Proper Page Titles – Time to Rewrite the Rules?

Since day one of my career in SEO, I’ve learned a few basic rules* when it comes to properly structuring title tags, or page titles, and how they can influence search engine rankings.

  • Always incorporate your target keywords for a particular page in the page title.
  • Include the most important keywords at the beginning to enhance CTR in the SERP and to inform Google what the page is primarily about.
  • Include the organization’s brand name at the end of the page title.
  • Don’t exceed 70 characters, as Google will stop reading/displaying them after that.
  • They are one of the most influential on-site factors that helps identify a page to a search engine, which siginficantly influence search engine rankings.

As we noted earlier, it seems that Google has recently decided that many of these rules were made to be bent, and has since been altering the way we would expect our page titles to appear in their SERPs. Take for example Netvantage Marketing’s home page title that currently has no use of “Marketing” in the text:

Award Winning Michigan SEO, AdWords Consulting Co. | Netvantage

For the query “Netvantage Marketing” we see this:

Google has clearly identified that our brand name is in fact “Netvantage Marketing”, and it finds little use of everything else we have carefully crafted to appear with our name.  You also get a much different result for the query “Netvantage”.

Here’s another example of a scuba gear company with a page title much longer than 70 characters that Google has tweaked (123 characters strangely enough).

“Scuba Gear – Scuba Equipment – Snorkeling Gear – Dive Equipment – Buy Scuba Discount Diving Equipment Online – 123Scuba.com”

We’ve also seen instances where a brand name listed at the end of a page title is identified and displayed, cutting out other information from the title tag meta data. This seems to happen mostly on product or services pages where Google feels it’s important enough to alter the page title structure to display the brand name in the SERP. PM Environmental, provides brownfield redevelopment and remediation services, and has a page describing their services with the following page title of 81 characters:

“Brownfield Redevelopment | Brownfield Remediation & Consulting | PM Environmental”

For the search query “brownfield redevelopment” we see the following:

They also have a page for their Ground Penetrating Radar services, which uses the following page title of 84 characters: “Ground Penetrating Radar Services – Utility Detection | GPR | PM Environmental, Inc”. and uses “PM Environmental, Inc.” as opposed to “PM Environmental” – In this case, PM Environmental’s brand name does not get picked up.

These changes seem to go beyond scrambling the existing title tag information, and page titles are often formulated from other sources as stated by Google in a Webmaster Tools support page – link:

This means one of two things to me: Google’s either being nice and is automatically changing our displayed page title to help us webmasters with our CTRs and to get us more relevant visitors to other sites displayed, or they’re conducting tests to find out what meta data or external sources such as Dmoz are most reliable and most relevant to search queries. I’ll let you decide.

My Unanswered Question

The question I couldn’t find and decided to try answering for myself was if we start playing by Google’s rules and structure our page titles the way they’re going to automatically be displayed anyway, will this enhance our site’s authority and provide an easy boost in Google’s search engine rankings?

I decided to start off by testing a site that provides data recovery services (link) – a relatively competitive keyword where the use and structure of brand names in the page titles of other sites in the SERP seems to be mixed.

After moving the brand name to the front of the page title on the home page, one of their target keywords “data recovery” moved from 9 to 6 and “data recovery services” moved from 11 to 6 within a week. Unfortunately, their rankings eventually found their way back to their original positions, which may have been a result of a canonical redirect error, so their results remain inconclusive.

My second test was for a site where I felt Google was confused with the website’s brand name. Manitoupontoonboats.com goes by many different brand names, including Mantiou Boats, Manitou Pontoon Boats, Manitou Pontoons, and Manitou, and their anchor text distribution reflects that brand name diversity. Despite engaging in link building efforts that got them high-quality and relevant links, their rankings didn’t seem to budge. We then decided to try changing the brand name in their page titles throughout their site from “Manitou Pontoon Boats” to match their domain name of “Manitou Boats”. Overnight their rankings moved from 3 to 4, a small change but it will result in significant improvements in website traffic. It’s also safe to say that these changes to the page titles were highly correlated to their sudden change in ranking.

So What Have I Learned?

Brand Names are Important

Google is putting a much stronger emphasis on a website’s brand name than it has in the past. Strong enough to alter the way page titles are displayed in their SERPs – not only on home pages. Whether or not Google’s doing us a favor here or using us as guinea pigs (or both) is still a question to be answered, as is the sources Google uses to identify a website’s brand name and which ones they prefer over others. It also seems important to keep a brand name consistent throughout a website and across other directory and social media sites as well.

Page Title Structures are Changing

Google is becoming more inclined to display fewer characters in their SERPs if they can, but at the same time is willing to read through long page titles to identify a site’s brand name so they can display it in a SERP. Google is also getting smarter at identifying segments of a page title, and will occasionally pick and choose segments to be displayed along with the brand name.

Don’t Fight Google

If you notice that Google is intentionally changing the way your website’s page titles appear, or is taking data from another source like Dmoz, try and change your page titles or meta descriptions to appear the way Google would prefer them to appear. I ran out of test subjects and cannot definitively say that doing this will enhance search engine rankings, but it may help out CTR if Google is indeed trying to help us out. We can continue to argue with Google’s reasoning and try to structure our own page titles the way we think they should appear, but if Google’s going to change them anyway, why bother?

*The First Rule of SEO – There Are No Rules

SEO is a constant tweak and test of finding ways to effectively displaying a website and its content in front of the highest number of relevant eyes, and there’s no simple, stable or foolproof way to do that. It’s what makes you pull your hair out, but it’s also what makes SEO so dynamic and exciting.

Michael Hall

Michael Hall is an Account Manager at Netvantage Marketing, which specializes in SEO, PPC and social media. Mike also runs our Denver office.

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