Google’s influence over web page snippets has been around since the dawn of time. But a recent change to title tag representation within Search has caught the attention of SEO professionals.
I’ll try to keep the nuance alive and well in this post by trying not to make too many concrete statements (because fault can be easy to find), but I did want to unpack some of the changes that have happened over the past couple of days.
The change is one, like many others from Google, where it can be quite difficult to put your finger on exactly what has changed. But as SEOs, our spidey-sense starts to tingle, letting us know that something is up.
My post will first start with some recent history of web page snippets on Google, I’ll then explore what I believe has happened with the recent change to title tags, followed by a case study involving a title tag taken from a completely different page, along with some concluding thoughts on the situation.
Some history for Google’s web page snippets
When it comes to snippets on Google, there are several aspects that have been known to fluctuate. Each of these aspects include:
- Pixel limit: while the limit for how much content that can display within a title tag or meta description can vary a lot based on device type, there are still rough pixel limits that are followed by SEO professionals (often simplified to just ‘characters’). Google can sometimes make the pixel limit longer or shorter for each meta data element.
- Modification by query: this is one that has been more noticeable in recent years. Despite our best efforts to write a representative title and description for a page, Google will still likely modify the snippet based on the query. The query itself is perhaps the most influential of all, with ~70% of meta descriptions being re-written according to a recent study.
- Complete replacement: this is when Google will alter the snippet completely because the snippet that has been set for the page does not represent the content well enough. I’ll get into this more shortly, but this is one of the key impacts that I’ll be exploring within this post.
In recent years, the most noticeable change I can think of relates to the pixel limit of the meta description. I wrote about this change in May of 2018, where Google made meta descriptions much shorter for some queries.
This was on the back of Google making meta descriptions particularly long (roughly twice the length), with there then being the opportunity to take up more space. But the lesson there was to not go ahead and update your snippets, because Google ended up reverting the change quite quickly.
Aside from this change, meta data on Google can be best described as a feature that “ebbs and flows”. Forever changing, often in quite a discrete way that is unworthy of mention or altering our existing approach.
What has changed with title tags on Google?
The original theory was that there has been a widespread change where Google is taking header tags from a page and replacing them with the title tag. This theory (reported by many) certainly has merit, but there looks to be more complexity when digging deeper.
From what I can see, there is no “one factor” involved with this change, with an algorithmic approach designed to create better titles in Google’s search results as a whole. Whether that be taking the new title from a header tag, from a different HTML element, or effectively pulling it out of thin air.
As an overall result of this update to title tags, it looks like title tag snippets are now shorter. This isn’t because the pixel limit has been brought down, but instead an indirect result of a “readability and relevance algorithm” designed to change how title tags are represented in Search.
An example of this can be seen for the query “wooden furniture melbourne” when searching from Australia. Before the recent title tag update, the snippet included several locations and the site name was missing due to truncation (going beyond the desktop px limit). The update resulted in the following change:
Overnight, Google has altered the title for this search result. Instead of including Sydney, Perth and other locations in the title, Google has decided to refine this down to just Melbourne. Whether this be from Google suggesting that they know the business mainly services Melbourne or it being due to the location I’m searching from.
The other aspect to this change is the brand name that sits on the end of the title. While the title tag that has been set for the page does have the brand name at the end (hidden via px limit truncation), this has been slotted on by Google. We know this because the HTML has the brand name referenced with a vertical bar, whereas a hyphen has been added by Google.
The curious case of the title tag: brought to you by Lily Ray
I’ve said in the past that Lily Ray’s tweets about SEO are so good that even Google knows it. This situation is no different, where Lily uncovers a change related to Google’s title tag update that will get you thinking.
Normally, Google will just switch out the title tag that has been set in exchange for a header tag or another section of content from the page. This is an easy switch for Google, because the algorithm is confident enough to trust another relevant piece of text from the page.
This case study relates to a page that had its title tag re-written by Google, but Google’s suggested text was not within the source code of the page. Quite a surprising scenario based on my experience.
What we’ve got here is a page that has a specific title tag that has been set within the HTML:
But the result is that Google isn’t using the title tag in their search results that has been set. The title that is showing within Google’s search results is the following:
The title is structured like a heading, which makes you think it must have been taken from somewhere on the page. And to my surprise, it hasn’t. Google has taken this heading from a completely different page on the site.
When reviewing internal backlinks for the page (I tend to use Ahrefs – a leading SEO tool – for this), we can see that there is another page on the site that links to this article with the heading that Google is displaying in search results.
And the culprit is… a tag page! A page that has been created by the site for all articles mentioning the individual from the piece. This page can be found here and looks like the following, with the heading clearly visible.
This goes to show the lengths that Google will go to in order to generate what they think is a “better” title tag, even if it is from an internal link directed to the article itself. It is also interesting to note that with this same title tag replacement (similar to the example mentioned earlier), the brand name is included with a hyphen instead of the vertical bar which is the site-wide template for the site.
This is an example of how the title tag for a page can be re-written based on an internal link-related signal. With this example, it does look to be an improvement on what was previously showing in Google’s search results – providing a better preview of the content to come.
Note: the title tag that Google has added to their search results for this example actually appears to be shorter than the previous version (based on pixel count). This is where the “overall decline” reference comes into play, because I have seen examples of some pages declining in length, others increasing, but appears to be an overall decline based on Rank Ranger’s data so far.
Overall, it is quite difficult to sum up this change from Google in one succinct sentence. This is the case with many changes that are algorithmic and multi-faceted in nature. And that’s the way it should be.
In the vast majority of scenarios, this update to title tags on Google can be ignored by SEOs. Continuing as you were previously, keeping in mind that Google has the ability (as they always did) to re-write and re-restructure your snippets.
For me, this change to title tags just represents more of what we’ve experienced in the past for pages, but perhaps making the examples of this more clear and widespread for sites.
As a summary for the findings from the title tag update, here are some concluding comments:
- Google made a change to how title tags are shown for sites sometime around August 17th/18th in 2021. This change was originally identified as related to header tags being replaced with the title tag.
- Overall, there has been a decline in the length of title tags (according to Rank Ranger) within Google’s search results on both mobile and desktop. This however doesn’t appear to be a result of a pixel limit change.
- For many sites, the title tag has been shortened in an attempt to provide a “better” view of the content that a user is about to land on. In some instances, the new title has been taken from header tags, internal links, image alt text, or even made up completely by Google.
- Across various examples, I’m seeing that Google really wants to make sure that the brand name is visible within the title tag, so it can be re-written to become well-suited to having the brand name on the end of the snippet. Google prefers to use a hyphen, and will even choose this over a vertical bar that has been specified within the HTML.
- Nothing is set in stone here and isn’t particularly “new”. There has however been a widespread change that has been enough for SEOs to take notice and realise that title tags have been re-written for some pages.
With a lot of changes that Google rolls out, Google generally has the intent of not trying to make unnecessary work for sites. So I wouldn’t go ahead and start changing your title tags for pages just because of this update.
When approaching SEO, we need to come to terms with the idea that Google won’t always show what we want as snippets in their search results. But just because they’re not showing what we have specified, that doesn’t always mean that either party is at fault.
If Google wants to restructure your snippets across different devices and for various queries over time, that’s fine. There are more important things for you to worry about: by focusing on the stuff that we have direct control over (like improving the content on the page itself).
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Frequently Asked Questions:
If Google displays a different title in their search results to what is specified in the <title> tag, will this impact rankings for that page?
No. Google has confirmed that when they show a different title in search results compared to what has been specified, this will not impact your rankings for that page. What has been specified within the <title> is what Google will use as a ranking input for your page. – Source
Is Google using link anchors as titles for pages in their search results something that is new?
No. This is something that Google has had the capability of doing for quite some time. Consider an example where a page has been blocked via robots.txt (preventing it from being crawled), Google could then use a link anchor as a signal from another page to populate the snippet. – Source
Does this update to title snippets in Google’s search results have anything to do with passage-based indexing or passage-based ranking?
No. This change to title snippets does not relate to either passage-based indexing or passage-based ranking. – Source