Digital Publishing Platforms
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Publishers: How to write title tags that Google likes

The title tag generates the clickable text that appears in search results pages; the ‘headline’ for the search listing and the first thing someone conducting a search sees. But since 2016, Google’s search algorithm occasionally performs title tag rewrites if it considers there to be missing information or its amended title tag answers the search query better.

Why it matters

In May, Google published a major algorithm update that allows the ‘rapid development and deployment’ of new ranking models and algorithms. One of the results seems to have been a significant increase in the number of title rewrites, with some having a dramatic effect on CTRs. Online advertising firm Wordstream wrote recently ontheir blog that Google’s title rewrite dropped their CTR by up to 37%.

According to Dr. Peter J. Meyers at MOZ, who looked into 50,000 title rewrites, the majority didn’t have any major impact and many were an improvement on the original title. He said where Google did get things wrong, it was generally when the title was split based on delimiters and reconstructed in a way that made no sense.

I don’t think this update is cause for panic, but it’s definitely worth getting a sense of your own rewrites — and especially patterns of rewrites — to make sure they reflect the intent of your content.

Writing effective title tags

In fixing the worst rewrites, Meyers did the following:

  • Update the <title> tag, trying to keep it under the length limit
  • Submit the page for reindexing in Google Search Console
  • If the rewrite didn’t take, update the <H1> or relevant on-page text

Meyers said:

“I understand why Google wants to veil the algorithm in secrecy, but they’ve already told us that title rewrites don’t impact rankings. If the goal is to create better titles across the web, then empower writers and content creators to do that. Don’t make those decisions for us.”

Google’s response

Danny Sullivan Google’s Public Search Liaison said on Twitter that Google is listening to feedback and looking into how it can fix problems, but said Google has always used more than title tags to create page titles.

It was never the case that writing the ‘perfect title’ guaranteed that title would be used. We have long used more than title tags for creating page titles. That’s not some new change…

Previously, Google’s John Mueller in a Google Webmaster Hangout at the end of December 2020 had 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.

Mueller also explained that the actual content on the page is critical for ranking; title tags have more impact on CTRs.

… 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.

More generally, the advice for writing effective titles comes down to:

  • Write a title that matches search intent
  • Be relevant to the content on the page
  • Be descriptive within the limits (55 -60 characters)

SEO best practice continues to recommend putting your target keywords in the title tag, avoiding keyword stuffing. But writing in the Search Engine Journal, Roger Monti says that advice is nearly 20 years old.

He asks:

Could it be that at least one of the things that is driving Google’s title tag rewrites is that dumping keywords into the title tag is inadequate for describing what a web page is about?

Could it be that describing what a page is about should be a primary consideration?

This piece was originally published in Spiny Trends and is re-published with permission. Spiny Trends delivers updates and analysis on the industry news you need to stay on top of if you’re running a media and publishing business. Subscribe to a weekly email roundup here.