Recently it seems Google has started tweaking page titles with one apparent intention: to promote branding. Page titles have always been seen as one of the most influential search engine ranking factors when it comes to SEO, and writing the perfect title is an obsession of many SEO enthusiasts. But what happens when Google start rewriting our page titles; are they saying our page titles are unsatisfactory? And if we don’t start rewriting them as exampled by Google, are we going to suffer a ranking loss?
Recently I noticed that the page titles Google displayed for some of my websites had changed. While for some months Google displayed the page titles as written by me, this was suddenly no longer the case. After looking at numerous search results it seems this is the case for a small proportion of other websites as well. Here are two examples…
Page title (Nebstone):
‘Digital Marketing Agency Leeds | Online Marketing UK | Nebstone’
New page title displayed by Google:
Page title (Creode):
‘Digital Agency London & Leeds - Web Design & Online Marketing – Creode’
New page title displayed by Google:
In these examples, the brand name has been taken from the end of the page title and repositioned at the front with a colon inserted rather than a pipe separator.
There don’t appear to be any examples of colon insertion if the brand name is already at the front of the page title. This is interesting since when Google decides to tweak the titles as above, it removes the dash or the pipe and replaces these with a colon. However if the brand name is already at the front, Google is happy to leave the dash or the pipe in.
After going through numerous examples, it appears the displayed page title is only tweaked if the brand name is present at the end of the page title. If there is no brand name anywhere in the page title, then no brand name is inserted at the beginning. In addition, the page title is not always tweaked even if the brand name is present at the end like in the examples above.
Interestingly, Google only appears to tweak page titles for the home page, leaving all other pages on that domain with original titles, even if they are in the same format as the home page title.
This activity by Google is quite thought-provoking and begs the question as to whether some of us should be rewriting our page titles ourselves – Google may not babysit us forever, and perhaps we should be listening to their signals. However if we are to get page titles right we need to decide why Google are rewriting page titles like this….
Testing click-through rates (CTR): one possibility could be standard testing by Google in order to determine whether rearranging brand names affects CTR. Noticeably, Amazon uses the colon format similar to that which Google is tweaking page titles too. Perhaps Amazon has trialled and tested this format with optimal results.
Branding: Google like branding, and perhaps Google are suggesting they would like to see more branding in page titles, which maybe make their search results look more genuine or trustworthy. If this is the case, then there are perhaps certain implications for search engine rankings; does the lack of branding in page titles reduce trust, CTR, and consequently result in less favour from Google? Some time ago Matt Cutts suggested this wasn’t the case; however this may have changed for certain searches.
It is unclear whether the page title rewrites will have any effect on search engine rankings for the websites affected. Perhaps the most that will happen is a change in CTR for the rewritten titles. It seems unlikely that Google would rewrite a title and then penalise that website since important keywords are no longer at the beginning. More important are the implications of what Google are doing and what we should be actively doing in response to these page title rewrites and subtle suggestions from Google.
In the past it has always been recommended that keywords at the beginning of a title will carry more weight. However the fact that Google are rewriting titles and pushing keywords away from the spotlight suggests they no longer necessarily favour keywords and prefer trust signals such as branding. However it is worth bearing in mind that titles are only rewritten in specific circumstances, and apparently with some randomisation meaning these may just be arbitrary tests.
If Google are simply testing CTR then we may not want to do anything just yet. However, a test would certainly be a signal that Google has identified branding to be a key player in CTR, perhaps particularly as searchers become more advanced and keen to associate with trusted brands.
Perhaps Google are encouraging branding and hinting that they want to see brand names standing out for certain searches rather than generic keywords. Aaron Wall suggested emphasis on branding some time ago and Rand Fishkin provides some interesting thoughts on branding here. We may be seeing these ideas and a further development of this brand emphasis manifested in Google's title rewrites. So now we should be considering whether we should be rewriting our page titles ourselves. Letting Google do it for us is an option, but it’s questionable whether they will continue to or whether they prefer those who already conform to a strong branding regime. In addition, we should be considering whether rewriting other pages on our domain to include an emphasis on branding is also favourable. Currently Google only appear to rewrite titles for home pages however if they want branding in their results, then all of our landing pages should perhaps be branded for Google and their search engine results pages.
It may be worth bearing in mind however that rearranging titles ourselves will mean that title tags as read by search engines no longer support target keywords at the beginning. If indeed search engines still place weight on words at the beginning of page titles, then it may be worth letting Google rewrite titles for us since this allows us to leave keywords at the beginning of our page titles as written in the source code.
The Uncertain Conclusion
Google has been updating, scrutinising, and evolving rapidly over recent times, and this tweaking of page titles is yet another clue to what Google may want from us. Careful thought and monitoring of further page title updates may be worthwhile and for some, a greater emphasis on branding, not only using page titles but using brand building as a whole, may be a great investment not only for their customer relations but for their relationship with Google as well.