In August 2021, Google rolled out an update to change the way that some title tags are generated within the search engine results pages.
This change has been confirmed to affect around 13% of web pages that either have no page titles or what Google considers to be a poor web page title.
Google used to generate titles for these pages based on the users search query. However, the new system seems to apply a static web page title tag to the overall page.
That’s a move from being dynamically driven by the user’s search query to being static based on the content of the page.
Whether you think that’s good or bad, the best way to avoid Google controlling your web page titles altogether is to get them right the first time.
Why not check out our video of this blog post, alternatively, read on to find out how to write title tags that Google won’t change!
What Are Webpage Titles In The World Of SEO?
Whether you refer to them as web page titles, title tags or now known as title links, these are the clickable blue links you’ll see on a search engine results page.
Title tags are one of the primary signals people use to determine the relevance of a web page to their search query so good title tag optimization is vital.
As well as this, they’re also used for navigational purposes for when you want to click on them and visit that web page.
Why Should You Have Good Webpage Title Tags?
Page titles are very important for SEO.
They’re key for helping users decide which web page to visit when searching for a particular topic.
An engaging page title helps the website stand out from others ranking in the search results, which means they’re vital for encouraging more click throughs.
It’s commonly debated whether click through rate is in fact a primary ranking signal, but what we do know is that a high click through rate signals a positive user experience.
And User Experience is certainly a ranking factor.
Alongside click through rate, bounce rate and dwell time are all used by Google’s RankBrain, a component of Google’s core algorithm, to rank websites for each search term.
If your title tag accurately summarizes the content, then your users are more likely to stick around, which again supports a positive user experience.
With this new update, Google wants to make page titles more accurate to the user which better reflects the page content instead of the search query.
Common Issues With Title Tags & Why Google Might Change Them
The best thing about this update is that Google has now given us guidance on the common issues with web page title links and the reasons why the search engine might change them.
Google tells us that before the update, the search engine would change around 20% of page title tags.
But now only 13% will be affected.
This is because they’re taking a more targeted approach to changing title links, looking to change only those where the title element might not describe the content as well as it could.
Google lists these as the reasons why the title link in the search results might differ from the title element.
- Firstly, title tags are incomplete, meaning they’re either half-empty or completely missing any kind of descriptive text.
- The title tag hasn’t been updated to reflect an update to the main content. This discrepancy could exist on a something like a Black Friday sale page that uses the same URL year after year.
- The title element doesn’t accurately reflect the main content.
- There’s repeated boilerplate text in the title elements for a subset of pages within a site. This means that the text is repeated for a number of titles therefore creating duplicate title tags. The example used by Google is a forum with separate pages for different seasons of the same TV show. Where the unique identifier, in this case the season number, is omitted from the title element, Google can detect the correct season number as included on the webpage and alter the title accordingly.
If your page title contains any of these issues, then Google will generate new text for the page title link.
How Google Generates Page Title Links
Google will create an alternative title tag using the visible information available on that webpage.
So it’ll search for the text that users can actually see that best represents that content.
It’s likely to get that information from:
- The content in the <title> element of course
- Heading elements, such as <h1> and <h2> tags
- Content that’s large and prominent through the use of style treatments
Other elements that might be considered include:
- Other text contained in the page
- And finally any anchor text used on the page
What Does This Update Mean For Your SEO Strategy?
So now that you understand what this update is and how it works, you’re probably wondering what this means for your overall SEO strategy.
You’ll be pleased to hear that this update may not directly impact your rankings in the short term.
This is because Google still crawls the page title tag as written directly on the web page for indexing, meaning the text within the <title> element.
However, if Google does choose to change your title links, this can cause fluctuations in click through rates, which has the ability to impact your rankings over time.
This is why it’s vital to optimize page title tags directly on the webpage rather than just letting the search engine change these for you.
Optimized page titles are also a signal to Google that the content is of good quality, and of course, quality content is a primary ranking factor. And remember, titles will only be altered by Google if they don’t meet this new criteria. So the better you can optimize them, the more control you will have over how your brand appears within the search engine results pages.
But how do you know which page titles are being changed by Google?
Well if you use a tool like Ahrefs, there is a feature within their Site Audit report which highlights where the page title in the title elements doesn’t match the title shown in the search results.
This will help you quickly identify web page titles that may need your attention.
How To Write Good Page Title Tags
With this in mind let’s have a look at how to write good, SEO page title tags that are less likely to be altered by Google.
The accompanying documentation to this update tells SEOs exactly how to optimize page title links and what to avoid.
This is more than Google usually gives us when announcing an update so can we thank them for that!
In the “Advanced SEO” section of Google Search Central, they advise that SEOs:
- Make sure every page on your site has its own, unique title specified in the <title> element.
- Create distinctive, descriptive title tags for each page and avoid overused phrases. Unique titles help users to differentiate between the pages in the search results.
- The descriptions need to be specific enough that it explains exactly what’s on the page. This means avoiding standard descriptors such as ‘FATJOE blog’. Instead we’d use “Agency Academy: Free SEO & Link Building Guides” which much better explains the content on that page.
- But you’ll want to avoid title tags being truncated, or cut off by Google, by keeping title tags concise and under 65 characters.
- Brand the titles when appropriate by adding the name of the site either at the start or the end of the title, separated from the rest of the text by a colon, hyphen or pipe.
- Avoid vague text such as “Home” for the home page.
- As with all SEO, avoid keyword stuffing. Google favours title tags that are supporting their users in answering their search queries and overstuffed, over-optimized titles aren’t doing that so include your target keywords sparingly.
While following these best practices won’t guarantee Google doesn’t change how your titles appear in search, it will limit the possibility and ensure you control as much of the user experience as possible.
A fun side note! There were a number of teething problems soon after the launch with Google picking up ‘vice president’ in the text of the official Whitehouse.gov page and changing the title, which of course Twitter had some great fun with.
So while they iron out the update, if you do spot any anomalies you can report any feedback to Google’s dedicated forum.