline (with or without a comment). The “share” button on Mashable isn’t a native Google+ button, but actually an app created with the Google+ Platform.

To that last point this test has led me to ponder the possibilities of building similar apps, but at this point I lack the technical wherewithal to do so, and I’m also not certain that this kind of button and snippet can be generated without the user providing permission to the app (which gives me pause, as this is obviously a potential show-stopper for many would-be sharers).

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4 Bill Bean June 19, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Google keeps us hopping.Thanks for doing this work, Aaron. Very helpful.

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5 Rob Jenkins June 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

I have been seeing a ton of small tweaks here and there over the last few months. They seem like they are trying to fiddle with every little option in preparation for some big push.

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6 Jakob June 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

Since the update Google+ also doesn’t show the correct snippet image of my blog. What am I doing wrong?

For example if you share this article: http://tabletcommunity.de/news/android-4-3-leak-offenbart-nur-sehr-minimale-anderungen-in-der-kommenden-version/
it outputs our logo as snippet image, even though I added itemprop=”image” to the featured image.

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7 Aaron Bradley July 16, 2013 at 9:29 am

Sorry it took me a couple of weeks to reply Jakob, but either Google has tweaked things since then or you’ve changed something, as Google+ is indeed displaying the image identified by itemprop=”image”.

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8 Mark July 16, 2013 at 10:28 pm

It seems a bit of a backward step on Google’s part.

I thought it might be because they wanted us to use their version of structured data so I added the meta itemprop=”name” but it made no difference. G+ still ignored it.

When I checked with the Google Structured Data Verification tool, it too ignored my preferred title and went with the base one.

However, interestingly in the extracted data section it still showed my preferred title. Meaning that while Google can still easily read and extract the data it is choosing not to use it.

Be interesting to know why?

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9 Faroque April 24, 2014 at 4:09 am

Hi Aron, Need help urgently !!!

Here is my site url- rl- “[URL redacted]″. It has twitter, og & general tags with “Article” schema (also tried with other), but no luck! It doesn’t show “description”.

I have found another link that mentioned if you use “Article” schema then it will show the discretion. (Note: also asked question there referring your site).

But if you share this link normally without interactive post it shows the description. how? From the source it has been found that it has twitter, og & general tags which are also present in my site. Any idea, or I missed something? Note: I do not put the “canonical” link. Is it must ?

One more thing, how to clear share cache forcefully for facebook, twitter, linkedIn & google+. I tried all of the their developer tools, but doesn’t clear, they so the cached data. Only if you shorten url with “https://bitly.com/shorten/” then it works for Facebook only, but there should be some way…

Regards.

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10 Aaron Bradley May 8, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Thanks for your comment Faroque, and sorry for my delay in replying. I may not hit all of your points but…

In regard to Google+ descriptions, things have changed since I originally wrote the article – succinctly summarized here:
https://plus.google.com/106943062990152739506/posts/S8rngDMCpUZ

(UPDATE – mere moments after writing this I was alerted to a new help article describing these changes. See the bottom of the main article for details.)

Regarding clearing the share cache for social networks, I’m not exactly sure to what cache you’re referring. I do know that you can force Facebook to recognized the revised Open Graph tags on a revised page by running the URI through the Open Graph Debugger (this will clear Facebook’s cache of that page’s content).

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11 Steve Eynon July 11, 2014 at 9:35 am

Hi, I just noticed that if you remove the image from a Snippet (click on the X) then Google will display the description in its place.

It seems you now have an either / or option!

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12 Aaron Bradley July 11, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Thanks a lot Steve. I did a bit of digging and it turns out an image isn’t necessary at all – you can see the results of my test here.

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13 Kelly Martin July 14, 2014 at 9:27 am

Hi I seem to have lost my search description too, however other people I know sharing blogs have not. Someone I know has a squarespace blog and she has a large image and description and title showing when she shares to Google+ and another friend has a blogspot blog (like me) and she has the large image, title and description. Are you sure Google has taken this away? And how do I a description?

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14 Aaron Bradley July 14, 2014 at 10:35 am

Ironically, as per my latest investigative results on the subject – in short that a page requires either og:type of article or a schema.org/article declaration – Google-owned blogspot blogs aren’t currently producing snippets because the blog post is declared as a blog post rather than as an article. E.g.:

<div class='post' data-id='1840867727929558553' itemscope='' itemtype='http://schema.org/BlogPosting'>

It’s ironic because, as per the example, official Google blog posts don’t generate rich snippets in Google+.

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