Google’s May Updates: Alternate Titles in Results Pages

Three of the thirty-nine vague bullet points outlined in the latest Google Inside Search blog post with updates made in May 2012 have to do with alternate titles:

  • Trigger alt title when HTML title is truncated. [launch codename “tomwaits”, project codename “Snippets”] We have algorithms designed to present the best possible result titles. This change will show a more succinct title for results where the current title is so long that it gets truncated. We’ll only do this when the new, shorter title is just as accurate as the old one.
  • Efficiency improvements in alternative title generation. [launch codename “TopOfTheRock”, project codename “Snippets”] With this change we’ve improved the efficiency of title generation systems, leading to significant savings in cpu usage and a more focused set of titles actually shown in search results.
  • Better demotion of boilerplate anchors in alternate title generation. [launch codename “otisredding”, project codename “Snippets”] When presenting titles in search results, we want to avoid boilerplate copy that doesn’t describe the page accurately, such as “Go Back.” This change helps improve titles by avoiding these less useful bits of text.

This isn’t the first time they’ve mentioned alt titles. Buried amid April’s 50+ updates were these:

  • More efficient generation of alternative titles. [launch codename “HalfMarathon”] We use a variety of signals to generate titles in search results. This change makes the process more efficient, saving tremendous CPU resources without degrading quality.
  • More concise and/or informative titles. [launch codename “kebmo”] We look at a number of factors when deciding what to show for the title of a search result. This change means you’ll find more informative titles and/or more concise titles with the same information.

The Search Engine Land guys have noticed these, making remarks about how no one likes their titles messed with, but in yesterday’s summary, Matt McGee mentioned “This was for an e-commerce site that sells items which can be described in a few different ways; Google apparently didn’t like seeing several keyword phrases in its search results.”

This is not what I’m observing at all, at least not for my site.

I noticed branding information and descriptive (non-keyword) phrases being Google-matically added to my titles. I also noticed that my rankings dropped as did my CTR, while that stuff I didn’t write was appearing in the “alternative titles”.

Google noticed this too, after about a month. Changes that I spotted on May 8th have reverted to my Titles as of today, my rankings have lifted back into normal positions and traffic is beginning to normalize. Unfortunately, this is not happening across the board. Many are still there, and new ones appeared today.

This has happened on pages where the title tag was long (as Matt noted), but it also happened on a page where the title contained one word (something I’d rather remedy, but it’s a question of scale sometimes).   This happens on pages that are a huge part of my internal link structure and should be considered more important sections of the site. There is no rhyme or reason to which pages are being selected for this treatment that I can discern.

Alt titles are based on Anchor text

And it’s all based on anchor text, my friends. These alternate titles that my site has been supplied with have nothing to do with any of the content on the page, or with the brand positioning on the page.

You see, my site is technically a subdomain of another site, which is currently being redesigned. As a part of their redesign they are screwing with my anchor tags and brand positioning.  This is the only site that’s making these changes, but since it’s my root domain, it is the most important one.

These Google-matic alternative titles are neither more informative, nor more concise than my own titles. They are less clickable, less interesting and more repetitive than my titles.

What are you seeing?

Please leave a comment or catch me on Twitter to chat about your observations with this. I’d like to know whether anyone else is observing these changes, and experiencing negative impact like we are.


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