In August 2021, Google officially introduced a new method of generating search listing titles or SEO titles. This created a furore in the SEO community and beyond, with many worried about Google re-writing title tags (the HTML code that tells search engines what you want your search listing’s title to be). In fact, even leaders in the industry saw significant reductions to their click-through rates as a result of their SEO titles having been re-written (e.g. WordStream saw its CTR drop by up to 37%) sometimes without a change to their search rankings.
If your marketing strategy and/or revenue relies at least in part on organic search traffic, this update will impact you. Here’s what you need to know to future-proof your business and recover lost traffic if you’ve been negatively impacted already.
Google writing its own SEO titles isn’t new
Before I get into what’s new, it’s important you understand that Google’s been writing its own SEO titles for almost a decade. Prior to the August update, Google would mostly reproduce your title tags to create the SEO titles for its search listings, though sometimes it would modify a title based on its user’s search query.
The way it writes its own SEO titles has changed.
The new way Google generates SEO titles
Generally, Google no longer modifies SEO titles based on a user’s search query because it believes its new system is doing a better job of describing content. There is no longer a reason to include parts of the search query in the SEO title.
Google will take the following into consideration when generating the SEO title for any given piece of content:
- The title tag
- Text within the
<h1>tags (the h1 heading or page title)
- Text within other heading tags (h2-h6 headings)
- Content that’s large and prominent on a page
- The text within links that point to the page (backlink anchor text)
- Other text on the page
Instances when Google may not use the title tag you’ve specified
The most likely reasons for one of your title tags to be ignored or not replicated faithfully are:
- You haven’t specified a title tag
- It’s the same as for other pages on your site
- It contains ‘boilerplate’ language (e.g. the title tag for your homepage is ‘home’ or you’ve used the same title tag for several closely related pages like different colour variations of the same product)
- Part of your title tag is missing (e.g. you’ve used a template that’s malfunctioned)
- It’s too long
- You’ve stuffed it with keywords
- Your title tag is out of date (e.g. you’ve updated a date on the page and forgotten to update the title tag)
- It doesn’t accurately reflect the content you have on the page all the time (for dynamic pages)
In other words, if your title tag doesn’t do a good job of describing your page, Google will probably not reproduce it in its SEO title.
Why Google writes its own SEO titles
Google’s job is to provide the best search experience for its users (so it attracts as many users as possible in order to attract as much ad revenue as possible). To do that, it needs to accurately describe content in its search listings. So, if it feels your title tag doesn’t do that, it’ll write its own SEO title.
What ‘title tag re-writing’ is Google likely to do?
When creating its own SEO titles, Google may:
- Add the site name if it believes that’s helpful to search users
- Select the most relevant portions of a long title tag rather than truncating the end and potentially missing more useful parts of the tag
- Use the page title (text between the
<h1>tags) if the title tag isn’t very good
How often is Google writing its own SEO titles?
Google faithfully replicates around 87% of title tags, so there’s no reason to panic. If you’re writing good title tags, chances are most of them are being replicated in your search listings.
What issues have websites had as a result of this algorithm update?
While a lot websites have seen increased traffic as a result of this update, many reportedly lost traffic as a result of Google using h1 headings instead of title tags for its SEO titles. For example, @lilyraynyc (Twitter) reported a client lost over 60,000 clicks in a week due to a 0.6% decline in click-through rates (CTR).
As another example, prominent digital advertising brand, WordStream, saw CTR decreases of up to 37%!
A lot (and I really mean a lot!) of SEO professionals have complained about the changes, citing instances where the change has resulted in a decline in traffic. But at least some of those cases were a result of poor SEO practices anyway. As an example, WordStream said the following as an example of the reason the CTR dropped on one of their top pieces of content:
Google had changed the title displaying on the SERP, from ‘Free Keyword Tool’ to ‘Learn More About The FREE Keyword Tool.’ This was not the title we had given the page — it was an H1 tag from a section pretty far down on the page.
Now, if that wasn’t a typo and they really did have an h1 tag ‘pretty far down the page’, it’s no wonder the algorithm picked a less-than-ideal piece of copy for the SEO title — h1 tags are meant to enclose the first piece of visible text on the page!
Google has already made tweaks to the algorithm to address community feedback, which has reportedly improved the situation for brands that had already been writing good title-tag copy. No doubt further updates will continue to refine the algorithm until there are few instances of destructive ‘re-writes’.
Regardless, the best action you can take is to write the best possible title tags for your content. That will minimise the risk of Google writing its own SEO titles.
How to maximise the chances Google will display great SEO titles for your content
There are two main ways to maximise the chances that Google will display great SEO titles for your content regardless of whether it uses your title tags or something else on your page:
- Follow title tag best practices
- Create the best content you can
‘Should I just use my h1 heading as my title tag?’
Before I go through those two points in detail, I’m going to address the question I know is going through a great many minds right now — should you just use your h1 headings as your title tags as well. My answer is a resounding NO!
The average SEO title will fit 60 characters in it. That’s not a lot of space to write a compelling reason for visitors to stay on your page. Especially when you’ve also got to fit your brand name in there.
The SEO title and meta description together give you a fair amount of real estate with which to catch attention and then convince searchers to visit your page. Once they’re there, the first things they see will tell them whether they should stay or go back to the search results.
If they don’t see something awesome quickly (your page loads too slowly) they’ll hit the back button.
If they see the SEO title repeated on the page (without your brand name on the end), that’s not going to turn them away. But you’d better hope the first bit of content on your page offers a compelling reason to stay. If it doesn’t, they’ll hit the back button.
On the other hand, if you have an awesome page title (h1 heading) that gives your visitor more information about why they should stick around, perhaps by talking about things they’ll learn or get further down the page, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping them on the page and getting them to scroll down to the content they’re interested in. Couple that with a compelling first paragraph and visual, and you’ll pretty much guarantee they’ll stick around (provided you deliver on your promises of course).
Title tag best practices
So, what then are the things you need to keep in mind when writing your title tags given this latest algorithm update? Great question! Thank fully, best practices for writing great title tags remain the same.
Make sure every page on your site has text included within a pair of
<title> tags — i.e. that it has a title tag
If you’re using a popular CMS like Shopify, BigCommerce or Wix, you should be able to do this without actually having to write any code. If you’re using WordPress, use an SEO plugin like RankMath or Yoast.
Make sure every title tag is unique
This might sound obvious, but there are lots of instances where it can be difficult.
If you’ve got a podcast, TV show or other serialised type of content, the title of the content would make a logical title tag. But if each season is on a separate page, you can’t use the title in all the title tags. A better title tag would include the content’s title and the season number.
Ecommerce sites frequently have this issue.
As an example, let’s say you’re selling beach towels. You might be tempted to use a title tag like ‘Huge, fluffy beach towel’ for all of them. If you do, Google will create its own title tag for each, and that generated title may not be ideal. A better approach would to include a short description of the pattern in the title tag.
As another example, let’s say you sell wedding rings. You might have 10 gold rings with princess-cut diamonds and therefore be tempted to use a title tag like ‘Gold, princess-cut diamond wedding ring’. A better approach would be to include the style name of each ring in the title.
You can use the same approach for any product category.
And if you really struggle to come up with a unique title tag for each, it probably means you’d be better off combining the listings into a single page with functionality for shoppers to select the exact variation they want from within the page. After all, most people will google something like ‘gold wedding ring with a princess-cut diamond’ rather than ‘gold wedding ring with a princess-cut diamond called Stella’. And it would be easier for your audience to compare all their options if the photos are on a single product page rather than on individual pages for each style.
Write concise and descriptive title tags
Google currently truncates title tags if they’re longer than 580 pix wide — that’s approximately 60 characters depending on the exact characters used (e.g. I takes up fewer pixels than W). So, write title tags that are 60 characters or less.
At the same time, make sure your tags actually describe the content on the page.
If we take the wedding ring example from above, ‘Wedding ring’ isn’t very descriptive. ‘Gold, princess-cut diamond wedding ring’ does a much better job of telling the audience what’s on the page.
Similarly, ‘Different types of stars’ gives a very basic description of the information included in a blog post about the different types of stars. However, ‘The 7 types of stars and how they’re different (with examples)’ gives a lot more information about what a search user could expect to see on the page.
Don’t pack your title tags with keywords
Including the keywords you want to rank for in your title tags is a good move. But including all the variations of a single keyword is a big no-no as it doesn’t help human search users. And Google is smart enough to be able to understand that your content is related to keyword variations, so it doesn’t help you rank for more keywords.
As an example, a title tag like ‘Different types of stars | Different kinds of stars’ is not likely to be used as the SEO title. And it’s unnecessary anyway as Google knows that an article with a title tag of ‘The 7 types of stars and how they’re different (with examples)’ would be just as relevant to someone who entered the search query ‘different types of stars’ as it would be to someone who searched for ‘different kinds of stars’.
Include your brand name
Put your brand name at the beginning or end of your title tag and separate it from the rest with a separator like |, >, : or —. Describe what your brand does in the title tag of the homepage and about us page (in different words on each) but not on any other page — Google will pick its own SEO titles if you repeat that much text in each title tag. Think about the unique value that each page provides to your visitors and describe that in the title tag.
What to do if Google is writing suboptimal SEO titles for your content
Now, if you do all that and Google still doesn’t pick your title tag to use as its SEO title, the problem is probably your content itself. I’ve seen this plenty of times.
For instance, WordStream fixed the problem with its CTRs by rewriting the on-page heading tags that Google chose to replicate for its SEO titles. As an example, the landing page for its free keyword tool original had the following SEO title originally: ‘Free Keyword Tool | WordStream’. After the update, Google’s algorithm changed it to ‘Learn More About The FREE Keyword Tool | WordStream’ based on a heading tag that said ‘Learn More About the FREE Keyword Tool’. The WordStream changed that heading to ‘Try WordStream’s FREE Keyword Tool’ and Google then reverted to using the title tag as its SEO title.
I’ve shared this example with you because it highlights how important it is to choose your words with care. If the intent of the content under the heading was to encourage people to try the tool, the original ‘learn more’ heading was a bit misleading.
Which brings me back to my advice… If you’ve found Google’s algorithm has changed the SEO titles for your content and that’s resulted in fewer people visiting your website, take a look at the affected pages and make sure that every piece of copy on the page conveys your intended message. In particular, make sure the headings accurately describe the content under them, encourage action where relevant, and aren’t trying to trick your readers into consuming your content.
Then look at your title tag and make sure it follows the best practices I’ve outlined above.
If you do all that, it won’t guarantee top SEO titles, but it will maximise the chances of you achieving good Google SEO titles by encouraging Google to use your title tags, and if it doesn’t, by providing accurate and useful alternatives that can also perform well.
TL;DR — What you need to know about the Google SEO title algorithm update
- Google writing its own SEO titles isn’t new — it’s been happening since 2012
- Google is faithfully replicating around 87% of title tags
- The algorithm update isn’t designed to penalise anyone — it’s an attempt to more accurately describe content
- The algorithm will look at the following elements when developing its SEO titles:
- Title tag
- Copy that’s large and prominent on the page
- Backlink anchor text
- Other on-page text
- Google’s algorithm is most likely to write its own SEO title when:
- There’s no title tag or it’s incomplete
- The title tag isn’t unique
- The title tag copy isn’t useful (including, but not limited to, it being stuffed with keywords)
- The title tag copy doesn’t reflect the content all the time (including when the title tag is out of date or the page includes dynamic content)
- The title tag is too long
- Just because there’s a chance Google may not use your title tag copy as its SEO title doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one or that you should copy your h1 heading — by writing excellent title tags, you’ll maximise your SEO listing CTRs