16 Jan 2012

When Google Thinks Your Title Tags Suck

Learning to use title tags well is one of the most basic aspects of on-page SEO. It’s something we talk about a lot with clients so when Google published their post last Thursday about “Better Page Titles in Search Results” it caught my interest.

Not because it’s revolutionary. Not because they said something no one has ever said before. It’s because they called out a range of title tag issues that are worth talking about, at the very least, as a continuation of the conversation that has been going on for years.

They said:

We use many signals to decide which title to show to users, primarily the <title> tag if the webmaster specified one. But for some pages, a single title might not be the best one to show for all queries, and so we have algorithms that generate alternative titles to make it easier for our users to recognize relevant pages. Our testing has shown that these alternative titles are generally more relevant to the query and can substantially improve the clickthrough rate to the result, helping both our searchers and webmasters. About half of the time, this is the reason we show an alternative title.

Other times, alternative titles are displayed for pages that have no title or a non-descriptive title specified by the webmaster in the HTML. For example, a title using simply the word “Home” is not really indicative of what the page is about. Another common issue we see is when a webmaster uses the same title on almost all of a website’s pages, sometimes exactly duplicating it and sometimes using only minor variations. Lastly, we also try to replace unnecessarily long or hard-to-read titles with more concise and descriptive alternatives.

Ultimately Benevolent

A move like this might make us feel even more irrelevant in our efforts to give Google what they want. But note the two most important sentiments “more relevant to the query” and “substantially improve clickthrough rate”. See Google receives a ton of information about your page before they rank it. Far more information than the user has. They have back link data, all of the content on the page, other references and citations that inform them about exactly what is on your page. If you fit the query, that’s why they’re ranking you in the first place, but if your title tag isn’t doing you justice then they are trying to find an alternative that does.

It’s like having a friend that will tell you that you look fat instead of letting you go to the party in that dress. And, she’s actually got a more flattering option.

The Affected Titles

If you”d prefer to stay in charge of the titles that you present in the SERPs (search engine results pages), Google’s specifies three particular types of title tags that this algorithm specifically targets:

No Titles or Non-Descriptive Titles

Obviously complete absences of a title tag or titles which offer no topical insight are the first to get by-passed.  The post specifically calls out “Home” or “index” titles. But this could also extend to Brand only title tags or titles which are entirely made of fluff like “The Best Deals Ever!”  Granted forgetting titles or using non-descriptive keywords are typically rookie mistakes. But brand narcissism is rampant. While branding is important, it shouldn’t stand alone, at least. Title tags should reflect the needs of the searcher more than the branding aspirations of the company.

Duplicate Titles

When you have 50,000 pages it’s really hard to write completely unique title tags. We can sympathize, and apparently so can Google, to a point. When you auto generate title tags across your entire site, this algorithm could affect how you appear in the SERPs.  There is a chance Google will still find your page worthy of ranking, regardless of your title tag, because of all of the other signals of relevance.  At which point Google will try to find the content on your page which better reflects the search query.

So is this a complete green light for title tag duplication because Google will rank you based on page content anyway?

Umm, I wouldn’t go crazy.

With title tags being your most influential on-page indicator of relevance, by-passing them as an SEO priority leaves you at the mercy of the rest of the “other signals”. Then you become wholly dependent on links, social signals, content and references to get you ranked. It’s like trying to win a race in flip flops. Yeah, you may still be victorious, but it could have been easier with the right footwear. Taking the time to hand-edit the titles of your most important pages to make them descriptive and unique is still worth the potential benefit.

Long and Confusing Titles

While some people take a hands-off approach to creating title tags, others go completely over-the-top. Stuffing title tags for search engines at the expense of readability has never been a great idea, and now it looks like it’s not doing much for Google either. The long titles, which just happen to capture a searcher’s query phrase somewhere at the end of the title tag, may get bypassed for a different piece of content which comes much closer to user intent.

The foundational flaw which tends to create this problem is when a page is attempting to target entirely too much. Keeping your focus clean and somewhat narrow allows you to exercise more control in your title tags, so that the most relevant phrases for a page don’t get lost. Words are weighted based on their location in a title tag, so don’t waste valuable space on stop words, but avoid keyword dumps too.

Though keyword focus is important, variation can be just as important. So while your title tags may not be the place to explore all of the ways a particular keyword may be searched, your content just might be. In fact, keywords which are repeated in title tags and on page often have the strongest relevance. Google is going to choose the words which best reflect what the user is searching for. Having that phrase on your page means that even if it is an ancillary keyword, you could still rank and see a title which supports a better CTR. Frankly though, if the phrase isn’t somewhere on your page, it’s doubtful you’d be ranked for it in the first place, let alone having to worry about what Google displays as your title.

The Issue of Control

The fundamental message of this Google announcement is their intent to help users find good content that is poorly optimized. But if Google doesn’t get otherwise good signals, it’ll never develop keyword relevance to determine that a site is valuable and relevant to a query.

All in all, is this a major change? Not really. But the big deal here is that SEO is so bad out there, Google has to toss important webmaster-supplied data (poorly written title tags) to give searchers the best results. But if we give Google what it needs (well-optimized but NOT keyword-stuffed title tags), it only helps Google find our content pages. Plus, then we control the message on our pages instead of letting Google do it for us. So it seems that carefully written title tags are still a good policy, because without them your relevance may lay at the discretion of Google and everyone else.  Either you control your relevance with skill, precision and an expert knowledge of your business or let Google do it with their algorithm.

So what’s your strategy for writing title tags?

Comments

  1. Dudibob January 16, 2012 at 11:20 AM

    In regards to having 50,000 page websites it’s still well worth having dynamic titles regardless what Google says as that can help CTR on the SERPs and also a bonus to ranking :)

  2. Mark De Mers January 16, 2012 at 12:37 PM

    Great article, as always, Jen. I think one of the biggest hurdles in learning SEO is accepting the fact that on-page optimization isn’t rocket science. We ~want~ to believe that it’s more complex. After all, it must be, right? The people who struggle with SEO are often missing the most simple and obvious details, like proper title tags. It’s amazing to me, in these days of mod_write and dynamic scripting, to land on a page and notice that the title bar reads nothing more than “Mozilla Firefox.” I’m almost certain that if Dante was still alive, he’d republish “Inferno” with a newly-added 10th circle of Hell for people who don’t take the time to fill in the proper meta data.

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