Google’s recent move to focus less on title tags when generating SERP titles caused a sensation in the SEO industry in August and September. Feedback from SEOs has been pretty tough. No wonder, considering some of the new system’s initial bugs have occurred.
Here is one of the worst title tag reworks I’ve seen:
Great example of how google rewrite the title tag and get it very wrong
For non-UK people, HMRC is the UK tax collector pic.twitter.com/YbpWaEmSjo
– Charles Meaden (@charlesmeaden) September 6, 2021
Here is the actual title tag for good measure:
Google made some adjustments to the first update and now claims that the title tag is used approximately 87% of the time. We have the data to verify or disprove these claims, so we did that.
We analyzed the SERP titles and title tags for 953,276 pages that were placed in the top 10 results to generate valuable insights.
Here they are, starting with a surprising statistic.
7.4% of the top ranking pages do not have a title tag
I expected almost all of the pages that ranked in the top 10 search results to have a title tag. Missing title tags in 7.4% of the pages that ranked in the top 10 results seem like a pretty high number.
How often does Google rewrite most of the title-tagged pages?
Google rewrites title tags 33.4% of the time
Title tag usage is only a big difference 66.6% of the time, compared to the 87% that Google claims. But as with most things, the devil is in the details (pun intended).
Based on our methodology, we considered minor discrepancies between title tags and SERP titles as a match. This is because slight variations in punctuation and adding brand names have always been common. If we were to only consider 100% matches, the rewrite rate would be much higher.
On the other hand, we only considered matches if Google left the rest of the words in the same order. and this is one of Google’s earlier statements:
Of all the ways we generate titles, content from HTML title tags is still by far the most used, more than 80% of the time.
This could mean that Google is considering a match when the word order is changed. Or I just think about it.
In any case, what you should care most about is how these changes affect your pages. For example, Google is currently rewriting 31.6% (1,314 cases out of 4,162 pages) of the title tags on ahrefs.com:
You can find that in the Page explorer Report in Ahrefs’ Site Audit.
Google is now 33% more likely to rewrite title tags
Google has been generating its own SERP titles and descriptions for a long time. But while we’ve all got used to meta descriptions being rewritten 62.78% of the time, title tags have always been more stable and the changes haven’t been that significant.
However, when we compared SERP titles for pages with unchanged title tags between June and September 2021, we found that Google rewrote them much more often than before:
The title match rate is comparable for fat-head and long-tail keywords
Google claims that it now rewrites title tags independently of the search query, ie the title should remain the same across all SERPs.
My hypothesis is that if it weren’t for that, Google would be more likely to generate its own titles for long-tail keywords. That’s because search intent is much more variable than the main keywords people are trying to rank for.
We can confirm that there is actually no significant difference between long-tail and fat-head keywords when it comes to title generation:
Remember, the data here is a proxy for Google’s claims, not evidence. Comparing titles on the same page via SERPs may be a better option, but it also has its own subtleties (time, place, personalization).
If Google ignores the title tag, it will instead use H1 50.76% of the time
Headings are an obvious place to look for alternative SERP titles. And in cases where the SERP title and title tag are different, our data shows that Google found the SERP title 50.76% of the time from the H1 tag, the H2 tag 2.02% of the time and a combination of H1 and H2 tags draws 1.31%. all the time.
This leaves 45.91% of the cases unexplained. According to Google, these SERP titles can also come from:
- Other content that is big and prominent through the use of style treatments.
- Contains other text on the page.
- Anchor text on the page.
- Text within links that refer to the page.
After looking at a few specific “other” cases, we came to the conclusion that Google often combines several elements to create a coherent title. However, this is only our hypothesis based on a few examples.
Google is 57% more likely to rewrite title tags that are too long
Google rewritten titles over 600 pixels 29.45% of the time. Now it’s 46.12% of the time – an increase of 56.6%.
So if you want to increase your chance that Google will use your title tag, make sure it stays within 600 pixels, which is the limit for SERPs to display. But the more useful rule of thumb is to keep your title within 60 characters.
After crawling your website, you can use Ahrefs’ Site Audit to check which pages have longer titles:
Final thoughts? Keep an eye on SERP title changes on your most important pages
Prevention is always better than cure. That means you have to try to make the best possible titles to minimize the chances of Google rewriting them. However, it is inevitable that some of your titles will be rewritten. And you should keep an eye on these cases.
Again, Site Audit will help you (it’s free in Ahrefs Webmaster Tools). After you’ve crawled your website, go to the Page explorer. Select the preset filter “Page and SERP titles do not match”, click on “Advanced filter” and exclude minor title changes that only involve cutting off or adding your brand name:
Click Apply and sort the table below by organic traffic to see the title changes that could have the greatest impact:
If changing the title seems problematic, check the CTR changes in the Google Search Console. Then decide how to fix the title tag. Does it match the prevailing search intent of the main keywords? Is it current? Is it Clickbaity or Spam?
That’s all we can do to fight Google’s title tag rewriting.
Ping me on twitter if you have any questions or comments.