Google’s influence over web page snippets has been around since the dawn of time. But a recent change to title tag representation within Search has caught the attention of SEO professionals.

I’ll try to keep the nuance alive and well in this post by trying not to make too many concrete statements (because fault can be easy to find), but I did want to unpack some of the changes that have happened over the past couple of days.

The change is one, like many others from Google, where it can be quite difficult to put your finger on exactly what has changed. But as SEOs, our spidey-sense starts to tingle, letting us know that something is up.

My post will first start with some recent history of web page snippets on Google, I’ll then explore what I believe has happened with the recent change to title tags, followed by a case study involving a title tag taken from a completely different page, along with some concluding thoughts on the situation.

Some history for Google’s web page snippets

When it comes to snippets on Google, there are several aspects that have been known to fluctuate. Each of these aspects include:

  • Pixel limit: while the limit for how much content that can display within a title tag or meta description can vary a lot based on device type, there are still rough pixel limits that are followed by SEO professionals (often simplified to just ‘characters’). Google can sometimes make the pixel limit longer or shorter for each meta data element.
  • Modification by query: this is one that has been more noticeable in recent years. Despite our best efforts to write a representative title and description for a page, Google will still likely modify the snippet based on the query. The query itself is perhaps the most influential of all, with ~70% of meta descriptions being re-written according to a recent study.
  • Complete replacement: this is when Google will alter the snippet completely because the snippet that has been set for the page does not represent the content well enough. I’ll get into this more shortly, but this is one of the key impacts that I’ll be exploring within this post.

In recent years, the most noticeable change I can think of relates to the pixel limit of the meta description. I wrote about this change in May of 2018, where Google made meta descriptions much shorter for some queries.

This was on the back of Google making meta descriptions particularly long (roughly twice the length), with there then being the opportunity to take up more space. But the lesson there was to not go ahead and update your snippets, because Google ended up reverting the change quite quickly.

Aside from this change, meta data on Google can be best described as a feature that “ebbs and flows”. Forever changing, often in quite a discrete way that is unworthy of mention or altering our existing approach.

What has changed with title tags on Google?

The original theory was that there has been a widespread change where Google is taking header tags from a page and replacing them with the title tag. This theory (reported by many) certainly has merit, but there looks to be more complexity when digging deeper.

From what I can see, there is no “one factor” involved with this change, with an algorithmic approach designed to create better titles in Google’s search results as a whole. Whether that be taking the new title from a header tag, from a different HTML element, or effectively pulling it out of thin air.

As an overall result of this update to title tags, it looks like title tag snippets are now shorter. This isn’t because the pixel limit has been brought down, but instead an indirect result of a “readability and relevance algorithm” designed to change how title tags are represented in Search.

An example of this can be seen for the query “wooden furniture melbourne” when searching from Australia. Before the recent title tag update, the snippet included several locations and the site name was missing due to truncation (going beyond the desktop px limit). The update resulted in the following change:

Overnight, Google has altered the title for this search result. Instead of including Sydney, Perth and other locations in the title, Google has decided to refine this down to just Melbourne. Whether this be from Google suggesting that they know the business mainly services Melbourne or it being due to the location I’m searching from.
The other aspect to this change is the brand name that sits on the end of the title. While the title tag that has been set for the page does have the brand name at the end (hidden via px limit truncation), this has been slotted on by Google. We know this because the HTML has the brand name referenced with a vertical bar, whereas a hyphen has been added by Google.
The curious case of the title tag: brought to you by Lily Ray
I’ve said in the past that Lily Ray’s tweets about SEO are so good that even Google knows it. This situation is no different, where Lily uncovers a change related to Google’s title tag update that will get you thinking.
Normally, Google will just switch out the title tag that has been set in exchange for a header tag or another section of content from the page. This is an easy switch for Google, because the algorithm is confident enough to trust another relevant piece of text from the page.
This case study relates to a page that had its title tag re-written by Google, but Google’s suggested text was not within the source code of the page. Quite a surprising scenario based on my experience.