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Writing headlines for search: the latest changes

Google's been messing around with how it displays headlines in search results. Here's what you need to know.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

What is Google up to with how it displays headlines in search results?

Hold onto your hats, folks: we're going to get a wee bit technical here — but you can just jump to the end if you prefere, for a quick summary of what this means for you, day-to-day.

Over the last couple of months, there have been concerns in SEO circles that something was up:

I am seeing numerous complaints this morning that Google is showing header tags, H1s and H2s, instead of the meta title tags, for its search result snippets. I am seeing some public complaints on Twitter, but also in some of the private forums and emails.

Rather than displaying the SEO headline people set in their publishing software (the page title) in search results, Google was showing headlines it pulled from other sources more often than it had been. This was a worrying development: it took away one of the few ways we can explicitly control how our work appears in Google search results.

However, things aren’t as bad as they seemed at first.

After a few days leaving us in the dark as to what it was up to, Google clarified what was happening with a note:

Last week, we introduced a new system of generating titles for web pages. Before this, titles might change based on the query issued. This generally will no longer happen with our new system. This is because we think our new system is producing titles that work better for documents overall, to describe what they are about, regardless of the particular query.

So, the first change is that Google is no longer using the query to help inform its choice of Link Title.

What the hell is the Link Title? Good question.

Here’s a quick illustration:


The majority of the time, the Link Title will be exactly what you put in the SEO headline field of your CMS.

However, if Google’s algorithm suggests that your choice of SEO headline (or absence of choice, if you don't bother filling in the SEO headline field) doesn’t reflect the subject of the article well, it will generate its own Link Title from a range of possible sources, including major subheads on the page, the text people use to link to you, and so on.

As Google put it:

Also, while we've gone beyond HTML text to create titles for over a decade, our new system is making even more use of such text. In particular, we are making use of text that humans can visually see when they arrive at a web page. We consider the main visual title or headline shown on a page, content that site owners often place within <H1> tags or other header tags, and content that's large and prominent through the use of style treatments.

So: if your page title doesn't reflect the content of the page to Google's satisfaction, it will source an alternative title. Not ideal — because we lose control — but not disastrous, either.

An aside: this is another break between what you type into search results and what you see on the search engine results page, as Google shifts from keyword-driven search to machine-learning determined intent-based search.

So, here’s the good news: Google is still displaying exactly what you put in your <title> element 87% of the time.

Based on your feedback, we made changes to our system which means that title elements are now used around 87% of the time, rather than around 80% before.

Despite the worries that Google is respecting the set page title less than it once was, for most of us it’s only likely to emerge in edge cases. Those situations are, frankly, more likely in e-commerce websites than other forms of editorial.

The most probable case where this might kick in with journalistic content is if you create an SEO head that’s just too long. Then, Google is likely to step in and make its own determination of what it will display. While it’s hard to give an exact character count these days, due to the considerable variety of screen sizes in use, around 50 to 60 characters is a good rule of thumb to avoid this.

Where possible, you want to control what appears in search results, not Google. So, on pages where you think good SEO traffic is likely, it’s absolutely still worth writing great SEO title text. Just keep it short, snappy and accurate.

How about Snippets?

Alongside the updated guidance on Link Text, Google also released a new note about snippets. Here’s the key clarification:

Google will sometimes use the <meta name="description"> tag from a page to generate a snippet in search results, if we think it gives users a more accurate description than would be possible purely from the on-page content.

(Emphasis mine.)

Google will generally just generate the snippet from your page, but might use the Meta Description if its algorithms determine that it looks like a better result.

What does this mean for me?

  • Link Titles default to what’s in the <title> tag in the page HTML, but are generated from other sources if Google determines there’s an issue with the provided <title>. Avoid this by making your SEO heads short, accurate and attractive to searchers.
  • Conversely, Snippets are generated from the text on the page by default, with Google only falling back on the <meta description> when the algorithm “feels” that it can’t generate something useful from the on-page text.

In short:

Concentrate on writing superb Link Titles (usually supported in your CMS as the SEO Head or similar). Then you have maximum control over the way your site will display in search results, and your best opportunity to “sell” the piece to searchers.

The Meta Description might be worth filling in — but only if you have the time, and think that it might be hard for Google to extract relevant elements of the page. Generally: do it if you think this story is a great candidate for high or long-term SEO traffic, but it might not be worth your investment of time to do it on every story.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.