In late 2021, Google publicly acknowledged that it had revised the way it handles title tag rewrites in the search engine results page (SERP). Many in the digital marketing space had forgotten, but Google has been changing title tags for a long time.
And, reading the announcement, one would think this was just another routine change by Google. Nothing to see here, SEOs!
Why is Google Changing Title Tags? 3 More Reasons To Consider
Of course, they rarely give clear explanations or justifications for anything. But what they did say may give insights into the true reasons that they didn’t share.
Changes to Title Tag Rewrite Logic
The official post by Google, penned by Danny Sullivan, was just over 560 words. That’s not many words yet it said a lot.
Google clearly states that, with their previous system logic, “titles might change based on the query.” The implication here is that they were changing the title in the SERP to better match the searcher intent.
They did this even if the revised title didn’t match well with the page content.
Anyone that took a basic writing class knows that a title should always ‘describe what a document is about’. …what prompted this change now?
Then they write that the “new system is producing titles that work better for documents overall, to describe what they are about, regardless of the particular query.”
Now, anyone that took a basic writing class knows that a title should always ‘describe what a document is about’. That’s pretty basic.
So, if Google insists on changing the title of a publisher’s document, then why weren’t they doing it this way all along? And what prompted this change now?
Reverse Engineering Google’s Motivations
The big data analyses that followed this change last year showed that benign changes like smart shortening, removing repetitive words, and adding the brand name were common. This was the case, before and after the August announcement.
Such title changes can be helpful, but there is more to this story. To better understand where they might be headed (and why), let’s take a closer look at what they were doing before.
Google acknowledges that previously their priority was to match the title to the query, but other language in the announcement reflects that they would do this even if that title mismatched the page content itself. But they don’t say why they were doing this.
They get paid when searchers stay on the Google SERP, not when they leave and come to our page.
Trusting souls might suggest that Google just wanted to make the pages (our sites) more enticing to the searcher; to increase click-through rate based on the given query. But improving CTR to our pages is inconsistent with Google’s corporate objectives.
Google has repeatedly shown that they do not want searchers to leave. They do everything possible to deliver answers directly in the SERP. They do this because this is where they deliver their ads. They get paid when searchers stay on the Google SERP, not when they leave and come to our page.
But, from the company pov, if searchers must leave then at least Google can perform a little machine learning on them as they head out the door.
This, I believe, remains the root of their motivation in changing title tags (and meta description rewrites as well), both before this update and now. The organic SERPs are a massive, real-world training ground for the Google AIs.
3 Other Reasons Why Google Changes Titles
Here are three other possible reasons why Google may change title tags, and might be changing their approach. None of these have been widely discussed, to my knowledge.
Responsive AI Training Ground
As noted, Google does not make money when a searcher clicks on an organic result and leaves. They make money on ad sales. They have been rewriting title tags since at least 2014. All the while they have been training the AIs.
And it’s not simply about improved CTR. In 2018 Google introduced responsive ads which, more than ever before, leveraged their AI to make smart decisions about which ad copy to use in what situation.
The only reason Google ever invested in this capability was to leverage it on their ad platform. Perhaps the AI has learned all it can.
Direct control over ad copy is increasingly being taken out of the hands of the advertiser. Then it was announced that, in June of 2022, text ads (the more manual, old school format) will be going away for good.
So, Google is staking the future of its entire ad platform on the ability of the AI to assess intent and do realtime copywriting.
It surely requires massive machine resources to perform sophisticated, contextual title changes across all their data centers. They would not spend those machine cycles (or the research hours of those on staff) to improve organic click through rate.
Basic title fixes aside, they are not doing this for us, or their users. The only reason Google ever invested in this capability was to leverage it on their ad platform. Perhaps the AI is no longer ‘learning’ enough to justify the cost.
Avoiding Legal Risk From Title Hijacking
As to why they are shifting gears now, one reason could be related to legal liability. The company has been hyper-sensitive to legal and regulatory issues for a long time. A recent example is when Google disallowed rich results on products such as firearms & weapons, recreational drugs, and for gambling-related businesses.
As alluded to above, Google has an obligation to grow and defend shareholder value. It’s great when the interests of shareholders are aligned with that of users, but shareholders come first.
One can imagine that, in certain industries such as health, leaving title changes to the AI could invite special risks.
…prioritize titles that “describe what (documents) are about, regardless of the particular query.” This sounds like it was written by the corporate lawyers, not Danny Sullivan.
If Google changed a title tag and that created confusion or was in conflict with the actual content on the page it could lead to people being misinformed or getting hurt. It’s easy to extend this to other industries as well.
This hypothesis is supported by some explicit language in the August 2021 announcement. The new logic will now prioritize titles that “describe what (documents) are about, regardless of the particular query.” This sounds like it was written by the corporate lawyers, not Danny Sullivan.
Further, that they would increase use of “text that humans can visually see when they arrive at a webpage“ strikes me as defensive posturing. A title that ‘more closely follows what the publisher (not Google) wrote’ is more defensible in court.
Reduced CTR is Good for Google
If you believe that the Google AI was, on average, good at rewriting titles to match the query, then this latest change will certainly reduce click-through rates in aggregate terms. By no longer tailoring the SERP title to the search query itself, fewer searchers will be compelled to visit the page. But is this a bug or a feature?
A title in the SERP that does not directly address the search query will, in many cases, get less attention (and lower CTR). But for Google, which wants to keep searchers on their property as long as possible, this is a good thing.
In the past they were giving the AI plenty of latitude in doing title rewrites. Now something has changed, and they are taking a more restrictive approach to title rewrites. It’s not clear to me whether, internally at Google, they really wanted to do this update or not.
The new approach will, in many cases, lead to lower click-through. And, on balance, that is good for Google.
But, whether or not you believe their original intention was altruistic, for the benefit of users and publishers, doesn’t matter. The new approach will, in many cases, lead to lower click-through. And, on balance, that is good for Google.
Data Mining Title Tags
Google has been doing title tag rewrites since at least 2014. And in 2018 they introduced their AI-driven, responsive ad platform which, no doubt, benefited from those years of machine learning.
Doing analysis on how your own and your competitors’ titles are being changed in the SERP for different keywords can reveal valuable insights.
Now, after 8 years, they seem to be dialing down their more aggressive title changes. Is it because their AI has learned all it can? Or are they taking a more cautious stance in the face of potential legal challenges?
Whatever their true reasons are, Google title changes are not necessarily bad. Title tag rewrites often reveal how Google interprets a given search query.
Doing analysis on how your own and your competitors’ titles are being changed in the SERP for different keywords can reveal valuable insights. SERP Sonar reports can help you see and assess these changes.