Understanding How Google Generates Title Links & What it Means for SEO

Justin Park, Supervisor, Search Engine Optimization

May 23, 2022

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Google announced changes to how the search engine generates title links – the blue, clickable text displayed in search results that direct users to a website. While Google states HTML title tags will continue to be the “primary way” title links are generated within search results, their new system considers other content elements of a webpage such as headlines and prominent titles. Since most Pharma websites require PRC/MLR approval on title tags to ensure fair balance within title links seen by users in search results, this update from Google further highlights how website content, especially header tags, can influence a website’s appearance in search results and should be prioritized for SEO.  

What Are Title Links and Why Do They Matter? 

Title links are the first line of each search result seen by users when conducting a Google search. They are the blue, clickable text that searchers review in a search engine results page (SERP), serving as the primary way a website is presented to searchers, and what they actually click to enter a website from the SERP.  

As the main text used to describe a webpage, title links have a strong influence on enticing searchers to click and drive organic traffic to a website. Understanding that, Google’s algorithm can sometimes generate its own title links which are intended to be read by human audiences and accurately represent the content of that webpage.  

For content that requires legal review, such as medical and pharmaceutical websites, title links are considered user facing text sourced from the webpage that are seen by audiences in a SERP. HTML title tags on such websites should always be optimized with the intention of influencing how Google displays title links and, to help ensure fair balance, they are commonly approved by legal review teams. Make sure to continue to include this as part of your regular website process.  

Now, Google’s updated process of generating title links has the potential to “rewrite” page titles in SERPs to other on-page content, which could alter the verbiage seen by search audiences and impact click through rates.  

Google’s Process and How it Changed 

Since 2012, Google has outlined that while several signals are evaluated to generate title links, unique page title tags that describe what a page is about will likely be shown in search results. When a page’s title tag is not optimized, Google’s algorithm has the ability to generate and display alternate title links in search results. This commonly occurred if a title tag was too long, missing or incoherently stuffed with keywords. 

However, in some cases, Google algorithms would generate and display alternate title links to be more relevant to search queries. For example, if a search query was conducted with the verbiage “adverse events” but that terminology was not included in any of the website’s title tags, Google could generate a title link that features “adverse events” for the most relevant page on the website.  

Recently Google has updated their algorithms for generating title links and announced that they will no longer customize a title link based on the searcher’s query. The goal is to produce title links that are more readable and accessible, while accurately describing the content on a page, regardless of the query entered by searchers.  

The search engine’s preference continues to be that title tags are optimized for search, as this will limit how often their algorithm will generate alternative title links. 

Google’s Past Process

  • The primary source of title links were title tags, though several signals were considered 
  • To “make it easier for our users to recognize relevant pages”, alternative title links were sometimes generated: 
    • To be more relevant to the search query 
    • When a page’s title tag is missing or not optimized 

Google’s New Process

  • Title tags are still the primary source and are displayed in nearly 87% of all title links, sometimes displaying the most relevant parts 
  • Will no longer generate a title link based on the search query 
  • Google now considers other on-page elements, especially header tags, for title links 
    • Alternative title links are more likely to occur when a title tag is deemed obsolete or inaccurate 

Google’s updated algorithm has the capability to select the most relevant part of a title tag, often truncating verbiage at the start, middle or end. The new algorithm will also consider other elements of a webpage, beyond the title tag, even more when generating title links. These elements include:  

  • The main visual title or headline of a page 
  • Content that site owners place within the <H1> and other heading tags 
  • Content that is large and prominent through the use of style treatments 
  • Anchor links  
  • Other text contained in the content of a page 

The algorithm is likely to utilize these elements in title links, if a webpage’s title tags are half empty or contain only boilerplate content (“Home”), inaccurately reflect what a page is about, or obsolete. For example, if clinical trial data is updated for 2022 and reflected in large title text on the page, but the title tag is last optimized for 2021, Google will recognize the title tag to be obsolete.  

How to Best Control What Your Audiences See in Search Results 

Google’s updated algorithm continues to rely heavily on title tags for generating title links. Soon after the algorithm launched, title tags were used in title links about 80% of the time and, based on feedback from the search community, Google has since increased that usage to nearly 87%. An early study found that when title tags are not used to generate title links, heading tags (ex. H1 tags) are used in their place about 75% of the time. 

“Even with Google potentially rewriting or adjusting your title links, it’s more common that they are going to utilize portions of the content you included in your title tags and arrange it in an order that best suits the searcher before they go for content in other sources. Title tags are still your best bet for connecting with your potential audience, so creating and optimizing title tags should be a mainstay for your organic search campaign.” – Franco Maffei, Vice President, SEO, CMI Media Group

While title tags continue to be the primary source, they might not be displayed exactly as site owners intend. A recent study found that Google rewrote title tags almost 62% of the time they’re displayed in search results. As their guidelines indicate, Google is more likely to utilize but rewrite title tags when they are too long or too short.

Focusing on creating great title tags that represent the page content will reduce the likelihood of Google generating an alternative displayed in search results. Title tags are a ranking factor for organic search and even if Google generates an alternative title link, the title tag will still be considered for ranking purposes. 

SEO Content Optimizations Go Beyond Identifying New Opportunities  

Although a long-time foundation to any SEO strategy, this change in protocol for Google further solidifies the need to continue to focus on title links. But as a safeguard to situations where Google might potentially be looking for more information to reinforce the relevance of your title link, SEOs should be optimizing all on-page content elements to ensure a website is accurately displayed and ranked by Google in SERPs. Page elements such as prominent text, heading tags, anchor links, and body text are all eligible for being displayed as title links, and could be considered ranking as factors by Google for organic search results. These elements should be developed and reviewed by an SEO team to help ensure title links are being displayed legally in SERPs and the content is positively impacting search rankings and engagement. If this isn’t a priority of your campaign, you could be overlooking a significant piece of your digital presence.