Google Page Title Update: What you should know (plus tips for writing awesome title tags)

Have you heard about the Google Page Title Update – that Google is rewriting SEO title tags in SERPs – and you’re wondering what it means for your website?

First things first, don’t panic!

Although the SEO world was a-flurry with this news in August, the dust has now settled somewhat. We know that many sites have not been affected by this algorithm update at all, as well as the reasons some have.

To help make sense of it all, as well as my advice (and Google’s) about what to do, here’s everything you need to know about the Google Page Title Update.

Is Google rewriting title tags in SERPs?

This was the question on everyone’s lips on in August.

As reported by Search Engine Journal on 18th August and other sources, a number of SEOs had noticed that, in search results, Google was overriding the title tags of some web pages with new text.

Now, Google has been known to make small tweaks to SEO titles for years now. Most commonly, it will add a business name into a title tag to help identify the source of a web page.

But the changes in August appeared to be bigger.

Initially, SEOs were reporting that their title tags had been replaced with H1 headings from a web page. However, the changes appear to have been more complex than that, including title tags replaced by H2 headings, text from other pages on a site, or even anchor text from an internal link somewhere on an affected page.

In some cases, especially news articles, dates were being added to title tags, immediately telling searchers how current the news piece was.

Brodie Clark wrote an excellent article exploring the title tag update (also on 18th August). In it, he hypothesised that Google might be pulling title text from multiple places on a web page/site based on what it determined would most accurately reflect the contents of a page.

A test or a permanent change?

Understandably, there were many questions around the title tag update.

  • How many sites were affected?
  • What should SEOs be doing?
  • Was this a test (Google often A/B split tests algorithm changes) or were we seeing a permanent change to title tags?

We still don’t have answers to all of these questions.

What we do know is that Google wants to enhance relevancy for searchers.

For a long time now, the search engine has sometimes adjusted the text displayed in meta descriptions/search snippets to better match a user’s query.

It would appear that this is what’s happening to title tags.

Google wants to make sure that they accurately reflect what a searcher will find when they land on a web page.

Google’s page title update is dynamic and reactive to changes

This was the position confirmed by Google’s public liaison, Danny Sullivan, and reported by Search Engine Journal on 25th August 2021.

It would appear, as supported by Sullivan, that if Google does replace a title tag in a search, it’s because it didn’t feel the existing tag was good enough. Also though, the replacement text it uses isn’t set in stone.

Yes, Google might choose to use a heading tag, anchor text or other element but we can influence whether Google defaults to a page’s original title tag by making sure that it’s well written and reflects the content of the page (more about this below!).

If you notice your title tags have been replaced in searches, you might need to review what the original tag said and give it an overhaul.

What kind of title tags might change because of the update?

Danny Sullivan points out that Google has been using “text beyond title” elements in searches since 2012 in cases where the algorithms determined a title tag did not describe a page as well as it could.

It seems that this will continue to be the main criteria of the update.

These are some of the examples that Sullivan suggests we should look out for when reviewing our own title tags:

  • Empty titles – No title tag applied to the page at all.
  • Duplicate titles – On some sites, every page has been given the same tag. This doesn’t tell searchers anything about what to expect on individual pages.
  • Half empty titles – Some templates will automatically add the name of the site to the end of a title tag but need you to manually apply the front half of the title tag. This could look like: | Site Name – Google will try to replace this with a logical title such as Product name | Site Name.
  • Obsolete titles – This might be when a page is updated every year but the title hasn’t changed to reflect the new date (e.g. The 2021 Customer Satisfaction Survey still has a title tag of The 2020 Customer Satisfaction Survey even though the page features 2021’s data).
  • Inaccurate titles – Here, Google gives the example of a product page for stuffed animal toys on which the title tag includes some types of toy that are no longer sold (e.g. Giant stuffed animals, teddy bears, polar bears – Site Name). The page does still relate to stuffed animal toys but certain items, such as stuffed polar bears, are out of stock. Google might choose to change this title to Stuffed animal toys – Site name to better manage the expectations of the searcher.
  • Micro-boilerplate SEO titles – Boilerplate SEO titles are standardised, non-unique titles that appear on multiple pages of a website. They’re common, for example, on forums where there are multiple threads about the same topic.

Google gives the example of a forum where people are talking about a popular TV show. There might be many duplicate title tags such as Current amazing TV show (*insert the name of whichever TV programme here).

To help searchers, Google is trying to refine boilerplate titles. For example, under the new algorithms an adapted title tag might tell people what season of a programme a forum thread is about, e.g. Season 1 – Current amazing TV show.

Title tags are often the first thing a potential visitor will see in connection to your website and/or business.

Google wants each title tag to be the best possible indicator of what the searcher can expect to find on a page should they choose to click through.

Google’s current advice (and mine): It’s too soon to make big changes!

Google is still refining the page title update and the advice from the search engine is that it’s not advisable to make changes to our title tags at this point in time, unless you’re aware of a problem.

By problem, I would use the examples given above as problematic title tags.

As Danny Sullivan stated, “Keep focusing on good HTML tags as we do use them far more than anything else”.

On 17th September 2021, Sullivan published an updated statement on Google Search Central about how the search engine generates titles for web page results.

In this post, he confirmed that 87% of pages listed in search results will retain their original HTML title tag. (Back in August, Google had said it was going to feature 80% original titles, so this is an increase based on feedback requested by John Mueller, Search Advocate at Google.)

Knowing this, my advice is to follow current best practice for writing SEO title tags. This should help Google to choose your tags over alternative text.

Yes, title tags are a ranking factor but they are just one small piece of the SEO puzzle, so I don’t think we need to stress too much about this update.

What makes a good SEO title tag?

That advice is all well and good, you might be thinking, but what makes a good title tag? What is best practice when it comes to writing one?

Firstly, I want to check that you’re crystal clear about what a title tag is.

A title tag is the clickable title of a web page that appears in search results. Here’s an example of a title tag for the SEO+ website on Google:

a title tag for the SEO+ website on Google

You can also view the title tag of a page on the browser tab above the address bar when you visit a website (this is to remind you what page/site you’re currently on or what tabs you have open):

view the title tag of a page on the browser tab above the address bar

Finally, you may see title tags on external websites linking to a page. This is common on news round-up sites, for example.

You might also hear title tags described as SEO titles, website titles or HTML titles.

If you have a WordPress website and you use the Yoast plugin, you can quickly and easily add an SEO title to any page, post or project.

In fact, most content management systems will have forms to automatically generate or enable you to set title tags around your page titles.

Why are title tags important?

A title tag tells people and search engines the topic of a webpage. It helps them to decide how relevant the content of a page might be to a search query.

Title tags can and do directly influence the clickthrough rate to a web page from search results pages.

Tips for better title tags

When writing a title tag, it helps to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Aim to make your title tags about 60 characters long, as Google will only display 60-70 characters/600 pixels, so may truncate longer tags
  • Avoid title tags that are too short though – these can make it hard for search engine bots to work out what the page is about
  • Have a primary/focus keyword for each page and include it in the title tag (Yoast advises to put it as near to the beginning of the tag as possible)
  • If possible, try to trigger an emotion or thought in the reader – creating an emotional response will encourage people to click
  • In many ways, the principles that apply to writing a great article headline apply to great title tags – according to SEMrush, words for a better clickthrough rate include: How, what, why, where and/or best, review or ultimate
  • You might want to include your brand name at the beginning or end of your title tag
  • If you’re writing a tag for a product, try to include the descriptions people would use to find it
  • Make sure there are no duplicate title tags on your site
  • Keep tags relevant and simple!

As an example, Ahrefs reported that when they changed their Rank Checker title tag from Rank Checker – Ahrefs to Rank Checker by Ahrefs: Check & track keyword rankings, their organic traffic went up by 37.58%.

Well-written title tags can make a difference to your SEO.

Pay attention to meta descriptions and headings too

Although the Google title tag update may not affect your website at all, it never hurts to give your on-page SEO some care and attention.

When was the last time you reviewed your meta descriptions?

You want them to accurately tell people what the page is about in a way that acts as a call to action, creating curiosity and compelling people to click through to your site.

Have a look at the headings and sub-headings you’re using.

Again, these should be as relevant and engaging as possible just in case Google does decide to turn one of them into a title tag. Try to include your main search term for a page/post in its h1 heading, as well as in one or more of the h2 sub-headings.

Think about the intro copy on each page too.

It should highlight what the rest of the page is about in a way that creates interest and invites people to keep reading, as well as confirming that they’re in the right place to get the information they need.

If possible, include your main search term early in the intro paragraph (as long as it sits there naturally).

Above all, go back to your ever-important ideal client.

This really is a game-changer.

If you know exactly who your content is written for and what’s happening in their life to make them carry out a particular search on Google, then you can get super-specific about what to include in your title tags, meta description and the rest of your content.

You can then show at a glance that your content is best match for searchers, making it easier for Google to rank your web pages using your carefully crafted title tags in searches.

Now, over to you.

Have you noticed Google rewriting your title tags at all since August or has your site been untouched by the update? If any of your tags did change, where did Google get the replacement text from? How confident do you feel that your title tags appeal to your ideal clients?

I’d love you to leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

If you found this article helpful, I’d love it if you could share it – thank you.

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