Google began rewriting page titles in its search results nearly 10 years ago, but recently, they started getting very aggressive with the practice. Webmasters have taken to social media to complain—and occasionally praise—Google for shortening titles, removing keywords, cutting titles off at awkward places, and generally ignoring title tags.
Even the Shrug Emoji Person couldn't be saved after losing their entire right arm to Google rewriting.
A recent study by Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz showed Google rewriting up to 58% of all titles, which seems consistent with reports from the field. To be fair, many of these are minor rewrites, such as adding a brand name.
In other cases, the rewrites are certainly more significant.
Google often has good reason to rewrite titles, which they've documented for all to read. Still, you've put a lot of work into your title tags, and for the sake of accuracy, marketing, legal, or plain aesthetics, you might cringe to see your masterworks rewritten in search results.
Here, we've listed 5 common scenarios in which Google is likely to rewrite your titles, along with strategies to avoid it, so your title tags are more likely to display exactly the way you want them.
Note: In many cases, I use examples from nytimes.com - partially because they've got one of the tightest SEO games on the planet and partially because if it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.
1. Relevancy Refactor
Of course, we think we're adding the most relevant keywords to our title tags, but Google often knows better.
This is especially obvious when you choose "marketing" language in lieu of keywords that searchers actually use.
Here's an example from the New York Times Wirecutter.
<Title> Tag: The 7 Best Bike Racks and Carriers in 2021 | Reviews by Wirecutter
Google Search: The Best Bike Racks and Carriers for Cars and Trucks
First of all, credit to the folks at the New York Times for writing a terrific title that no doubt generated tons of relevant clicks. It's a really good title.
That said, Google is likely looking at data showing that most folks who land on this page are specifically looking for bike racks for "cars" and "trucks." A quick look at the top keyword for the page via Moz's Keyword Explorer shows this is indeed the case.
How to solve: While it can suck for Google to remove your carefully crafted marketing copy designed to attract eyeballs and clicks, be sure to check the top keywords that are actually driving traffic to your page. Tools such as Keyword Explorer above, or Google Search Console Performance Reports are excellent in this regard.
2. Lengthy Logjams
It's probably too big. At least, that's one of the most common reasons to rewrite titles. Another fairly innocent example from the New York Times:
<Title> Tag: Jonathan Irons, Helped by W.N.B.A. Star Maya Moore, Freed From Prison - The New York Times
Google Search: Jonathan Irons, Helped by WNBA Star Maya Moore, Freed
Google has a desktop display limit of 650 pixels. If your title reaches longer than that, Google will almost certainly rewrite it - often simply cutting it off in an awkward place.
Mobile results, on the other hand, are more forgiving. Here's the same title again on mobile.
How to solve: There are actually two strategies to combat Google rewriting overly long titles.
- Keep your titles less than 650 pixels. Honestly, 650 pixels isn't a lot, and you may have trouble crafting a relevant title in this space. Hence, the second strategy…
- Front-load your keywords. Short titles aren't always an option (especially if your CMS automatically appends things like your brand to the end of titles, or you have longer headlines) but you can help your most important keywords remain visible by placing them near the front of the title tag. Ironically, this is the same advice we've been giving for the past 15 years, and it's become even more relevant today.
These strategies are even more relevant if you receive a good portion of your traffic via desktop searches. If your site attracts primarily mobile visitors, you may have greater flexibility.
Various tools exist to help measure your title length, including Zyppy’s new Beta, which we mention at the end of this post.
3. Keyword Kerfuffles (aka Stuffing)
Google's guidelines on writing titles say, "there's no reason to have the same words or phrases appear multiple times."
In the recent past, you could easily get away with using the same word two or three times in a title. In many cases, it even makes sense and is totally appropriate without spamminess.
Now, Google seems to be cracking down much harder on multiple cases of the same keyword. Consider this example:
<Title> Tag: 10 of Our Best New Recipes - Recipes from NYT Cooking
Google Search: 10 of Our Best New Recipes - NYT Cooking
This isn't an ironclad rule. In fact, you can still find many instances in Google results where the same word appears more than once. That said, Google seems more likely to rewrite the title if one of the repeating words is contained in the brand or other parts of boilerplate (more on this below.)
How to solve: Google is getting stricter on the same keywords used more than once in titles, so using a keyword more than once may not be helpful, and using a variety of other relevant terms may mean you're less likely to trigger a rewrite.
4. Boilerplate Boggles
Boilerplate is simply any part of a title tag that repeats many times across your site. This could be your brand name "NYTimes" or a section header "Recipes From NYT Cooking."
To put it simply, when Google sees boilerplate in your title that isn't unique to the page, they may consider it less relevant.
<Title> Tag: Yoga for Everyone: A Beginner's Guide - Well Guides - The New York Times
Google Search: Yoga for Everyone - The New York Times
As you can see, the phrase "Well Guides" is boilerplate used on many titles across the site. Unless users are specifically searching for "well guides," Google may not consider it particularly relevant.
How to solve: Title boilerplate is a given part of the web, and most CMS systems add boilerplate by default. Boilerplate in itself isn't necessarily bad, but it can cause difficulties when it's irrelevant.
In fact, we've run experiments where removing irrelevant boilerplate has caused upwards of a 20% lift in organic traffic.
The key is relevance. Again, you want to look at your incoming keywords. If your boilerplate is highly relevant to user searches—or in other cases, if it lifts click-through rates—you likely want to keep it.
5. Bracket Blindness
Remember our one-armed Shrugging Emoji friend? (ツ)_/¯
In order to rewrite titles, Google attempts to break them into chunks or fragments. During this latest rollout, Google demonstrated a strange aggressiveness at breaking titles up at common separators, which include brackets , parenthesis (), and other symbols like pipes |.
Again, Dr. Pete shared several examples of this over at Moz, like this one below.
<Title> Tag: Is there a way to repost content (with permission) to another site without being penalized by Google? | SEO | Moz
Google Search: to another site without being penalized by Google? | SEO Q&A
How to solve: Honestly, this is something Google should solve themselves, and it's perplexing that they seem committed to this rollout with so many errors. Regardless, the only answer on the part of webmasters is to limit the use of separators and brackets, especially in the middle of titles. If Google can't break your title into smaller chunks, there's less chance of forcing an error.
Hopefully, Google will get better at these kinds of mistakes.
Title Optimizations: the First Feature in Zyppy’s Traffic-Boosting Software
Ready for the good news?
At Zyppy, we've been working hard on a new type of SEO software that actually helps you write better titles for improved traffic and SEO.
It's part of our platform that we believe is the future of SEO implementation: live publishing, data-driven actions, integration with Google tools, and results-based decisions.
Most SEO software simply gives you data. We want to raise your traffic.
It's like having an experienced SEO looking over your shoulder. Zyppy is capable of a lot of new things:
- Crawls your site and simultaneously gathers relevant keyword information from Google Search Console
- Highlighting top-priority traffic opportunities such as important keywords missing from your title, duplicates, length issues, and more
- Actually identifies irrelevant boilerplate (the only SEO software that we're aware of with this capacity)
- Integrates with both WordPress and Cloudflare to publish your title change experiments instantly
- Can publish dynamic sitemaps to Google Search Console to speed up indexing
- Tracks all experiments you publish and identifies winners and losers against our machine-learning forecasts
Today we're launching a free, open beta to a limited number of users in exchange for feedback. If you run a site with a decent amount of organic traffic (at least several thousand visits a month) and are open to a new way of doing SEO, consider giving Zyppy a try.