When we search an engine like Google, each result is composed of a hyperlinked TITLE plus a short text description. These are sourced from each web page’s TITLE and META Description (HTML elements). Or, so think the un-initiated…
Those with basic SEO knowledge know the Meta Description has been selectively ignored by search engines for some time. Search engines often choose to display snippets of text from other parts of the page. Generally, this happens when Google feels the Meta Description content is not as relevant to the query as other copy within the body. The positive: improved relevance; the negative: site owner has little control. In a similar development, Google has amp’ed up the application of this principle, now actively rewriting site pages’ TITLE tag presentation as well.
First – the basics: what’s going on?
Next – what does this mean to the average site owner?
First, the evidence: an example of Google changing the text they choose to display in the place of a site’s TITLE tag:
The query: tow behind brush mower. The result is perfectly relevant: Tow-Behind Brush Mowers – DR® Power Equipment. When we look at the code, though, it’s apparent that Google has selected to display this TITLE over what the site owner has coded:
The coded TITLE tag is: DR® Power Equipment – Brush Hog / Brush Mower – clear land / brush – mow saplings. This is quite different than the displayed, non-optimized TITLE.
Advice to the Average Site Owner
First, a little common sense: a TITLE tag’s relevance to the page content and phrase searched is more important than algorithmic tweaking. If your TITLEs are irrelevant to the page or query, it’s likely your pages will not be displayed or the factors below will be amplified. Make sure your TITLEs accurately reflect the content of each page.
Moving forward, let’s look to Google’s May search quality highlights for guidance on better controlling the TITLE tag re-write. In it, they mention three algorithmic tweaks:
- “Trigger alt title when HTML title is truncated. [launch codename "tomwaits", project codename "Snippets"] We have algorithms designed to present the best possible result titles. This change will show a more succinct title for results where the current title is so long that it gets truncated. We’ll only do this when the new, shorter title is just as accurate as the old one.”
- “Better demotion of boilerplate anchors in alternate title generation. [launch codename "otisredding", project codename "Snippets"] When presenting titles in search results, we want to avoid boilerplate copy that doesn’t describe the page accurately, such as “Go Back.” This change helps improve titles by avoiding these less useful bits of text.”
- “Efficiency improvements in alternative title generation. [launch codename "TopOfTheRock", project codename "Snippets"] With this change we’ve improved the efficiency of title generation systems, leading to significant savings in cpu usage and a more focused set of titles actually shown in search results.”
Translated, this means:
- If your TITLE tags are far more than 70 characters long, shorten them to that standard.
- If your TITLE tags are boilerplate – generated by your CMS or eCommerce system – make sure there is some custom element in that TITLE, even if it’s “Page 2″.
- This seems to say they’ve developed their TITLE tag generation systems to the point that they’re saving cpus by offering a “focused” set of TITLEs. “Focused”, meaning, they’re limiting the TITLE tag data set (in quantity and character count) in their index, I propose. Expect less and less control of your TITLE tags if you do not comply with the above rules…
Are you seeing this for any of your pages? What does this mean for the future of on-page SEO? After all, Google’s already pretty forgiving of HTML errors. If they’re now ok with poor TITLE and Meta Descriptions, what’s next?
Special thanks to PM Digital’s SEO Intern Peiyu Lin for her assistance in compiling this blog post!