What are the real reasons Google is rewriting title tags? What technology is powering these article rewrites and what does it mean for how publishers and search marketers write title tags?
Data Collection Before Title Tag Rewrites?
In May Google announced an updated platform that helps create new algorithms as well as update older algorithms. This platform is known as Keras-based TF-Ranking.
The updated Keras-based TF-Ranking platform allows the rapid prototyping, testing and rollout of new algorithms. It was also used to help BERT become even more powerful with a new architecture called, TFR-BERT.
What is notable is that it allows the rapid development and deployment of new LTR (Learning to Rank) models, algorithms and improvements to existing algorithms.
This is what Google published:
“In May 2021, we published a major release of TF-Ranking that enables full support for natively building LTR models using Keras, a high-level API of TensorFlow 2.
Our native Keras ranking model has a brand-new workflow design, including a flexible ModelBuilder, a DatasetBuilder to set up training data, and a Pipeline to train the model with the provided dataset.
These components make building a customized LTR model easier than ever, and facilitate rapid exploration of new model structures for production and research.”
Read more here: KERAS TF-Ranking
Is it coincidental that there have been multiple updates to the search results at an unprecedented pace ever since that new TF-Ranking platform was announced?
For example, prior to the title tag rewrites in August there was an increase in PAA (People Also Ask) features.
When users interacted with the People Also Ask (PAA) features, those interactions were sent back to Google as data about what users mean when they search for certain queries as well as data about why they did not click on relevant search queries listed in the search results (because maybe the title tags weren’t descriptive?).
So it may follow that how users interacted with the People Also Ask features may have contributed to helping Google understand that for a percentage of search queries some users didn’t click on relevant search results because of the title tags.
TFR-BERT Ranking Algorithm
Google had new and more powerful algorithms to help understand ranking related data.
This is what the Google article about Keras-based TF-Ranking noted about the new version of BERT:
“Our experience shows that this TFR-BERT architecture delivers significant improvements in pretrained language model performance, leading to state-of-the-art performance for several popular ranking tasks…”
Google hasn’t discussed what is powering the title tag rewriting or what data is being used to power it.
So we can only connect the dots between the different algorithms and platform advances that have been made this year.
Some of what we know is:
- An increase in the People Also Ask feature preceded the title tag changes
- The BERT algorithm may have been updated to TFR-BERT
- Google updated a learning to rank platform called Keras-based TF-Ranking that helps development of new machine learning architectures
What Does Google Say About Title Tags?
Google has published an SEO starter guide that features a section about title tags.
Google’s advice on title tags:
“A <title> tag tells both users and search engines what the topic of a particular page is.
Accurately describe the page’s content
- Choose a title that reads naturally and effectively communicates the topic of the page’s content.
- Create unique titles for each page
- Use brief, but descriptive titles”
Google Does Not Recommend Keywords for Title Tag
Nowhere in Google’s title tag SEO article do they advise adding keywords to the title tag.
Google’s SEO guide doesn’t dissuade publishers from adding keywords into the title tag but Google doesn’t recommend it either.
The only section where Google mentions title tags is in one section where Google says what not to do:
“Stuffing unneeded keywords in your title tags.”
In Google’s guide for title tags, the above statement is the only place where Google mentions keywords.
It’s worth underlining this point:
Google’s SEO starter guide advises using the title tag to describe what the page is about. Google does not advise using the title tag as a dumping ground for keywords.
Google’s John Mueller on Title Tags
As recently as December 2020 John Mueller said that rather than dump keywords in the title tag it was better to use the title tag to describe what the page is about using the words that a searcher would likely use in order to stimulate click through rate.
He didn’t say that using those keywords would help rankings.
He said, in the context commenting on the use of title tags for dumping keywords, it was better to use a descriptive title tag to get a higher CTR.
Here is what he said:
“…if you can create a title that matches what the user is actually looking for then it’s a little bit easier for them to actually click on a search result because they think “oh this really matches what I was looking for.
So that’s something where I almost think it’s a matter of improving the click-through rate rather than improving the ranking. And if, with the same ranking, you get a higher click-through rate because people recognize your site as being more relevant then that’s kind of a good thing.
And sometimes I suspect the bigger aspect is really the click-through rate from search rather than the ranking effect.”
In the same Google Webmaster Hangout he also said, regarding the use of keywords in title for ranking purposes:
“So just because they are used for ranking doesn’t mean you need to put everything in there.”
Mueller has been consistent in his advice about title tags.
In 2016 he said that the title tag isn’t the most critical as a primary ranking signal and that the best use was to describe what the page is about in a way that’s useful to users.
This is what Mueller said:
“We use that just as a part. I think it’s not like the primary ranking factor of a page, to put it that way.
We do use it for ranking but it’s not the most critical part of a page.
So it’s not worthwhile filling it with keywords to kind of hope that it works that way.
In general we try to recognize when a title tag is stuffed with keywords because that’s also a bad user experience for users in the search results.
If they’re looking to understand what these pages are about and they just see a jumble of keywords, then that doesn’t really help.”
Mueller next addressed having keywords in the title tag:
“Having keywords in the title tag is fine. I would just kind of write the title tag in a way that really describes in maybe one sentence what this page is actually about.
To really make a clear title rather than to just have like keyword-1, keyword-2, keyword-3 in there.”
John Mueller could not be any clearer about the proper use of title tags: The proper use of title tags is to describe what the page is about.
That point of view matches exactly with what the most current version of Google’s SEO Starter guide says about the proper use of title tags.
When asked about what he would deem critical for rankings, if not title tags, Mueller responded that the actual content on the page was critical. He then presented an example of a Q&A site that didn’t have title tags or descriptions because they wanted Google to use what was on the web page itself and Mueller said it worked well for them.
“And that worked really well. So that’s not something where we would say if you don’t have a title tag you don’t have any chance of showing up in search.
From my point of view the title tag is something that’s worth specifying if you have something specific that you want to use as the title.
And you can really refine it into something kind of short and to the point.”
It’s clear that Google’s advice is to use the title tag strictly for describing what a page is about in a way that matches the words that a searcher might use when looking for what is on the web page.
Mueller also affirmed that title tag was not critical for ranking but rather the on-page content is critical for ranking.
Keywords in Title Tags: SEO Circa 2002
Way back in the early days of SEO, in the early 2000’s it was absolutely necessary to use keywords in the title tag. The ranking benefits were indisputable.
That way of thinking continues today, even though Google appears to have moved on.
Are Publishers and SEOs Mishandling Title Tags?
If Google is rewriting title tags, is it possible that maybe the title tags were poorly written?
Ask anyone about their title tags and I bet they will assert their title tags are perfect.
So under those circumstances, good luck convincing anyone that there is something wrong with their title tags, right?
I’m not saying that the search industry is wrong about title tags.
I’m just saying to keep an open mind.
Three Different Title Tags for the Same Article
Common practice for SEO is that the title tag describes the web page and it’s where you put the targeted keywords.
That seems simple but it’s not because the interpretation of what a page is about can be highly subjective.
Let’s use the example of an article about chicken noodle soup.
Is the article about Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe, The History of Chicken Noodle Soup or is it about Chicken Soup?
- Conventional SEO: The article is about Chicken Soup (more traffic) so put that in the title tag
- Common Sense: It’s a recipe article so the title tag should be Chicken Soup Recipe
- Non-SEO Viewpoint: Since there are 800 words about the history of chicken noodle soup and only 300 words about the recipe, the web page is clearly about The History of Chicken Noodle Soup.
Choosing a title tag isn’t always as straightforward as saying what the page is about, dumping your “targeted keywords” in the title tag and adding a call to action to stimulate clicks.
SEO Standard Practice for Title Tags
It is commonly understood that the title tag is the place where targeted keywords go. But that’s not how Google describes the proper use of the title tag.
The search industry also says to use the title tag for branding, to add a call to action, use secondary keywords and almost as an afterthought, to use the title tag to also describe what the page is about.
Is it even possible to use the title tag for branding, keywords and call to action in 50 to 70 letters and spaces?
There is a tension in title tag articles about using title to describe the page topic and adding keywords to it. The tension derives from the advice to add keywords to the title tag and the advice to describe what the web page is about.
Adding keywords is consistently the number one focus and describing what the page is about, if mentioned at all, is almost an afterthough.
Is the article about keyword-1 keyword-2 or is the article about The History of Chicken Noodle Soup?
Moz published an SEO guide that says this about title tags:
“The title tag of a web page is meant to be an accurate and concise description of a page’s content.”
The above statement is in line with Google’s recommendations.
Then further down the page it gives this example of how to format the title tag:
Primary Keyword – Secondary Keyword | Brand Name”
That example is an illustration of how to use title tags in the early 2002. The example arguably does not conform with Google’s advice to describe what the web page is about.
Adding keywords to the title tag is standard SEO practice since the early 2000’s.
I’m not saying Moz is wrong… but there is a contradiction in what the SEO industry says about title tags and what Google says.
SEO Articles About Title Tags
There are many articles about optimizing title tags. There are so many articles on the topic (search it for yourself) that one would think that poor title tags was the number one reason for poor rankings.
The following are excerpts from various articles about title tags, which are arguably representative of the conventional view of how to optimize title tags.
SEMRush offers five points of advice for a title tag:
- Include your target keywords.
- Write a title that matches search intent.
- Avoid creating duplicate title tags.
- Avoid keyword stuffing.
- Keep it descriptive but concise.
There’s nothing there in those five points about describing what the web page is about.
But there is the advice from the early 2000’s about including the target keywords.
Sistrix offers four points of advice, three of which involve keywords:
- Be relevant to the content on the page
- Include the keyword that you want the page to rank for
- Use the longtail keyword, too – this can be in conjunction with the main keyword
- Have the keyword at the start of the title
Yoast’s article on title tags says a title tag has two goals:
- It must help you rank for a keyword;
- it must make the user want to click through to your page.
Describing what the page is about is not even mentioned as one of the two top goals for title tags.
Yoast only mentions describing the page topic later on:
“…you also need to make sure that your page title reflects the topic being discussed on your page and the keyword that you’re focusing on.”
The Yoast article, like many other SEO articles about title tags, did not make describing the web page a primary quality of title tags.
Like many other SEO articles, the Yoast article on title tags focused on the importance of adding keywords in the title tag.
SEO Best Practices Different From Google’s Advice
It’s clear that how the search industry understands title tags is different from how Google advises the title tag should be used.
It’s also clear that the SEO best practices about title tags dates from the early 2000s and that those “best practices” have not been updated for the past twenty years.
“Use the keyword once in title, once in description tag, once in a heading, once in the url, once in bold, once in italic, once high on the page…”
That advice from 2002 is pretty much how many SEOs continue to use keywords today in 2021.
Google has moved on and is recommending something completely different since 2002 for optimizing title tags.
Doesn’t it seem odd that the SEO industry continues to optimize title tags like it is still 2002?
The advice for adding “targeted keywords” to the title tag is nearly 20 years old.
Could it be that at least one of the things that is driving Google’s title tag rewrites is that dumping keywords into the title tag is inadequate for describing what a web page is about?
It’s clear that the words searchers use should be included in the title tag because it helps communicate that a page is relevant for a specific search query.
Keeping an open mind, given that Google specifically recommends this for title tags, could it be that describing what a page is about should be a primary consideration?
Watch the Google Webmaster Hangout at the 57:53 minute mark:
How to Write For Google
Are you writing your SEO content based on the latest best practice tips?
I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012—my, how things have changed. Today, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is critical, and there are revised SEO writing “rules.”
I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and to provide additional information.
As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing as “writing for Google.” Yes, there are certain things you should do to make the Google gods happy. However, your most important goal should be writing clear, compelling, standout copy that tells a story.
I’m keeping the old headline in the hopes that I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things the right way.
Items to review before you start your SEO writing project
– Do you have enough information about your target reader?
Your copy will pack a powerful one-two punch if your content is laser-focused on your target reader. Ask your client or supervisor for a customer/reader persona document outlining your target readers’ specific characteristics. If the client doesn’t have a customer persona document, be prepared to spend an hour or more asking detailed questions.
Here’s more information on customer personas.
– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?
It’s essential to interview new clients and to learn more about their company, USP, and competition. Don’t forget to ask about industry buzzwords that should appear in the content.
Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 56 questions you can start with today.
– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources
When you’re blogging, it’s tempting to write about whatever strikes your fancy. The challenge is, what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to make sure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Google Trends, and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.
– Did you use Google for competitive intelligence ideas?
Check out the sites positioning in the top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Are there videos or infographics? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to write an essay that’s better than what’s already appearing in the top-10 — so let the competition be your guide.
– Did you conduct keyphrase research?
Yes, keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still a crucial SEO step. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.
Use a keyphrase research tool and find possible keyphrases for your page or post. As a hint: if you are tightly focusing on a topic, long-tail keyphrases are your best bet. Here’s more information about why long-tail keyphrases are so important.
If you are researching B2B keyphrases, know that the “traditional” keyphrase research steps may not apply. Here’s more information about what to do if B2B keyphrase research doesn’t work.
– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?
Writers are no longer forced to include the exact-match keyphrase over and over again. (Hurray!) Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme that matches the search intent and weave in multiple related keyphrases.
– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?
Don’t be afraid to include keyphrase synonyms and close variants on your page. Doing so opens up your positioning opportunities, makes your copy better, and is much easier to write!
Are you wondering if you should include your keyphrases as you write the copy — or edit them in later? It’s up to you! Here are the pros and cons of both processes.
— Do your keyphrases match the search intent?
Remember that Google is “the decider” when it comes to search intent. If you’re writing a sales page — and your desired keyphrase pulls up informational blog posts in Google – your sales page probably won’t position.
— Writing a blog post? Does your Title/headline work for SEO, social, and your readers?
Yes, you want your headline to be compelling, but you also want it to be keyphrase rich. Always include your main page keyphrase (or a close variant) in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.”
– Did you include keyphrase-rich subheadlines?
Subheadlines are an excellent way to visually break up your text, making it easy for readers to quick-scan your benefits and information. Additionally, just like with the H1 headline, adding a keyphrase to your subheadlines can (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.
As a hint, sometimes, you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily. Here’s more information about why answering questions is a powerful SEO content play.
– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?
Remember, the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Focusing too much on what you think Google “wants” may take away your Title’s conversion power.
Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. You have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so writing tight is essential.
– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?
Yes, writers should create a meta description for every page. Why? Because they tell the reader what the landing page is about and help increase SERP conversions. Try experimenting with different calls-to-actions at the end, such as “learn more” or “apply now.” You never know what will entice your readers to click!
– Is your content written in a conversational style?
With voice search gaining prominence, copy that’s written in a conversational style is even more critical.
Read your copy out loud and hear how it sounds. Does it flow? Or does it sound too formal? If you’re writing for a regulated industry, such as finance, legal, or healthcare, you may not be able to push the conversational envelope too much. Otherwise, write like you talk.
Here’s how to explain why conversational content is so important.
–Is your copy laser-focused on your audience?
A big mistake some writers make is creating copy that appeals to “everyone” rather than their specific target reader. Writing sales and blog pages that are laser-focused on your audience will boost your conversions and keep readers checking out your copy longer. Here’s how one company does it.
Plus, you don’t receive special “Google points” for writing long content. Even short copy can position if it fully answers the searcher’s query. Your readers don’t want to wade through 1,500 words to find something that can be explained in 300 words.
Items to review after you’ve written the page
– Did you use too many keyphrases?
Remember, there is no such thing as keyword density. If your content sounds keyphrase-heavy and stilted, reduce the keyphrase usage and focus more on your readers’ experience. Your page doesn’t receive bonus points for exact-matching your keyphrase multiple times. If your page sounds keyphrase stuffed when you read it out loud, dial back your keyphrase usage.
– Did you edit your content?
Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and come back to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your Web writing is so very important. Also, don’t think that adding typos will help your page position. They won’t.
– Is the content interesting to read?
Yes, it’s OK if your copy has a little personality. Here’s more information about working with your page’s tone and feel and how to avoid the “yawn response.” Plus, know that even FAQ pages can help with conversions — and yes, even position.
– Are your sentences and paragraphs easy to read?
Vary your sentence structure so you have a combination of longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 or so words, edit them down and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.
Plus, long paragraphs without much white space are hard to read off a computer monitor – and even harder to read on a smartphone. Split up your long paragraphs into shorter ones. Please.
– Are you forcing your reader onto a “dead end” page?
“Dead-end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks and hurt your conversion goals.
Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead-end” Web pages.
– Does the content provide the reader with valuable information?
Google warns against sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. In fact, according to Google, spelling errors are a bigger boo-boo than broken HTML. Make sure your final draft is typo-free, written well, and thoroughly answers the searcher’s query.
Want to know what Google considers quality content — directly from Google? Here are Google’s Quality Raters guidelines for more information.
– Did you use bullet points where appropriate?
If you find yourself writing a list-like sentence, use bullet points instead. Your readers will thank you, and the items will be much easier to read.
Plus, you can write your bullet points in a way that makes your benefit statements pop, front and center. Here’s how Nike does it.
– Is the primary CTA (call-to-action) clear–and is it easy to take action?
What action do you want your readers to take? Do you want them to contact you? Buy something? Sign up for your newsletter? Make sure you’re telling your reader what you want them to do, and make taking action easy. If you force people to answer multiple questions just to fill out a “contact us” form, you run the risk of people bailing out.
Here’s a list of seven CTA techniques that work.
– Do you have a secondary CTA (such as a newsletter signup or downloading a white paper?)
Do you want readers to sign up for your newsletter or learn about related products? Don’t bury your “sign up for our newsletter” button in the footer text. Instead, test different CTA locations (for instance, try including a newsletter signup link at the bottom of every blog post) and see where you get the most conversions.
– Does the page include too many choices?
It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTAs. If your page lists too many choices (for example, a large, scrolling page of products), consider eliminating all “unnecessary” options that don’t support your primary call-to-action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.
– Did you include benefit statements?
People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them (yes, even your B2B buyers.) Highly specific benefit statements will help your page convert like crazy. Don’t forget to include a benefit statement in your Title (whenever possible) like “free shipping” or “sale.” Seeing this on the search results page will catch your readers’ eyes, tempting them to click the link and check out your site.
– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?
It’s incredible how many great sales pages are testimonial-free. Testimonials are a must for any site, as they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Plus, your testimonials can help you write better, more benefit-driven sales pages and fantastic comparison-review pages.
Here’s a way to make your testimonials more powerful.
And finally — the most important question:
– Does your content stand out and genuinely deserve a top position?
SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into the content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers), your content must stand out — not be a carbon copy of the current top-10 results. Take a hard look at your content and compare it against what’s currently positioning. Have you fully answered the searcher’s query? Did you weave in other value-added resources, such as expert quotes, links to external and internal resources (such as FAQ pages), videos, and graphics?
If so, congratulations! You’ve done your job.
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