Google has announced a change to how it generates the titles shown for pages in its search results. Previously factoring in the search query itself, the search giant has now shifted focus to “text that humans can visually see when they arrive at a web page.”

Whilst commonly held that Google always uses the HTML ‘page title’ element provided by websites, since 2012, Google has routinely tweaked the titles it displays for the pages in its search results.

Up until this point, the titles shown in Google’s search results have often changed based on the search query, meaning that a page’s title would display differently depending on what search query it has been returned for.

Google has said that “generally [this] will no longer happen with our new system.”

On-page content

Google has said that whilst in ‘more than 80%’ of cases, titles will be taken from a website’s specified ‘title tag’, the search engine will now also incorporate changes derived from text that searchers will actually read when they arrive on a web page.

“We consider the main visual title or headline shown on a page, content that site owners often place within tags or other header tags, and content that’s large and prominent through the use of style treatments,” said Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison in the firm’s announcement.

“Overall, our update is designed to produce more readable and accessible titles for pages. In some cases, we may add site names where that is seen as helpful. In other instances, when encountering an extremely long title, we might select the most relevant portion rather than starting at the beginning and truncating more useful parts.”

Analysis – expect some change

Whilst announced changes from Google such as this often elicit a collective groan from the marketing community, this change potentially shifts some control back towards webmasters.

Until now, Google would routinely show page titles that match what the user has searched for which had the potential to provide some less-than-perfect examples.

Now, Google has clarified that in ‘about 80%’ of cases, a websites HTML ‘title tag’ will be used, and in other cases, the search engine will tweak the title using ‘text a person can visually see’ from the webpage.

Both cases should, in theory, result in more accurate page titles for customers.

That being said, there have been reports online of mass dynamic rewriting of page titles resulting in sub-par search results for websites.

All in all, what should marketers do? Our advice would be to continue to focus on providing accurate ‘title tags’ and making sure that your on-page content is well structured, with useful headings and copy.

If you get those elements right, you’ll be giving Google the best chance of displaying a useful title for your web pages.