Title tags are something the web site owner can control, right? And they influence how the site appears in search engine results, right? Well, maybe: Recent changes in how Google displays page snippets mean that Google might tweak your page title without your knowledge.
Web site owners often spend a lot of thought developing their page titles and formatting them just so. But Google has its own ideas about how to make a title tag that reflects the search queries that users actually use, or even what Google figures the user intended to look for.
Google’s Webspam guru Matt Cutts explained this in a recent video, saying that Google’s methods of changing page titles to something other than the title tag text often produce a higher clickthrough rate to the page in question — a change which Google says benefits both the web site owner and the user performing the web search.
Google has done this sort of thing before, substituting other text for the title text. The most recent change, which took place on March 10, increased the font size of title tags in search results from 16 pixels to 18 pixels and removed the underlining. Based on that change, many SEO experts advise reducing the maximum length of the title tag from 70 characters to 55-60 characters.
As with previous instances of Google’s title-changing, if Google doesn’t like your title tag, it will choose text from elsewhere on the page to use as title text — possibly <h1> text, but sometimes even <h2> or <h3> text. Or even anchor text links that point to your page.
Google explains: “If we’ve detected that a particular result has one of the above issues with its title, we may try to generate an improved title from anchors, on-page text, or other sources. However, sometimes even pages with well-formulated, concise, descriptive titles will end up with different titles in our search results to better indicate their relevance to the query. There’s a simple reason for this: the title tag as specified by a webmaster is limited to being static, fixed regardless of the query. Once we know the user’s query, we can often find alternative text from a page that better explains why that result is relevant. Using this alternative text as a title helps the user, and it also can help your site. Users are scanning for their query terms or other signs of relevance in the results, and a title that is tailored for the query can increase the chances that they will click through.”
So what are the new “best practices” of title tag writing?
Stick to a length of 55-60 characters, or 512 pixels.
Place your brand name at the end of the title tag, unless it’s a well-known brand people search for by name.
Try to create a complete thought before the point that Google cuts the title off with an ellipsis.
Regarding that last item, Google’s algorithm actually does read through and consider your entire title tag, all the way to the end. So if you can’t be as concise as you’d like within the 55-60 character range, be sure the first 55 characters are a complete thought.
One last little snippet of advice about Google snippets: Google and other search engines will sometimes use Open Directory information to generate descriptions. To prevent all search engines from using Open Directory data, use the tag <meta name=”robots” content=”NOODP”>. And if you’d like to prevent Google in particular from using Open Directory information for your page’s description, use <meta name=”googlebot” content=”NOODP”>.
Google wants your title tags to describe the pages they point to and, ideally, the rest of your site as well. The new way of truncating or changing title tags outright may be frustrating to web site owners, but may ultimately result in higher clickthroughs and SERP rankings.