Google announced an August 2021 update concerning the way it generates web page titles in search results. SEO experts were quick to point out how the update caused some unusual title tag rewrites on SERPs (search engine results pages). While Google is notorious for continually churning out title tag updates alongside its numerous algorithm and core updates, this one was practically an overhaul.
It caused quite a stir in the community, with site owners observing drops in CTR along with significant changes in the way their pages are presented on SERPs. Google has since launched an additional title tag update incorporating user feedback in mid-September, addressing most initial concerns raised by those negatively impacted by the August update.
What Are Title Tags?
Title tags are the headlines that appear in blue font every time you conduct a Google search. It is an HTML code tag intended to specify the title of the webpage. Title tags are important because they are a potential client's or customer's first interaction with a brand online.
In effect, they can determine whether a person clicks on the link or not. People often click only those titles that they feel match their search query and ignore the ones that seem unrelated or unhelpful.
Well-optimized title tags, therefore, play an important role in your CTR and poor title optimization can lead to lower click-through rates and hence lesser traffic to your site.
Why Is The Page Title Update Significant?
Briefly put, site owners will need to take note of this latest update on account of one major change. In the past, site owners had the liberty to determine page titles to ensure that they reflected the page's contents and represented the brand correctly.
With the new page title update, Google can choose to ignore the page title tag set by the site owner if it 'feels' that the title does not appropriately reflect what the page is about. In other words, Google can effectively craft an entirely new title out of the page's elements, such as:
- Main Visual Headline (Typically the H1 tag)
- Other Headers (H2, H3, H4 tags)
- Body Text/Copy
- Internal Link Text
- Text in Links Pointing to the Page
- Anchor Text on Page
Dubbed 'Titlepocalypse' by some SEOs, the initial problem with the update was that it caused inaccurate results. For example, some local pages had their location information (city, state) removed from title tags, reducing the efficacy of local searches. This impacted both businesses and users looking for nearby local establishments. Sites in the healthcare niche experienced some volatility too.
For example, informational health pages with titles like 'Flu' or 'Covid' were inaccurately labeled 'Flu Vaccinations' or 'Covid Vaccines' post-update. Naturally, changes like these caused confusion since the page content and title were mismatched. Thankfully, Google has since launched a supporting update sometime in mid-September confirming that designated HTML title tags (aka the titles defined by owners) are going to be used 87% of the time, higher than the August update of 80%. So, essentially, if you are already optimizing your title tags, then they should remain unchanged and it is unlikely that you will be negatively impacted by any such changes to your site pages.
What Is Google's Web Page Title Update About?
According to the public liaison for Google Search, Danny Sullivan, the update is a 'new system of generating titles for web pages.' While titles were initially query-based, the update now generates titles that describe documents based on their content, regardless of the query. 'One of the primary ways people determine which search results might be relevant to their query is by reviewing the titles of listed web pages.
That's why Google Search works hard to provide the best titles for documents in our results to connect searchers with the content that creators, publishers, businesses, and others have produced,' Sullivan shares in a Google blog post. In line with this, he describes how the new system creates title tags: 'Also, while we've gone beyond HTML text to create titles for over a decade, our new system is making even more use of such text. In particular, we are making use of text that humans can visually see when they arrive at a web page.
We consider the main visual title or headline shown on a page, content that site owners often place within <H1> tags, within other header tags, or which is made large and prominent through the use of style treatments.' As per Sullivan, the update aims to 'produce more readable and accessible titles for pages,' and that in some cases, the following details may be added or replaced:
- Site Name
- Shortened Title (to avoid truncation)
Despite the change, Sullivan notes that optimizing HTML title tags is still paramount: '…Our main advice on that page to site owners remains the same. Focus on creating great HTML title tags.'
What Title Tag Attributes Does Google Alter?
Google has been particular about the role of page titles in searches as far back as 2012, citing it as one of the most important parts of search results. For this reason, the recent page title updates are meant to further improve user experience on Google.
Webmasters are also encouraged to stick with best practices concerning title tag creation, which we'll discuss in more detail later. As mentioned above, Google assures site owners that HTML title tags will be used 87% of the time. In cases where Google sees it fit to go beyond the defined title tag, Sullivan assures site owners that it's only meant to provide users with more descriptive and easy-to-read title pages. As such, here are some title tag attributes that make titles look unoptimized to Google and may therefore prompt alterations:
As a rule of thumb, titles must ideally be kept under 60 characters because Google tends to display only the first 50-60 characters of a title on most desktop and mobile devices. Anything more than that runs the risk of being truncated. To check your title tag, you can use Moz's Title Tag Preview Tool.
Not Reflective of Content
Google prioritizes user experience in many of its updates, and it's no different with title tags. As such, title tags must always be reflective of a page's content. At the end of the day, the goal of the title is to give the user the best possible description of what the page is about.
Titles should never be stuffed with keywords. Some people do this out of the assumption that it gives their pages higher chances of ranking on SERPs. However, keyword-stuffing actually works against the page since Google flags the practice as spammy.
Empty Titles and Descriptions
By default, if a page is missing title tags, meta descriptions, or other relevant text, Google will see the need to create an alternate title based on pertinent elements on the page.
Repetitive and Boilerplate Titles
Likewise, site owners and SEOs should avoid titles with repetitive words and phrases given the limited space. Google also advises against using language that can be considered too generic, such as 'Home,' 'Untitled,' 'Page.' Boilerplate titles, where the same title (or just the site name) across all pages is used, should also be avoided.
This typically occurs with large sites that use templates for creating titles for multiple pages. Templates usually summarize the page's content and use that as a title, followed by the site name. As such, page titles can often appear half-empty, with the page summary part missing, making page titles look like this: |Sample Website Name
Google says that their system is built to 'detect half-empty titles.' Once detected, Google tries to adjust the title by referring to other information within the page, such as header elements, prominent text, body text, and the like. It will then come up with an alternate title that looks like this: Product or Service Name* | Site Name *Note that this information may vary and is not limited to products and services. For example, if it's an article or information page, then Google will likely find a relevant title describing the article or information on the page.
Obsolete and Outdated Titles
Obsolete or outdated titles usually occur with pages that are recycled on a regular basis, such as monthly or yearly. While the content may be updated periodically, the title element often reflects old dates or information. An example would be: 2018 Ultra Women's Marathon Guidelines - Equine Athletic School Yearly events, such as marathons, school admissions, festivals, and the like, may have outdated titles if the site owner neglects to update the title element.
As such, while the content may be recent, the title does not necessarily reflect that. To remedy this, Google fixes the title tag to reflect the current year as stated in the page's contents. Note that it won't automatically change page title tags for archived posts. For example, if the site really meant to archive the page '2018 Ultra Women's Marathon Guidelines,' then it should stay that way. Otherwise, Google will update it to say: 20xx Ultra Women's Marathon Guidelines - Equine Athletic School.
Static titles for dynamic content are also automatically detected by Google. They tend to fare quite poorly at reflecting what a site page is about. A good example of this is: Succulents, Snake plant, indoor plants, hydroponic plants - Site Name This type of title won't do because a user will expect, for example, to find Snake plants for sale on the page.
However, since the content is very dynamic, the type of plants available may also change quite often. In instances like this, Google will modify the page title to provide the user with a better description of the page. For example: Indoor Plants for Sale - Site Name
Like boilerplate titles, micro-boilerplate titles occur when title elements are the same across a site's subpages. For example, if a certain blog has several articles discussing various seasons of a TV show but has micro-boilerplate titles, they might look like this: Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series As you can see, the specific seasons being discussed in the articles have been omitted in our sample micro-boilerplate titles.
Google's system detects the appropriate seasons of a TV show using headline texts and other content in the article pages. Alternate titles are then created to make them more helpful to the user: Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series - Season 1 Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series - Season 2 Thoughts on Supervillain TV Series - Season 3
Will Google Reflect Changes to HTML Title Tags?
The good news is that the Page Title Update is dynamic and reactive to changes made on HTML title tags. This means that should Google create an alternate title for a site page, it is not permanent and can still be updated. The update reacts to on-site changes. This means if you update your boilerplate title tags, for example, then ideally, Google will no longer see the need to fix your page titles.
The same is true for pages where content is often revised or title tags updated like news site pages. This was confirmed by Danny Sullivan via Twitter when asked by SEO expert Lily Ray regarding Google's refresh rate for titles that have been updated. As per Sullivan, he believes that the new title tag system is fairly dynamic. 'I'll have to check [but] I believe it's all fairly dynamic and [reactive] to changes. I'll also reiterate what we said in the post.
We've already made some refinements and plan more. 'So checked what I said...yes. Basically, if we see a page has changed, we'll evaluate that fairly quickly for making [a] title choice' --via @dannysullivan on Twitter Nonetheless, Google's system still has the final say on whether or not it will display a site's updated HTML title tags, as the system will still assess the title element based on the same criteria. In short, if your title tag contains any of the flags we discussed above, then Google might still 'fix' it.
In response to Lily Ray, Sullivan further reminded people on Twitter to keep using good HTML title tags: 'I think you said elsewhere not advising people to start making a lot of changes. That's good advice. As we said in the post, keep focusing on good HTML title tags as we do use them far more than anything else. And the feedback in forums or elsewhere is useful,' he shares.
How To Deal With the Update: Some Tips and Guidance
Google has a pretty comprehensive guide for webmasters concerning web page title elements. In a blog post, Google stated that their system 'uses a number of different sources to automatically determine the title link, but you can indicate your preferences by following [their] guidelines for writing descriptive <title> elements.'
Having a good title is crucial because it provides users with a preview of what a webpage contains. Typically, a user uses a page's title on SERPs to decide whether or not the page is relevant to their search. As such, it's important to make your title tags as descriptive of your page content as possible. It may be challenging, but you have to try and give users a good idea of what your page is about in as little space as possible. In the below section, we'll discuss how this update affects organic traffic and how to best deal with the change.
We'll also give you some tips for writing great title tags that Google won't flag or rewrite.
Assessing the Update's Impact on Site Traffic
Changes made on HTML title tags can affect rankings, but only when changes are made directly on the site. This means that Google's title tag rewrites don't directly impact rankings on SERP. They can, however, cause click-through rates (CTR) to fluctuate. How so? Simply put, if Google flags your title and rewrites it with a title that does not necessarily match your page's content, context, or intent, then it may very well lead to a drop in CTR and site traffic.
While Google intends for its rewrites to be helpful, the system is far from perfect. RankScience even called it a 'sloppy rollout of auto-generated title tags,' while Moz tried to revisit some 50,000 title tags to tackle Google's title tag rewrites on their site. This is something that Google is not oblivious to, though. To quote Google's Danny Sullivan, 'As with any system, the titles we generate won't always be perfect.' Hence, there's still a need to look out for rogue titles and incorrectly-rewritten ones so that you can amend them as soon as possible. Consider these examples of rewrites gone amiss:
- Google replaced the HTML tag for US President Joe Biden's official whitehouse.gov page and erroneously replaced it with an outdated title from back when he was Vice President:
Joe Biden: The President | The White House
Vice President Joe Biden - The White House
- Google replaced the title tag of an NPR article about Beyoncé and Jay-Z with a truncated <H1> tag:
Beyoncé and Jay-Z's New Tiffany & Co. Campaign Is Full of Historic Firsts
Beyoncé Just Became the First Black Woman to Wear the Iconic Tiffany Diamond
- Google inadvertently altered a page's intent by replacing WordStream's page title tag. Instead of making it appear like the ready-to-use tool that it is, the alteration gives the impression that the page is just an informational page about the tool:
Free Keyword Tool
Learn More About the Free Keyword Tool
- Moz made a point about Google removing a title's unique edge by replacing it with something auto-generated. While not inaccurate, a title stripped of its creative edge may look less appealing to readers:
You Are the Other Baboon: A Comprehensive Guide to Building Trust Online
A Comprehensive Guide to Building Trust Online One sector that's been hit hard by the recent title tag updates is eCommerce. A lot of eCommerce site pages contain prices and keywords that are crucial in helping potential customers find them, so rewrites are making things tricky. Here are a few examples SEOs pointed out on Twitter:
As you can see, changes to original HTML title tags run the gamut from helpful to absurd and even downright incorrect at times. What does this mean for webmasters and SEOs, then? Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that it's not all doom and gloom for pages that have been affected by rewrites. Title tags could be restored to their correct (or even better and more optimized) form with just a couple of tweaks. The bad news is that you might have to revisit your title tags. And if you have a large site, the process can be quite tedious and time-consuming.
Best Practices: Tips for Preventing Title Rewrites
So what's a site owner to do? Here are some helpful tips for preventing title tag rewrites:
- Keep it short. The sweet spot for page titles is at 50 to 60 characters, so try your best to keep it within that length to avoid truncation. Having lengthy HTML title tags is one of the surest ways to get Google's system to rewrite your title tag.
- By all means, no keyword stuffing. Make sure to only add keywords naturally. Also, don't use too many at once. Cramming too many keywords into your title in a bid to improve site rankings will actually get your content flagged as spammy and your title is rewritten.
- Don't use generic tags. While site owners may have gotten used to resorting to boilerplate text on pages like 'Home,' 'About,' and 'Profile,' this just won't do with the new update. Instead, try to develop a more creative title for each site page so that Google does not modify it. Remember to keep it both descriptive and concise.
- Never forget to add a title tag. If you're not a fan of Google's auto-generated titles, then make sure to include a title tag every time you publish a new page. This means that you might also have to revisit existing pages where you may have missed putting title tags.
- Be concise about branding. You can use the title element on a site page, such as your homepage, to include information about your site. However, try to stay concise. For example:
<title>AwesomeDating, a place to make meaningful connections.</title> Don't use this on every single page, though. If you want to include branding in significant pages, just have it in the title. For example: <title>AwesomeDating: Create an Account</title>
- Check your robots.txt and noindex tag. Using robots.txt on your site will prevent Google from crawling your pages but they may still be indexed. This can happen, especially if Google finds a link from another site leading to your page.
With the robots.txt protocol implemented, Google will rely on information outside your site to generate a title tag. You can also use the noindex directive so that your URL isn't indexed. However, be careful concerning disallowing search from crawling your pages as it may cause mismatched title tags as well. This particular update affects sites with robots.txt file protection, so if your URLs are tracked manually, the titles might not be visible on SERPs. One way to fix this is to do the following:
- Add the robots.txt file prior to adding your site's HTML code
- Put the code between your page's <head> and </head> tags (replace <head> with the your site's directory name)
- Focus on a high-quality copy. Use creative and descriptive page titles to reflect each page's content as accurately as possible. Be wise about using target keywords as well. As a general rule, it's always good to use the main keyword in your title but never stuff them.
Try to add other keywords naturally throughout your page's body text or article content instead. This way, your content will flow naturally and won't distract your readers, but you'll also rank on SERPs without being flagged for spam.
- Pay attention to your headers. Your headers are now more important than ever, as they are second in line at determining a page's title in the event of a rewrite. As such, your H1 tag, or main header, should likewise be high-quality, concise, and descriptive.
- As much as possible, ensure that it summarizes the page succinctly and creatively. Ultimately, write your header for your users/readers and not for Google.
- Don't bury the lede. Especially for articles and blog-type posts, try to answer the searcher's query or address the main topic in the opening paragraph of your content. This will make it easier for the search engine to come up with a good title that best matches your content, should it need title tag rewriting.
- Optimize for local search. If you own a local business or service or have a local page, include the city's name in the title, header, and body as naturally as possible.
You can do this by adding a description of the location, nearby landmarks and establishments, and other pertinent location-related information in the body text of your page. This will help Google in crafting an accurate title tag for any of your pages that need rewriting. When displaying localized titles, remove the white space between phrases and keywords, and change the font size for localized languages as well.
1. Make your titles unique and descriptive. Title elements tell search engines and users what your page is about. Hence, it's best to keep it both unique and descriptive. Google recommends placing the <title> element in your HTML document's <head>. For example: <html> <head> <title>Pumpkin's Pooch Stop - Buy Dog Food, Supplies, and Accessories</title> <meta name="description" content="Pumpkin's Pooch Stop is your one-stop-shop for big and small dogs' needs."> </head> <body>
2. Always place a meta description. Search engines like Google rely on a page's meta description to understand more about it. While a page's title has to be brief, meta descriptions can be a bit longer - a few sentences or a short paragraph will do. When writing a meta description, try to summarize a page's content and avoid keyword stuffing. Also, try to create different meta descriptions for each page (don't reuse across multiple pages). The meta description tag is also placed within the HTML document's <head> tag, like so: <html> <head> <title>Pumpkin's Pooch Stop - Buy Dog Food, Supplies, and Accessories</title> <meta name="description" content="Pumpkin's Pooch Stop is your one-stop-shop for big and small dogs' needs."> </head> <body> Meta tags are important because Google also uses them as snippets on SERPs in certain cases. You can read more about writing good meta descriptions from Google here.
3. Mark important text with heading tags. Maximize the use of your heading tags by making sure to mark important text. Using your H1, H2, and H3 tags will also help create a hierarchical structure for your text, making it easier for users and search engines to read through your content.
Google suggests writing heading tags like you would write an outline for a large paper. By organizing your points into main points and sub-points, you'll be able to create an effective outline with appropriate heading tags as well. Keep the following tips in mind when creating heading tags:
- Don't use unhelpful text in your heading tags
- Don't use too many headings on your page
- Don't use heading tags when <strong> or <em> may be more applicable
- Keep your headings short
- Use headings to add structure, not stylistics
More Tips for Dealing With the Update
Google usually rolls out multiple updates in a year. As such, SEOs and webmasters have likewise become adept at coping with these changes. While some changes shake up the industry with lower rankings on SERPs, some have little to no impact at all on overall site performance. However, as with any update from Google, there are some tried-and-tested tips for dealing with this particular type of update as well. Here are a few tips for dealing with the title tag update and making the most of it:
- Pay attention to areas for improvement. Google always aims to optimize SERPs for user experience. As such, you will likely also benefit from looking into the changes executed by Google on your site. By addressing title tag rewrites, for example, you will be able to develop better, more optimized title tags to help both users and search engines find your content.
You may also want to test different URLs for any given text and check the mouse over results. You may be able to spot anomalies at this stage and address them to make your titles and meta descriptions better for SERPs.
- Be knowledgeable about SEO and site updates. It's always a pro to have a good grasp of these things, as even small changes to Google's algorithm can affect even large domains. An intimate understanding of your website is key to knowing how to ride out any temporary changes in your SERP rankings and site performance.
- Observe best practices for URL, links, and content. We previously mentioned that this update might indirectly affect site rankings and CTR. Hence, you should always check URL validity, focus on quality link building, and optimize your content for users and search engines as well.
You may also want to link to pages outside your domain name space, especially if you detect changes in site rankings. Typically, this indicates that you need to make adjustments to your domain's URLs.
- Add structured data markup. Structured data will help describe your page's content to Google. In turn, search engines can use this data to display your content in an appealing and useful way on SERPs. This will also help lead potential customers to your site.
Here's how Google describes it: 'For example, if you've got an online store and mark up an individual product page, this helps us understand that the page features a bike, its price, and customer reviews.
We may display that information in the snippet for search results for relevant queries. We call these rich results. 'In addition to using structured data markup for rich results, we may use it to serve relevant results in other formats. For instance, if you've got a brick-and-mortar store, marking up the opening hours allows your potential customers to find you exactly when they need you. You can also choose to inform them if your store is open/closed at the time of their search.' Some of the things you can mark up are:
- Business Hours
- Business Location
- Products for Sale
- Photos and videos of products or business establishment
- Event listings
- Company Logo
Click here for the full list from Google. Markups can be added to your pages' HTML code. You can also use these tools:
Use Google Rich Results Test. After marking up your content, you can use the Google Rich Results test to ensure that your implementation is error-free. Simply enter the URL containing your marked-up content or copy the HTML code, including the markup. Search Console's Rich result reports will show you the following information:
- The number of pages on your site with a specific markup
- The number of times they showed up on SERPs
- The number of times they've been clicked in the past 90 days
- Any other errors Google has detected
- Monitor your site's analytics and CTR. Use Google Analytics and Search Console to monitor your site's performance consistently. This will help you easily gauge any changes caused by updates from Google or any adjustments you've made on your site.
Expert Advice on Title Tags
Google's Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller has been working at Google since 2007. He had also given SEOs advice on title tags as early as December of 2020. Aside from discouraging webmasters from dumping keywords in title tags, Mueller also advised using natural language, or words that searchers usually use, to increase CTR.
Here's what he said: 'If you can create a title that matches what the user is actually looking for, then it's a little bit easier for them to actually click on a search result because they think, 'oh this really matches what I was looking for.' 'So that's something where I almost think it's a matter of improving the click-through rate rather than improving the ranking. And if with the same ranking, you get a higher click-through rate because people recognize your site as being more relevant then that's kind of a good thing. And sometimes I suspect the bigger aspect is really the click-through rate from search rather than the ranking effect.' On the topic of using keywords to rank on SERPs, Mueller said that 'just because they are used for ranking doesn't mean you need to put everything in there.'
Concerning title tags, Mueller has previously insisted that while it isn't a primary ranking signal, it's still important to use it to describe what a page is about properly 'We use that just as a part. I think it's not like the primary ranking factor of a page, to put it that way. We do use it for ranking but it's not the most critical part of a page. So it's not worthwhile filling it with keywords to kind of hope that it works that way. In general, we try to recognize when a title tag is stuffed with keywords because that's also a bad user experience for users in the search results.
If they're looking to understand what these pages are about and they just see a jumble of keywords, then that doesn't really help,' Mueller shared. He also advised about using keywords in title tags: 'Having keywords in the title tag is fine. I would just kind of write the title tag in a way that really describes in maybe one sentence what this page is actually about. To really make a clear title rather than to just have like keyword-1, keyword-2, keyword-3 in there.'
Lastly, Mueller also shared that using title tags to describe page content 'has worked really well,' instead of crowding it with keywords: 'So that's not something where we would say if you don't have a title tag you don't have any chance of showing up in search. From my point of view, the title tag is something that's worth specifying if you have something specific that you want to use as the title. And you can really refine it into something kind of short and to the point.'
Google's Page Title Updates have shaken up a lot of sites and caused SEOs and webmasters to revisit their title tags. Google has also welcomed further feedback in light of the initial (semi) outrage concerning erroneous and inaccurate auto-generated title tags.
Here's what they had to say about it recently: 'No system for producing titles will be perfect. Using title elements 100% of the time has issues, as illustrated above. But we also know our title system isn't perfect either. Your feedback has been immensely helpful to improve our system. We welcome further feedback in our forum, including existing threads on this topic in English and Japanese.'
As you can see, Google continues to welcome insights and feedback from users and webmasters alike. As is its practice, Google tends to improve on updates that don't work well with sites in general or with users, SEOs, and webmasters.
With this current update, SEOs and webmasters are encouraged to take another look at their title tags, especially those that have been selected by Google's system for rewrites. As is true with any update, general improvements on a site's content, SEO, links, and other crucial elements are key to longevity and survival despite the search engine's multiple updates.
Rewriting multiple title tags may be tough, but it's something that will pay off eventually - especially if you've detected lower CTRs because of unoptimized title tags. In the meantime, keep observing the best practices for writing title tags and meta descriptions, and content in general. Monitoring your site's analytics is also key, as it will help you detect even small fluctuations in site health and performance.
We hope this comprehensive guide helped you grasp the key components of the update and that you'll be able to use the practical tips we outlined in this article.