Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with George Nguyen, an editor at Third Door Media who writes for Search Engine Land and MarTech. We discussed Google’s newest unexpected change that is a big deal in the SEO world: significantly changing titles as they appear in search results. George shared insights into what is happening behind the scenes, and how SMBs can respond as they may notice changes in their search engine presence and audience engagement. The following is a transcript from our conversation in the video above.

Lance: Thanks for joining us, George, and it looks like Google’s at it again, making our lives interesting in the world of SEO. I’m not sure that anybody saw this particular issue coming, but we’re talking about title tags now.

George: That’s right. Usually, SEOs are discussing things like core updates or something that Google announced. They’ve gotten into a better pattern of telling us what they’re going to do in advance. So things like a page experience update, we knew it was coming for a very long time, but this title tag change kind of came out of nowhere.

What’s happening is that Google is replacing the title that a lot of SEOs—or just a lot of people automate it—they put the title tag in there, and they assume that’s what Google is going to surface when somebody searches something, and they rank for it.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and Google’s response to all of this has been like, “Well, we’ve been doing it for a long time,” and that is very true. Google has the right to do this because the search results are their property, in a sense. Google does it and Bing does it. The magnitude of the change here is what’s most alarming for SEOs.

For example, one of the most egregious ones was that somebody searched Joe Biden and the result was the website but the title said, “Vice President Joe Biden,” and that was obtained from somewhere else on the site, maybe something linking, but that’s clearly inaccurate information.
One of our publications has seen this change happen a few times, where the article is just much more ambiguous, the title isn’t what we wanted it to be. If that’s happening, you may be bleeding off users or potential customers.
On the other side, Google says that the update is “designed to produce more readable and accessible titles for pages.” I’m looking off over here because I’m reading the actual quote. “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.” That sounds like a pretty good deal, right? “Google’s tests show that the change that it introduced produces titles that are more readable and preferred by searchers, compared to its old system.” There’s not really any data there other than a statement that “Oh, we tested this and users think it’s better.” Maybe it’s possible that users do think it’s better, so you might actually see an increase in your click-through rate.

Lance: I guess the next question is, should people do anything? Do you think Google’s going to pull back, and with that, maybe we don’t need to do anything because there’s clearly some issues with what they’re doing?

George: One of the main concerns here is that, what the changes are, if they’re even happening to you, are not apparent. There is nowhere in your search console, your analytics, that you can go to and see, “Oh, Google changed the search result for my men’s plain white t-shirt e-commerce page and how they did that.” There’s no way to know, there’s only, well, you’re going to monitor your traffic and anything that seems kind of unlikely, means that you have to look into it.

There’s a lot of reverse engineering that’s happening here, but I did write up a quick listicle of four tools that you can use to check whether Google has changed your titles and for two of them, it’s a manual process, but I’ll provide you the link, and maybe it can go somewhere in the description here. That’s really useful.

You need to identify whether this is, first of all, whether it’s happening to you, and the only way you can do that is really track the date and the search results page for whatever you’re ranking on. And then you need to assess how that impacts your click-through rate.

And from there if your traffic is going down, there’s a little bit of bad news, then you have to figure out how to remedy it, and that’s something that many SEOs haven’t really figured out yet. You could try changing your titles or you could leave it, or you could wait for Google to change it back. Google’s stance right now is that it’s already refining the new title system with the feedback that’s been given. They’ve even created a support page where people can submit examples and they’ll take all that into account as they continue to refine it.

Google still says it uses HTML title tags 80% of the time. (Update after video recording: Google now says it uses title elements 87% of the time [not 80%, which was true at the time of the recording].) That’s a giant proportion of the time. So, remain calm as you go about fixing this, but also do not stop optimizing your titles because even though the titles change, there’s still a ranking factor.

I’ve heard of some SEOs trying to change the titles to things that they are seeing in the search results. That doesn’t seem like the smartest business decision for a number of reasons, but every organization is different. That’s my advice though. Definitely, don’t stop optimizing.

Lance: All good, George. I appreciate you coming in. You can find him over at Search Engine Land, and of course, at MarTech. Really appreciate you coming in.

George: Thanks.