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Google helps non-optimised sites, enhances title tags in SERPs

31 March 2010 BY

Dennis Sievers (@resiever), a top SEO specialist in the Netherlands and a fellow blogger, alerted me via twitter to a phenomenon I hadn’t previously encountered: apparently Google is tweaking webpage headlines on its SERPs if it feels a website is relevant enough for a query but lacks a title tag containing the query’s keywords.

The example Dennis forwarded on to me is in Dutch, and I haven’t been able to find an English language instance of this yet. Try a search on Google.nl for “heren instappers” (men’s loafers). A bit below the middle of the page you’ll find this result:

Heren Instappers SERP on Google.nl

However the actual title tag of that page is this (and has been for a while):

Actual webpage title

It’s a small tweak, but for SEOs this is a big deal. Up to now we’ve more or less assumed that Google takes the title tag of a given page and uses it as the SERP headline.

However in this example Google has expanded the title tag with the actual search query and the number of relevant products shown on the page (taken from an internal link anchor text), thereby making this result appear more relevant.

Apparently Google feels this webpage is so relevant to the query that it deserves extra love & attention, and feels inclined to deliver this love & attention itself in the form of a highlighted headline in the SERPs containing the actual search phrase.

What this means is that Google appears to be trying to close the gap between optimised and non-optimised sites. They’ve gone beyond just ranking pages for relevance, now they’ve also begun enhancing non-optimised pages’ listing in the SERPs.

This is just one example and by no means an indication of a wider trend. And usually I’m the type of guy that warns against hype. But if Google is seriously going down this path – in a way doing a bit of SEO work for non-optimised sites for them – the repercussions for professional SEOs may be significant.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that this is a big deal, or am I blowing things out of proportion? You can read Dennis’s own blog post on the matter here: Optimization of title tags? Google will do it for you!

Update 01 April: Eduard pointed out that this is not a new phenomenon, and Matt Cutts has even mentioned it in a video:

AUTHORED BY:
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Barry Adams is one of the editors of State of Digital and is a freelance SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.
  • http://twitter.com/mktgbill mktgbill

    I’ve seen this in a few rare cases myself. Yahoo in particular will sometimes use your H1 tagged text as the title. Not identical to what I’ve seen Google do as they tend to pull a “heading” (not always an h#) much in them same way they might populate a description from page content. The few times I have seen it it’s been a longer tail or branded search term that might rank an internal search page where the title is something generic like “search results.” I see it more often when doing a “site:” search for a term.

  • http://twitter.com/jaamit jaamit

    yeah right Barry I’m not falling for that one ;)

  • http://eduardblacquiere.com/ Eduard Blacquière

    It seems like a big thing for SEO, but I think it completely makes sense. Google and other search engines are way beyond just matching keywords and page elements.

    I’ve encountered this for the first time half a year ago. (I wrote about it on my Dutch blog: http://www.edwords.nl/2009/11/05/google-combineert-h1-titel-zoekresultaten/)

    Shortly after that Google’s Matt Cutts posted a video in which he said Google allows themselves the right to change titles if 1) it’s too generic, 2) if it’s the same on every page, 3) there’s no title and 4) Google ‘thinks’ another title would be more relevant.

    Find the video here. Let’s see if I can embed it here as well:

  • http://eduardblacquiere.com/ Eduard Blacquière

    Both the link to the video and the embed didn’t work :)
    Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlJiLDn9-38

  • http://www.greatwebsitesblog.com Barry Adams

    @mktgbill: yeah for a site: command I’d find it logical for Google to extrapolate relevant titles if a site has identical title tags across many pages, but for a competitive keyword SERP it’s a different story. On a site: SERP the website is not competing with anyone else, but on a regular SERP it seems Google is helping sites compete against others.

    @jaamit: I wish it was an April fool’s joke. :) That’s why I posted it yesterday instead of today (and risking Sam Murray’s wrath by pushing his superb post down on the site).

    @Eduard: thanks! I’ve updated the post with a link to that video. Thanks for pointing it out, I hadn’t seen it before.

  • http://www.dennissievers.com Dennis Sievers

    @barry: thanks for mentioning my article.

    @eduard: i’ve seen it before too, but as you said, they used H1 tags. But in this case they used linktext. Of course, the outcome isn’t any different, but the main issue is that you can rank a topspot on a keyword you haven’t optimized the page for. And i don’t blaim Google for doing anything wrong, cause the result is perfectly relevant to the query, but title tags become way less relevant this way.

  • http://twitter.com/jaamit jaamit

    OMG – I totally thought this was April Fools (and you were getting in early)! Getting cynical today with everything that’s flying about. I even watched that Matt Cutts video when it came but I think I zoned out before the important bit at the end ;)

    The example you give is where that site uses exactly the same title tag across its site (doh) – one of the extreme cases Matt talks about where Google chooses a more appropriate title. However I think it’s fair to assume that even in those rare cases, optimising title tags yourself is going to have more impact on relevance and ranking than allowing Google to do this. I would be prepared to put money down that if that site sorted out their title tags their rankings would go up despite this.

    Great spot though and I’m now just going to stand in the corner and be embarrassed by thinking this was a joke ;)

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