For several years now, Google has been changing some title tags in the SERPs. Some of these changes are to be expected, such as when a title tag is longer than what can be displayed in the results. Other changes are a result of differences in how Google views the page content vs. title tag, links pointing at the page, and the query they are displaying the result for. Something I get asked on a regular basis is “How many are actually being changed?” I decided to use our Partner API to find out.
Mining Search Results & Title Tags
I started with a list of a few random keywords, pulled the top 100-120 results for each, and looked over the data. Tori dropped the results into Excel and built a few charts to show what the initial set looked like so we could decide whether to go bigger. We continued this process a couple times to confirm that results looked the same as we added more keywords and results into the mix. The final data set for this ended up being a little over 111,000 results.
As the search result data came in, I would run each URL through our web insights queue, which can be used to crawl pages and parse them into clean, structured data. This allowed me to quickly grab title tags off each page without having to deal with potential slowness of loading each page myself through my own crawler. Our web insights queue can grab thousands of pages in parallel if needed.
Comparing Overall Title Lengths
The first thing I did after collecting the data was to look at the length of the on page title tags versus the title showing in the search results. There are clearly still a huge number of people that don't keep their titles under 70 characters. SEO 101 folks...shorten those titles and make them interesting for users.
When looking at the length of titles being shown in Google, it starts becoming apparent that the sweet spot may actually be between 50 and 59 characters. This has been the case since Google changed the font used for titles and Moz even narrowed it to likely being about 55 characters.
Google Changing Title Tags
Based on the above charts, we can assume that Google is making changes to titles when they display the SERPs. I wanted to find out just how many have been changed and how different they are from the on page title. 36% of titles were partially changed where the title displayed in Google was extracted from the on page title or they were the on page title with something minor appended to it such as the site name. 25.4% of the titles were completely changed where there were different words or a different word order in the SERPs than in the on page titles.
For those titles that were left unchanged, their lengths match up pretty well with the overall combined lengths noted above. The largest range is still between 50 and 59 characters.
The majority of partially changed titles were longer than 59 characters and many were over the old 70 character limit when looking at the length of the on page title tag.
Once Google made their changes, they fall in line with the unchanged titles. Again, the 50-59 character range appears to be ideal as far as Google is concerned.
When it came to the completely changed title tags, there wasn't as big of a spike in the 60+ character on page titles. These were likely more of a situation where Google decided to change because of the query, links pointing at the page, or a mismatch between the title and content.
Once again though, the lengths have been shifted to prefer the 50-59 character window.
Did Rank Position Matter for When Titles Were Changed?
Before running all of this data, I had wondered if changes happened more often on the first page vs. the tenth page of results. It might make sense to put processing effort into tweaking the pages that are seen more than others. It turned out that the changes were evenly distributed across all positions and there was no weighting to prefer changing the top results over results buried where almost nobody sees them.
Revisit Your Own Title Tags
It is pretty clear that if you want your title tag to remain unchanged, it's worth making sure that you're staying within the 50-59 character window and that your titles fit with the content of the page. That's not necessarily going to guarantee that it never gets changed in the SERPs but at least you'll have more control over how you're represented in the SERPs.