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This Title May Not Match What You Clicked On in the SERP

An article’s most important sentence is its title. Writers (us included) agonize over the precise wording, often crafting over a dozen different options before settling on one. We know that the title will be the first thing that potential readers will see in the search engine results page (SERP) and that it will be a huge factor in whether they click through to the article or not.

So when Google confirmed that it sometimes takes initiative and changes the title in the SERP, we were more than a bit upset. The more we dove into it, though, the more we accepted the practice. Though we’re still miffed.

Here’s what you need to know.

Google looks past HTML tag in creating SERP title

What We’re Talking About: SERP Titles

This is all concerned with the SERP title: The line of blue letters that serve as anchor text to a website, beneath a summary of the site’s URL and above its meta description.

Title line of an article in Google's results page
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Whenever you make a new webpage, you can specify what the title will be. The exact process will depend on your content management system, but the result will be an HTML title tag.

Search engines, like Google, pull this HTML title tag and plug it into the SERP to tell web searchers what the page is about.

It’s a pretty good system: Website owners have a pretty good idea of what their page is about, and the title tag is an intuitive way to describe the page’s content in a very succinct way.

Google Has Been Tweaking Titles

Recently, SEO professionals have noticed that a few of the titles showing up in Google’s SERP were not the same as the page’s HTML title tag. Google promptly announced that it was making wider use of factors other than the HTML title tag to populate the title field in its SERPs.

The search engine claimed that this practice was nothing new. Since 2012, the announcement said, Google’s algorithms had been looking past the HTML title tag for a good title to use if the HTML version was too long, too generic, stuffed with keywords, or simply missing.

Before, the search engine would use the search query to influence what came up in the title of a SERP listing, occasionally leading to something other than the HTML title tag.

Now, though, Google said that it had started to use text “that humans can visually see when they arrive at a web page” to override the page’s given HTML title. That text could be in an H1 tag at the top of the page (like in this article) or somewhere deeper in the content, large-font text that does not come in header formatting, or even text in a prominent image.

Google even said that it would consider anchor text on external links from another website for the page’s SERP title.

The announcement culminated in what Google probably thought would be a calming statistic for website owners: “Of all the ways we generate titles, content from HTML title tags is still by far the most likely used, more than 80% of the time.”

While this is clearly an attempt to make it sound like these title tweaks are rare, it’s actually quite alarming. On average, 1 of every 5 of your readers clicked on a SERP title that you did not write.

How This Should Impact Your Law Firm’s Website

If you’re doing things right, already, Google’s new practice shouldn’t impact your site, at all. You should already be writing HTML titles with dense, but not stuffed, keywords that accurately reflect what the content is all about. At the very least, you should be writing HTML titles for your pages in normal, organic language.

If that’s not the case, though, you may start to see some of your pages underperform their rankings. Just think: If you give Google a reason to rewrite your page’s title in the SERP, you are giving it an opportunity to mess it up. If the title is off-key, it will deter readers.

Take, for example, a law firm website that doesn’t add HTML title tags for its pages, but does splay a header across the top of all of them: “Criminal Defense Attorneys at the King Law Firm.” Then someone does a search query for “what is the exclusionary rule”. The SERP results could have titles that look like this:

  • What is the exclusionary rule? Criminal defense lawyers explain
  • How can the exclusionary rule help me win my case?
  • Criminal Defense Attorneys at the King Law Firm
  • The exclusionary rule – a defendant’s most important protection

When compared to SERP titles that are done right – often because they are written by the website owners, themselves – these other ones look amateurish enough that they can deter traffic, even if the content is actually quite good. And it gets worse if Google pulls anchor text from a backlink to display as the page’s SERP title. Website owners don’t even have control over what that text says. Some of the results have been so bad that Google has opened a complaint thread for feedback.