The title tag is the “headline” in search results when you do a search in Google.
Meta descriptions are the two or three lines that follow the title tag in search results.
Occasionally, Google’s algorithm will rewrite the title tags or meta descriptions that you’ve carefully written.
This can be alarming. After all, that title tag is the first thing people see when they see your page in the search results.
Why, exactly, does Google choose to rewrite your titles and meta descriptions? What circumstances cause this to happen?
Length of Most Titles and Descriptions
Traditionally, the title length would be truncated after about 60 to 70 characters. Today, titles are cut short after 512 pixels on desktop. On mobile, longer titles sometimes appear.
Meta descriptions are usually truncated after 160 characters on desktop. From December 2017 to May 2018, Google experimented with allowing longer meta descriptions of 300 to 320 characters. This has since reverted. Longer meta descriptions sometimes appear on mobile, and with less frequency, on desktop.
What Makes Google Rewrite Your Titles?
Google started changing titles and descriptions in certain cases about mid-2016. Up until then, whatever you set for your title or description would be what would show in the search results.
Most often, Google will rewrite your title tag if it thinks there is missing information, or if the title tag can fit the search query better.
Adding the Brand Name
Sometimes, particularly if you have a strong brand, Google will rewrite the title tag to put your brand name at the front of search results with your home page.
Let’s say your original title tag looks something like this:
What You Do | Where You’re At | Brand Name.
Sometimes, Google will change this to read:
Brand Name: What You Do | Where You’re At
Adjusting the Title to Fit the Search Query
When I searched for “aerospace manufacturing”, one of the results on Page One of Google was a company called AMI. The title tag on their home page was simply, AMI. That’s all.
But look what Google did, based on my search query.
It rewrote the title tag to become, Aerospace Manufacturing (AMI).
Google’s algorithm thought this title would give me more information, so it decided to rewrite this title tag to make it more appealing to click.
Original Title Was Spammy, Or No Brand Name
One of our distant SEO competitors have a title tag for their home page that reads:
SEO Company | Digital Marketing Agency That Drives Results.
When I search their brand name, Google showed me this title tag in search results:
Their Brand Name.
I believe Google rewrote this title tag for three reasons.
- Because I was searching for a particular brand name, and it wanted to show me that in the title tag, so I would click the result.
- The original title tag did not contain the brand name, and as a general rule, the home page usually has the brand name.
- The keywords in the original title tag were not relevant to my search. I already knew what I was looking for.
When I do other searches for that company without the brand name, the normal title tag appears.
Other Factors That Can Cause A Title Tag Rewrite
If your title tag is short, and there are incoming links to your site that have descriptive anchor text (the words in the link), that may influence a title tag rewrite.
ODP/DMOZ was a human-curated directory that ran from 1998 to 2017, when AOL (who owned it by this time), decided to shut it down to new entries. Occasionally, you will still see search results that pull the descriptions from the old ODP/DMOZ listings, but less frequently than in years past.
Yahoo! Directory Descriptions
The Yahoo! Directory ran from 1994 to 2014, and was the first human-edited directory of significance on the Word Wide Web. I can only recall seeing meta descriptions being taken from listings on this directory once or twice since I started building websites, and it’s been several years since then.
If you want to make sure that Google doesn’t take the listing descriptions from the legacy ODP/DMOZ or Yahoo! directories, make sure your website or Content Management System (CMS) is outputting this line of code in the
head of each web page.
<meta name="robots" content="noodp,noydir" />
I was a DMOZ editor for a few years. You would not get listings approved unless the description was dry and nondescript. These aren’t places you would want Google to be looking for a meta description.
The Effect of Titles on SEO
The title tag has a great deal to do with SEO directly. The meta description affects SEO, but in an indirect way.
When you are writing your title tag for each page on your website, make sure you include the keyword phrase that page is about. If you don’t include your main keyword phrase for that page in the title tag, it will greatly reduce your chances of ranking for that keyword phrase.
Why Does Google Rewrite Your Meta Descriptions?
The meta description doesn’t directly affect SEO, meaning, if you don’t include your main keyword phrase, it won’t kill your chances of ranking for that search term.
However, you want to write a meta description that will compel people to click on your result.
If people are searching for a particular thing — like a bit of information, or product specs — and Google does not see that in your meta description, it can grab text from elsewhere on your page and make that the new description that shows in certain search results.
Google knows what the average percentage of clicks a result gets in each position. For example (and these are made up numbers), let’s say the #1 position usually gets a 40% click-through-rate (CTR). And #2 gets 12%, #3 gets 8%, #4 gets 5%, and so on.
One of the keys to moving up positions in the search rankings is to beat the average click-through-rate for results at your position.
If your result consistently under-performs for the average CTR at that position, you’ll probably go down. Likewise, if you consistently beat the average for that position in rankings, you’ll probably go up.
Because Google can rewrite the meta description based on the search query, it’s important that the main content of each page has useful information. You never know if Google will choose a chunk of text that entices people to click, and makes that the meta description for a specific search query.
Best Practices for Writing Titles and Descriptions
Make sure your titles and descriptions accurately describe what’s on your page. Going overboard with keyword-stuffing, or trying to trick people into clicking on your search results might have worked in 2001, but that won’t work today.
Google and other search engines have advanced incredibly sin the past few years, and they can figure out what your page is about from the main content.
Always make sure your title and description match the subject of your main content. This is one way to minimize the possibility Google will rewrite your search result.
Keep your titles and descriptions within the recommended limits. Like we mentioned previously, titles will usually get cut off after a pixel width of 512 pixels. Different characters have different widths, but this is usually 60 to 70 characters.
Meta descriptions are usually truncated after 160 pixels. By keeping your titles and descriptions within these limits, they will be less likely to be rewritten.
Have a pattern for your title tags. This is the pattern that I use for my own title tags (space permitting):
Main Keyword Phrase | Secondary Keyword Phrase | Brand Name.
All too often, especially with WordPress sites, I see search results where the title tag overruns the allocated space, and gets cut off and replaced with an ellipsis (the three dots).
I try to focus my title tags to be interesting, while conveying what the page is about, and including the main keyword phrase.
Whenever possible, I make sure the brand name is included in the title tag. I believe that the more times people see your brand name in search results, the more likely they are to remember you. The goal of this is to have people eventually do a branded search — where they search for your company by name.
Is There A Way To Automatically Disable Titles and Descriptions Being Rewritten?
No, there is no way that you can “opt-out” from having Google rewrite your titles and descriptions in search results.
It’s Google’s platform, and they make the rules. But, it’s not anything that I would lose sleep over.
Google wants people to keep using their search engine. Any changes they make to your title and description tags are to improve the search results for their users.
In almost every case of title rewrites that I have witnessed, the results seemed to fit the searcher intent.
These changes are made through the machine learning part of their algorithm, called RankBrain. Google seems to be ramping up experimentation with RankBrain, to try and teach it to “pick” what a human would pick, so expect to see different titles in search results more frequently in 2019.
By following best practices for titles and descriptions, you should be able to avoid most cases of Google rewriting them in search results.
If Google chooses to change your title tags or meta descriptions, remember it’s for the benefit of their users and your customers.