November 30, 2021

Google’s 2021 Title Shakeup Part 2: Our SERP Title Analysis Study

Image of a laptop searching for google

Just before Thanksgiving, we wrote about Google’s mid-August update. If you haven’t read Part 1, we recommend you check it out. To recap, though, in mid-August, SEO professionals across all industries began noticing a significant shift in search engine result page (SERP) listings. Specifically, title links (i.e., blue links) of the organic results appeared to be pulling from content outside of the HTML title tag at a much higher frequency.

Since then, Google has confirmed this change and provided additional guidance. With that, the Intouch SEO team has assessed the impact of these changes across our pharma clients’ brands. In this post, we will go over our SERP title analysis study, including the methodology, findings of our aggregate analysis, and recommendations on how best to move forward.

Our SERP Title Analysis Study
While plenty of industry-agnostic findings have been shared, ranging from small-scale anecdotes to comprehensive analyses, we at Intouch Group wanted to analyze our pharmaceutical client site dataset. Different verticals have historically been uniquely impacted by Google updates, and we had no reason to expect otherwise for this.

Our Methodology

  • URLs Examined: 860 URLs across 50 websites were examined; only URLs with all available data points were part of this research. This means all PDFs were excluded, as well as any URLs where data company Ahrefs did not record a SERP title within the given timeframes.
  • Date Ranges: For the analysis itself, SERP title changes between the three date ranges were documented (i.e., pre-August update, post (immediately after) August update, a month after August update). 
  • SERP Titles vs H1 Elements Comparisons: SERP Titles were compared to the page’s title tag and H1 element for each date range.
  • Hypotheses and Correlations: Hypotheses across the team were gathered, (e.g., long character lengths correlate with SERP title rewrites) and the data was used to support or refute them.
  • Sources and Tools: We used a variety of tools and referred to several sources to aid us in this study (ex., Screaming Frog, Ahrefs, GSC, etc.).

Our Findings

Google Likely Not Deviating From Pharma Title Tags Significantly More Than the Rest of the Web

Emphasis on the “likely not” part of this finding. Our study uncovered that our title tags are only being used exactly as is by Google 47% of the time, which is a far cry from the 87% Google has cited. However, in most cases with the other 51%, Google is doing one of two things:

  • Truncating the title tag: Google is pulling from our title tag, but due to limited space, it truncates it at a certain point with an ellipsis.
  • Appending the site name: Google is pulling from our title tag but adding the brand or site name at the end.

Note: It is unclear if the scenarios above are included in the 87% where Google says they are leveraging title tags. If they are, then our numbers are more in line at 89%.

Considerations

  • Create highly relevant titles to limit rewrites from Google. Oftentimes, the stricter our regulatory teams are on our title tags, the less influence we have on what the user sees in search results. In other words, you have a far better chance of getting your title recommendations pulled through SERP titles when the content is deemed relevant by Google.  
  • Include the brand or site name where appropriate. This can help with click-through rate in search results due to brand familiarity; however, this should be situationally considered. 
  • Aim for title tags between 45 and 60 characters. SEOs often consider the maximum character limit but not a minimum. Our research surfaced a “sweet spot” when it came to titles being pulled into Google’s search results.

Oftentimes, the stricter our regulatory teams are on our title tags, the less influence we have on what the user sees in search results. In other words, you have a far better chance of getting your title recommendations pulled through SERP titles when the content is deemed relevant by Google.

Chart showing title tag usage by character length
Title Tag Usage by Character Length

Some Punctuation and Special Characters Seem to Matter: There have been some anecdotes claiming Google is less likely to use title tags when pipes (|) are present. However, in our dataset, the usage of pipes was nearly twice as prevalent in URLs where Google was leveraging the title tag. Other special characters and punctuation were analyzed with mostly negligible differences This is a key example as to why Intouch finds it important to take the time to look at pharma specifically and not just rely on the industry-agnostic information.  

Considerations  

  • No real change here. Continue to use punctuation within title tags with considerations toward readability, aesthetics, and spacing.  

Excessive Capitalization Within Headers Could Have Implications: Now that we know that Google will pull SERP titles from headers on websites, it is important to know that in cases where your headers are in all CAPs, Google will try to adjust these to lowercase, which may not always make sense.  

H1 as Written on Website Google Title After Mid-August Update
EEOC SELECTION GUIDELINESEeoc Selection Guidelines
Example of Excessive Capitalization

With this example, we can see Google is pulling the SERP title from the H1 on the website. Since the header is in all caps, Google has tried to adjust it; however, the term “Eeoc” should still be in all CAPs, which is something Google missed. 

Considerations  

  • Be aware of excessive capitalization in headers and try to avoid all caps within headers unless necessary.
  • Ensure your SEO team is weighing in on headings and content as it not only impacts rankings; it also can be pulled through in the search results.

Mid-September Wasn’t a Reversal: When analyzing the data, the one discovery that stood out was that there weren’t many reversals after the initial update in mid-August. When looking a month after the update (mid-September), only 4% of the SERP titles that went from leveraging the title tag exactly to some kind of deviation during that mid-August update went back to using the title tag again.   

H1s Are Leveraged Just 3% of the Time: SEO industry publications have summarized the update as Google using H1 tags instead of title tags. Even though this is true some of the time, this is not always the case. In fact, our data shows that H1s are being used only 3% of the time. So, where else is Google pulling from to populate their SERP titles? Other places include H2s, H3s, combinations of titles and H1s, schema headline elements, navigation titles, and body copy. This goes to show that nothing is off the table, and if Google can crawl and read it, it is fair game to be pulled into the SERP title.

Our data shows that H1s are being used only 3% of the time. 

Three Final Takeaways

  1. If this update has taught us anything, it has reinforced the need for relevant and descriptive title tags. If they are not appropriately representing the content, Google has no qualms about leveraging other text it deems more applicable. This can be a challenging tightrope as medical and legal reviewers often require a more conservative approach to metadata, which ultimately leads to less influence in what is displayed in the search results. 
  2. This also serves as another reminder for SEO to be involved in copy development, as it not only has a significant impact on ranking; any of it can be leveraged in a search result. Gone are the days where content optimized by SEO equates to cramming a bunch of keywords into well-written copy. Effective SEO-influenced content is about meeting and exceeding searcher expectations with great copy, smart visuals, and an intuitive experience.  
  3. The final takeaway is that nothing is stationary when it comes to SEO. Having someone monitoring your site and the overall search space cannot be optional for brands who want to succeed in the digital marketplace. If you feel this is a current blind spot for your brand, connect with someone at Intouch to start the conversation.

Author information: Tylor Hermanson is Vice President, SEO, at Intouch GroupTerri Greene is Group Director, SEO, at Intouch Group.