Welcome the first installment of the new SEO Lair series, SEO mysteries solved. We about to begin on an epic journey, uncovering the webs most unsolved SEO mysteries. Some will be easy and almost obvious, like today’s topic – Why is Google changing my title tags? Others will be much more complex. Let’s solve an SEO mystery, shall we?
The inspiration for today’s on changing title tags comes from various posts across the inter webs of SEOs freaking out because Google is changing some of their title tags. I found the first post yesterday on SE Watch. Here is a quote from the posts which sums up the purpose of all these “freak out” posts: “SEOs are getting frustrated.” Who’s frustrated you may ask? Well the respected community over at Webmaster World have something to say. So does David Malmborg from SEO.com and Bill Hartzer on his search engine marketing blog. The opinion and concerns of the community are two fold:
1. Why does Google have the right to change my title tags from what I decide? A.K.A who is Google to determine relevancy?
2. What is the point of the title tag anymore if Google is just going to determine it automatically? A.K.A why waste time optimizing it? Should we simply focus our efforts on on-page elements and off-site work?
The answers to these questions aren’t of immediate concern because the mystery lies else where. How is Google determining a relevant title tag for my page? Many SEOs have theories which are all valid. Could they be pulling this from on-page content? What about heading tags or linking anchor text? Maybe it’s pulling from DMOZ? Let me pose a question. Why ask HOW when you can ask WHY? If you can prevent Google from choosing the title tags for all of your pages, does it really matter how they are doing it? It may have far reaching implications down the line, but for now – let’s focus on the SEO mystery: WHY is Google changing my title tags?
The answer to this mystery is simple. Let’s turn to an esteemed Google resource (No it’s not Matt Cutts, lol) – Google Webmaster Central. I quote from this post: ““Make sure that each page on your site has a useful and descriptive page title (contained within the title tags). If a title tag is missing, or if the same title tag is used for many different pages, Google may use other text we find on the page. The HTML suggestions page in Webmaster Tools lists pages where Google has detected missing or problematic title tags. (To see this page, click Diagnostics in the left-hand menu of the site Dashboard. Then click HTML suggestions.)”
The answer to our SEO mystery is right there in bold. Google will only change your title tags if they aren’t unique enough or if you aren’t using them. But wait, there’s more from John Mueller via Google Webmaster Central: “In general, when we run across titles that appear to be sub-optimal, we may choose to rewrite them in the search results. This could happen when the titles are particularly short, shared across large parts of your site or appear to be mostly a collection of keywords. One thing you can do to help prevent this is to make sure that your titles and descriptions are relevant, unique and compelling, without being “stuffed” with too much boilerplate text across your site.”
There you have it – the final piece to the puzzle in bold. In summary here is why Google is deciding what your title tags should be: They don’t exist, they are too short, they are duplicated across your site, and/or they are too full of keyword spam. Let’s examine how to check if you are at risk of being a victim of Google policing your own website.
First you need Google Webmaster Tools verified. If you are an SEO beginner do this immediately, go go. Now on to the real steps (Get ready, they are really HARD!)
1. Click on “Diagnostics”, then click on “HTML suggestions”.
2. Look for the following:
“Non-informative title tags” is Google’s way of saying “keyword spam”.
That’s all she wrote folks. It’s really that easy. If your site has no issues with its title tags you will see the following message:
How Google is re-writing title tags is a very interesting subject. I’m very excited about reading research about different ideas. It’s going to have longer term implications and will uncover more about how Google views web pages, thus making it easier for smart people to be better at SEO. If you are doing any research around this, please post a comment and I will make sure to show you some link love in this post!