Author: Mordy Oberstein
Carefully written title tags are an important part of optimizing a page for search. Not only do they help Google understand the page’s content, they’re also often used as the title on the search results page (formally known as the title link).
Historically, Google would rely on the title tag site owners and SEOs implemented for the title on the search engine results page (SERP). It was mainly in cases where Google considered the title tag to be “sub-optimal” (i.e., not aligned with the content on the page itself) that it would rewrite the title for the SERP.
All of that changed at the end of August 2021. Suddenly, Google began rewriting titles here, there, and everywhere. Early speculation saw a 77% increase in Google not exactly using the content found in the title tag on the SERP itself.
Now that the dust has settled a bit, where do we stand with title tags? How often is Google abandoning the exact wording in a page’s title tag when it displays the corresponding title link? Moreover, why did Google suddenly decide to drastically increase the propensity with which it rewrites title tags?
Below is a summary of my presentation from BrightonSEO April 2022, where I addressed these very questions:
How often is Google rewriting titles for the SERP?
Before we get into why Google has decided to double-down on title rewrites, let’s first get our bearings on how often rewrites occur.
As of January 2022, Google rewrites 65% of desktop titles and 62% of mobile titles, according to data provided to me by Semrush. That’s the majority of titles users see on the SERP. (However, not all rewrites are extensive, as I’ll soon show).
What’s most interesting is that it appears that rewrites are becoming more and more common. Initially, as the graph below (based on data I pulled back in August 2021) shows, Google was only rewriting 56% of titles and relying on the title tag the other 44% of the time.
Fast-forward to October 2021 and that number is up to 61% on desktop, increasing to 65% as of January 2022!
The trend seems to be that Google relies on the title tags less as time goes on. This is of obvious concern to SEOs, but also speaks to Google’s own intentions, as I’ll get into later.
How significant are Google’s title rewrites?
An ongoing increase in Google’s propensity to rewrite titles tags for use in its title links is a significant development and needs to be qualified. How substantial are the rewrites? Is Google just changing a word or two? Is Google changing 90% of what was in the title tag? 80%?...
The truth is, many of the rewrites rely heavily on the content found in the title tag and reflect relatively minor revisions. Accordingly, roughly 40% of all rewrites (depending on device) are an 80% match to the title tag itself, according to data from Semrush. This means that the rewritten title link is at least an 80% content match to the original title tag.
Furthermore, around 15% of desktop rewrites and nearly 20% of mobile rewrites reflect a 90% content match (or better) when compared to the actual title tag. However, that’s not to say that even a 20% or a 10% revision of the title tag’s content is not significant, depending on what was changed.
Also important to understand is Google’s tendencies around brand name utilization when the title link does not match the title tag: In this case, there’s a bit of a gap between desktop and mobile. When the title tag does contain the brand name, Google trends to remove it from the desktop title link about 25% of the time.
However, on mobile, despite the rewrite, Google removes the site’s name under 20% of the time. This is most likely due to the fact that mobile title links wrap around to multiple lines and are therefore longer than desktop title links. As such, Google has more of an opportunity to leave the brand name in.
Where is Google getting title rewrites from?
To understand how often and to what extent Google is rewriting (or outright ignoring) your title tags, we should look at where Google is taking the rewrites from. This will be a very important part of the equation when we look to solve the mystery that is Google’s new infatuation with title rewrites.
At the onset of Google’s new disposition towards titles, the search engine was disproportionately relying on the H1 heading tag. Data I collected in August of 2021 showed that when Google “rewrote” the title link it would utilize the page’s H1 76% of the time.
This means that, at the onset of the rewrites, over three-fourths of cases were Google ignoring the title tag in favor of the H1. This number has been steadily decreasing since then and is an extremely important factor in understanding what these rewrites are really about.
Specifically, Google has gone from relying on the H1 for its rewrites 76% of the time in August to 55.5% of the time as of October 2021 and even less as of January 2022, with under 50% of the rewrites pulling in the H1.
What influences Google’s title rewrites?
Why is Google spending time and resources rewriting titles for the SERP? Perhaps, if we can see when Google does and does not rewrite titles, we can glean some insight as to the search engine’s reasons.
The impact of ranking position on title tag rewrites
Let’s start with ranking position. Are your rankings affected when Google rewrites a title?
As shown in the chart above, the tendency to rewrite titles, while slightly different according to device, is consistent across ranking positions. This likely means that ranking position does not factor into the likelihood of Google rewriting or ignoring the title tag.
The impact of title tag length on title tag rewrites
Perhaps the length of the title tag significantly influences when Google decides to go with a rewrite in the title link. Though you might suspect this to be the case, it is not.
Across devices, whether the title tag contains between 1–7 words or 8–11 words, there is little variance in the chance that Google will rewrite a title.
However, as a title tag grows to 12 words or beyond, the chances of a rewrite increase. This, to me, has far less to do with Google’s doubling-down on rewriting title tags and far more to do with the fact that an absurdly long title tag naturally lends itself to be rewritten to some extent.
The impact of query length on title tag rewrites
One idea that I’ve seen float around is that Google is rewriting titles so that it can implement language that more staunchly aligns with a particular query. This is not the case.
If it were the case that Google’s title rewrites were about query targeting, then queries with 5+ words would not be rewritten at the same rate as queries with 3–4 words. Logically, as a query lengthens, there are additional modifiers within it that Google would look to align the rewrite with.
The fact that Google doesn’t change its tendency to rewrite the title when query length significantly increases tells us that the rewrites are not primarily aimed at aligning the title link to the query itself.
The impact of query intent on title tag rewrites
Another intriguing theory is that Google is more likely to rewrite a title depending on the intent of the user reflected in the keyword. This, too, is not the case. Google is once again uniform in how it approaches title rewrites.
Regardless of the intent reflected in the query, Google does not change the rate with which it uses the title tag as the title link on the SERP.
The implications of the data on title tag rewrites
What I’ve been trying to highlight with the data above is not what Google is honing in on with its title tag rewrites, but rather the lack of any apparent focus. Rank position? Doesn’t matter. Title tag or keyword length? Doesn’t matter. Intent? The same—it does not matter. Google is behaving uniformly.
Google has adopted an algorithmic method to custom create what it serves in the title link, but it’s doing so in a uniform manner. All of the things we, as SEOs, might consider to be focal points (i.e., intent or rankings) are not things that Google is considering when it comes to rewrites.
That’s not to say everything is uniform across the entire web. For example, Google tends to rewrite 37% fewer title tags when the page represents a recipe.
This is because the content found in recipe title tags doesn’t lend itself to rewriting. How many ways are there to really write “best meatloaf recipe?” Provided you don’t go wild with what you put into the title tag, the nature of the content can only appropriately be described in a few ways. But again, notice, position doesn't matter here either.
The unique characteristics of various verticals being what they are, the search engine has taken a broad stroke to custom create title link content for what seems to be the sake of creating custom title link content. The question now is, why does Google want to create custom title link content?
Examples of Google’s title rewrites and their significance
Before I get into why I think Google is heavily creating custom content for its title links, I want to run through some of the changes Google makes. It’s one thing to dig into a heap of data, it’s another thing entirely to read through the actual title tags to see the nature of the changes.
Analyzing actual examples will not only help us understand the content triggers associated with title tag rewrites, it will also get us closer to the reason why Google has rewritten titles so much more frequently since August 2021.
With that, here are some themes I found when reading through thousands of title tag rewrites:
Google will often attempt to offer a more targeted and specific location within the title link when compared with the content found in the title tag.
For the keyword bmw 7 series dealer, Google added the specific area of “Beverly Hills” into the title link, along with the general area (in this case, Los Angeles). (Obviously, this all depends on where the search itself was conducted).
Fewer local shenanigans
Local SERPs are notorious for pages that attempt to overstuff the title tag (let alone their Google Business Profile name) with all sorts of “keywords.”
From what I have observed, Google does try to limit this sort of irrelevant keyword stuffing in the title link by rewriting titles.
Take the keyword divorce attorney: One page’s title tag read “Arizona Divorce Attorney Near You | Top Marriage Attorney | Contact Us Today.”
Google replaced all of that irrelevant content with: “Experienced Arizona Divorce Lawyers Near You - Stewart…”
Brand name for YMYL queries
Another interesting pattern I saw is that Google tends to tack the site name onto title links for Your Money Your Life (YMYL) queries. This makes sense in that the publisher’s reputation speaks to the trustworthiness of the content.
Less over-the-top marketing
One of the benefits of the rewrites is that Google seems to be cutting down on the level of salesy-ness often found in the titles on the SERP.
In this example, Kohl’s line in the title tag that reads “Upgrade Your Look With a Timeless Top” was removed to a more palatable CTA: “Upgrade Your Look.” Google isn’t against brands using CTAs to drive clicks, but it does seem to be attempting to rein in the marketing speak a bit.
Similarly, Google will, in almost all cases, subordinate the brand name in favor of what’s useful for users. For example, for the keyword dog bath, Google ignores Amazon placing its own brand name before the product within the title tag to produce a title link that reads “Dog Bath - Amazon.com.”
Contrary to what many SEOs have been saying, the changes Google makes with the title rewrites can be pretty sophisticated.
Take the keyword us government passport renewal, for example. The title tag of one of the ranking pages reads: “Passport Application Acceptance Services”
With such a title, you would likely expect the page to be an access point to renew your passport or to initially apply for your U.S. passport. You would also expect this page to be hosted on one of the U.S. government’s official websites.
But, this is not the case. The page in this example belongs to the county of San Diego, California, acting as a proxy for the federal government.
Google thought its users on the SERP should know that, while you might be expecting to land on the federal government’s site, you’re about to land on a local county’s site instead. So, Google rewrote the title tag to reflect this with a title link of “Passport Application Acceptance Services - County of San…”
This example shows a sophisticated understanding of the context surrounding the content as well as what searchers are expecting. But, not all rewrites are of this caliber—many simply replace a dot with a dash (Google prefers dashes and will rewrite a dot to be a dash across the board). Despite Google often making small and seemingly insignificant changes, we can’t ignore the level of sophistication that does indeed exist.
This level of sophistication, along with Google’s ability to make meaningful, precise changes with its rewrites, speaks directly to why Google has taken on the enterprise of constructing so many rewrites.
Why is Google rewriting so many title tags?
Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: Google is rewriting an ever-increasing number of title tags because…it can. It is doing this because it is interested in flexing some serious content-understanding muscle.
Rewriting titles demonstrates a new level of understanding
No, Google is not vain. Rather, Google is showing us (as well as itself) how well it can understand content. To what degree does it comprehend content? Google can understand it well enough to rewrite it.
This reminds me of my time as a classroom teacher: It’s one thing to ask students to repeat something back to you. It’s another thing for them to be able to take what you showed them and create something new with it.
Google is taking what we’re giving it in title tags and demonstrating a level of mastery by creating something new out of it. In other words, it’s one thing for Google to be able to understand content well enough to show quality results on the SERP. It’s another thing entirely for Google to understand the user’s query, the content on the page, the title tag, etc. to be able to recreate and retitle content.
Google isn’t rewriting content in order to push up CTR at various ranking positions or to align the title link with the query to all sorts of absurd extents. This has nothing to do with you, your site, your page, your CTR—none of that.
Google’s rewrites are about concretely demonstrating to itself how well it can understand content by being able to manipulate content.
Replacing titles with H1s was just the start
In fact, this is why (if you’ll recall) Google has taken a step back from relying on H1s for its rewrites. While Google initially used the H1 as the new title link 76% of the time, that number is again down to under 50% because Google never wanted to rely on the H1. Using the H1 doesn’t help Google to see if it can adequately rewrite content.
Using the H1 to rewrite title tags was simply stage one of the objective. It was Google saying “Are we good at adequately replacing one snippet of content for another?” Once that was achieved, the next logical step (and the ultimate goal) was, “Can we rewrite content in order to replace what was there before?”
Testing with the SERP as the proving ground
Rewriting titles for the SERP is in fact the best way to gauge this as Google has a hard metric to measure it with—CTR. Google can measure and track how effective its rewrites are by comparing pre-title change and post-rewrite CTR. Rewriting titles offers Google a limited, controlled, and measurable way to dip its toe into the pool that is rewriting content.
This is why Google showed no interest when SEOs asked for a way to override title rewrites and to implement the title tag instead. Why would it? If the entire point of the endeavor is having the perfect testing environment with which to rewrite content and measure results, why would Google give you a way to override that? How would Google enabling you to opt out help it determine just how good it is at rewriting content (which also speaks to how good it is at understanding content)?
Simply put, Google rewriting title tags is less about the quality of title links or controlling the SERP and more about Google advancing its machine learning capabilities.
Rewrites are the future of the SERP
While the impact of Google rewriting a specific title on the SERP has limited implications, the notion of Google rewriting content is a serious moment in search. Although no one can predict what Google rewriting content may eventually mean, there is the potential for significant changes to what we now know the SERP to be.
Some might speculate that Google rewriting content is an overstep (such was the sentiment when it briefly tested a featured snippet that merged content from multiple sources), but I don’t think this is the direction that it intends to take things. Whatever the case may be, Google jumping into the world of content creation (in a sense) almost certainly is a milestone to take note of.
Mordy Oberstein - Head of SEO Branding, Wix
Mordy is the Head of SEO Branding at Wix. Concurrently he also serves as a communications advisor for Semrush. Dedicated to SEO education, Mordy is one of the organizers of SEOchat and a popular industry author and speaker. Twitter | Linkedin