Advanced SEO Experiments: Google’s Title Tag Changes

Do you accept standard SEO practices? Or do you prefer to evolve beyond the basics?

shutterstock_177382937-basic-advancedBefore I get too far, let me state that just because you can apply advanced optimization techniques does not mean you should. In most cases, SEO essentials will provide more and speedier improvements long before advanced optimization techniques need come into play.

However, it’s worthwhile to understand the “why” behind each “what,” and be able to recognize when the usual advice may not be enough. It’s one of the things that makes SEO interesting.

Here’s one example: the lowly title element. (I’m joking when I write lowly.) Title tags remain one of the most influential ranking signals we can control. They’re quite important.

Best Practices For Title Tags

After Google’s recent changes, new best practices for title tags have come into vogue. Google increased the font size from 16px to 18px and removed underlining. As a result, the SERPs appear cleaner and easier to read. At the same time, increasing the font size reduced the number of characters that appear before truncation.

For years, the most common advice was to keep title tags less than 70 characters. After this year’s change, most articles tell you to keep your tag under a width of 512 pixels (55 to 60 characters).

Did the way Google truncates suddenly change from characters to pixels? No. It’s always been pixels. Google search results use the proportional Arial font. This means thin characters, like 1 or I, consume less space than fat characters like 5 or M. The character count was an easy-to-understand convention. The new character count suggestion is 55 to 60 characters.

Here are the basic best practices for title tags:

  • Under 512 pixels in width, generally 55 to 60 characters
  • Place keywords as close to the beginning as possible; the closer a word to the start of the tag, the more influence it exerts
  • Make title tags readable
  • If you include a brand in the title tags, place it at the end unless it is a well-known brand people seek out
  • Make each title unique
  • Avoid stuffing keywords

Another recommendation, for Site Links, is that the title should form a complete message before Google cuts it off with an ellipsis mark. Title tags that communicate a clear, coherent thought earn a higher click-through rate.

Google Site Links

Notice how each site link fits within the given space.

(A quick aside: I like the 512px/55 character rule since this works well with social media sharing.  A complete link, including the http://, is 21 characters. That’s a total of 76 characters.)

Should You Change Your Title Tags?

Should you reduce all your 70 character title tags to 55 characters? Perhaps on your homepage and category pages. Before undertaking a major title tag rewriting project, though, look at impression and click data in Google Webmaster Tools from before the change — which occurred the week of March 10 — and after the change.

The change should not have affected your rankings, so if you see a page-to-page decrease in click-through rate, then a title tag refresh is probably in order. If click-through rate has not changed, your energies may be better spent elsewhere. Keep in mind, Google appreciates it when sites update pages. If your pages are old and stale, you might want to use this as an opportunity to refresh entire pages.

Those are the basics. Let’s dig deeper.

Google may only display up to 512 pixels; however, the algorithm reads and considers the entire title tag, including the parts it doesn’t display. If you cannot write a title within the 512px limit, write the best title tag you can and ensure that the first 55 characters convey as much meaning as possible.

Google does not always display title tags from their beginning. If a query best matches words from the middle or end of a long title tag, it may display that portion of the text.

Additionally, Google loves brands. Here is an example of a long title tag where the search result clips the middle of the tag to show the relevant text and the brand.

<title>Checking Accounts with Online Banking & Mobile Banking | Chase</title>

Google Title Tag Rewrite with Brand

Sometimes, Google creates a completely new title for their SERPs than a page’s actual title tag.

<title>Pool Rules OK?</title>

 Google Rewrites Title Tag

Here’s Google’s explanation:

If we’ve detected that a particular result has [...] 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.

Testing Your Title Tags

Now you know some of the reasoning behind the best practices. This gives you knowledge you can use to experiment. Testing SEO is not easy, especially on a live website. You cannot govern the search engines, so you’ll never have a lab-quality setting — not to mention, most of us don’t have an extra high-traffic site to run experiments on. We must do it in the wild, for real.

SEO experiments should be done with care, on a limited set of selected pages. You want to choose pages that will deliver observable results, not ones that get zero traffic. Be sure to set aside a similar one you will not change to serve as your control or comparison page. Don’t do anything that will risk widespread or critical traffic! Try things in small doses first so that when you finally make changes to important pages, you will have already seen good results elsewhere.

Here are two tests you can try:

  • Put brands at the beginning of some category or subcategory pages, at the end of a second group, and remove them entirely from a third group. See how Google reacts. Look at click-through rates.
  • If you have in-depth articles, try expanding a few title tags to match additional keywords and convey two different but related thoughts. Do the pages rank for additional keywords or lose rankings? Does it affect traffic?

You already know your best SEO practices. Now learn the reasons behind the conventions, think about how you can bend some of them to your favor, and design and run some tests.