The world’s most popular search engine caused a stir in August when it published guidance on when and how it modifies or replaces page titles.
SEOs on Twitter complained about changes they’d noticed to the way their page titles get displayed in search results. In some cases, Google replaced page titles with H1 header elements. In others, it dropped words from the page title or appended new ones (often the company name) to it.
Google using header tags over title tags for search result snippets more often? Bug, feature, test? https://t.co/515PnMLwSG hat tip Robert Owen @Timberwise and @techjackie and @theaasifkhan pic.twitter.com/4VTgF2pk3J
— Barry Schwartz (@rustybrick) August 17, 2021
What’s changed in Google’s page title tactics
Manipulation of page titles in search engine results pages (SERPs) isn’t new. Google has displayed different page titles in SERPs since 2012.
But its approach to changing titles is different now. In the past, Google made changes based on the search query to help the page title line up with the search word or phrase.
Now Google says it is changing page titles based on the page content – including prominent text – instead of search queries. That means it might display your H1 header or other content from the page instead of the page title you spent time crafting.
Unfortunately, you can’t predict what Google will use. For now, it takes whatever it wants, including any words in the content and (possibly) text in links pointing to that page.
Fortunately, there is no indication that Google will stop including your page title among the ranking variables even if it changes the title on SERPs.
And, in many cases, Google still uses page titles word for word. According to an update to the August guidance, it uses the original page title 87% of the time (up from 80% in August).
It shouldn’t take you long to test whether Google is changing your page titles. Search for a phrase your website pages rank for (whether you’re ranking No. 1, No. 10, or lower) and see what page title shows up on the SERP.
How to craft page titles Google (probably) won’t replace
If you want to give your page titles a better chance of showing up on SERPs the way you intended it to, try these suggestions.
1. Avoid half-empty HTML titles
Google says one of its triggers for rewriting page titles is half empty HTML titles. So don’t create a page title like this:
| Site Name
2. Write descriptive titles
Take a fresh look at how you write your page titles. Clear page titles with some details are the best bet. Google says it will replace SEO page titles that are too vague or simply describe the website structure, like this:
Home | Site Name
3. Go for accuracy and clarity
Don’t try to make a page seem more up-to-date or more relevant than it is by monkeying with the page title. Google cracks down on page titles when the date doesn’t seem to match the content.
Keyword stuffing is another target. Don’t pack page titles with something like:
Ball Bearings, Bulk Ball Bearings, Steel Ball Bearings, Ball Bearings Supplier
4. Keep page title on the short side, but don’t obsess about length
Google doesn’t seem keen on long titles (although it doesn’t define an appropriate length).
Some marketers strive for no more than 60 characters because they believe that’s the standard. That’s a popular approach, but Google doesn’t say how many characters you can use or how many it considers with rankings.
Avoid unnecessarily long titles, but don’t stick to overly strict length limits. Keep page titles as short as they can be while accurately describing the page. Featuring keywords at the beginning of a page title isn’t essential, but it seems to help.
Still, don’t throw in words that don’t add anything.
For example, this title would work better for readers (and search engines) with fewer words:
5 Hiring Mistakes Any Company Could Make Today, Tomorrow and Next Year Without Better Planning | Fantastic XYZ Corporation in Anywhere, USA
Why you should still track and test page titles
You might wonder whether you should spend time tracking and optimizing page titles if Google will rewrite the bad ones anyway.
I think you should.
Yes, the title Google displays for your page could vary by search query and what content Google decides is important. But refining your page title tags can help the page get the best possible rankings.
Page titles may matter less to rankings over time. After all, Google has discounted page elements in the past, including knocking meta tag keywords and meta descriptions off the ranking-factor stage. For now, though, I think it’s still worth the effort.
What to consider when testing page title variations
For years, I’ve thought of page titles as my playground. As long as the tactic still works, I’ll spend considerable time testing variations for my clients.
Here are a few things I recommend thinking about when optimizing and testing your SEO page titles.
Track click-through rates and organic traffic
You can get a sense of your click-through rate by analyzing your Google Search Console data (divide website page clicks by impressions). At the same time, keep tabs on your organic traffic to that page. Sure, traffic can be affected by seasonality trends. But you should have a handle on the norm. Look for any unexpected drops. Adjust the page title if the numbers aren’t in your favor.
Google gives CMI a featured snippet at the top of the SERPs for the phrase, “how to get more views on Tik Tok.” The actual page title is:
The TikTok Algorithm: How to Get More Views
Note the colon; I’ve found that a colon or a question is an easy way to introduce keywords early in SEO page titles.
But remember what I said about changing things when the numbers aren’t in your favor? The opposite is also true. As long as the numbers are in your favor, leave things alone.
For example, Content Marketing Institute ranks No. 1 on Google for the search phrase “content marketing definition.”
The keyword comes at the end in the page title “What Is Content Marketing?”. But it works, so it stays.
Similarly, CMI ranks No. 2 on Google for the phrase “visual storytelling.”
Both the header and the page title are “3 Stunning Visual Storytelling Examples.”
The presence of the number and adjective delay the keyword phrase “visual storytelling.” But there’s no need to tinker with what’s working. (It probably helps that the page title is short even with the introductory words.)
I shared some examples of a company that could benefit from playing with page titles in my recent talk at Content Marketing World. I suspect Pillsbury would get far more top rankings and more organic traffic if it made a few minor changes to its page titles.
For its page with the title “Easiest-Ever Pumpkin Pie Recipe – Pillsbury.com,” I’d recommend placing the keywords first.
New Option 1:
<title>Pumpkin Pie Recipe Easiest-Ever – Pillsbury.com</title>
Then I looked at other data and noticed “homemade” and “best” among keywords Pillsbury features with other recipes. Why not work them into the pumpkin pie page title?
New Option 2:
<title>Homemade Pumpkin Pie Recipe (Best, Easiest Ever) – Pillsbury.com</title>
Pillsbury seems to want to rank No. 1 for “easiest-ever” or “easiest-ever pumpkin pie.” Well, Google indicates only 10 monthly searches for “easiest-ever pumpkin pie.”
The page does rank No. 1 for “easy pumpkin pie recipe” (12,100 monthly searches) and “easy pumpkin pie” (6,600 monthly searches). Not bad.
But when I last checked, Pillsbury ranked No. 13 for “pumpkin pie recipe” (246,000 monthly searches). Maybe it’s no big deal. It’s just about 3 million searches a year.
Consider dropping the brand name
I understand why companies insist on including a brand name in page titles. They think it builds awareness or conveys trust.
I can’t help but wonder what keyword phrases don’t rank because so many characters are taken up by an already well-known brand or formal business name.
Content Marketing Institute doesn’t appear in SEO title tags for its articles. Pillsbury includes Pillsbury.com in title tags for its recipes. I don’t think such a well-known brand needs it.
What’s your approach?
How often do you adjust page titles, especially if you’re not ranking like you thought they might? Do you exceed 60 characters? Have you done any tests to see how improved rankings affect organic traffic and other metrics like bounce rates and conversions?
You still have a window to make page titles support your SEO strategy. Spend some time in the page title playground and let me know how it turns out.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute