As an online PR specialist I can get caught up in the world of social media and digital public relations. Jumping back and forth between updating a twitter feed and writing content. Occasionally, this leads to me forgetting about a few foundational points of SEO. I drop writing an SEO friendly title from an article or I forget to use the Yoast plugin on my blog post. Neglecting title tags and meta descriptions means that I’ve forgotten an integral aspect of ranking.

So here’s a reminder to myself, to small business owners, to marketing managers, and more – because title tags and metas have changed in 2014, and they’ll continue to do so through the rest of 2015.

Title Tags

It was several months ago when we started seeing the end of the standard 70-character optimized title tag in Google search engine results pages (SERPs). For years, SEOs and Internet marketers have typically written title tags starting with the page name followed by a dash or pipe and then the brand name.
You can see how a search for “flat screen tvs” gives me these results – all “product name + brand.”

Branded SERPs Page with Keyword

Recently we started seeing these page titles truncated to include only keywords related to searcher intent separated by ellipses and the brand name.

SERP with Branded Pages

Brian LaFrance at Authority Labs did a study last October about this change, which I highly recommend reading, as his research confirmed many of my suspicions.
By far and large, brands and businesses aren’t even sticking to the previously recommended 70-character limit. These lengthy title tags are the ones, which make up the majority of those truncated in SERPs to around 55 characters. Those who kept their title tags closer to 55 avoided abbreviation.

Side Note: The 55 characters rule is more like a guideline. Consider that “iiii” is 4 characters just like “wwww” but since “w” is a much wider letter than “i”, it takes up more space. Similarly, bolded letter and capital letters take up more space. Also, since Google will bold keywords in a title tag related to the searcher’s query, this will eat up your title space. Use the Moz title tag emulator to help you find what’s right.

Here Sephora has two different mascara pages ranking for “purchase mascara online”. One is for a specific NARS product while another is for the mascara category page. You can see how the NARS page title tag only has 53 characters, whereas the Mascara category page exceeds the 55-character cutoff, but Google has truncated the title to include the brand name.

SERP with the kind of product and brand

Google isn’t just truncating long title-tags. It often will partially or completely change them. But don’t worry – this isn’t happening to everyone. Stats from Brian’s research revealed that only about 25% of his sample test were completely changed and 36% had a partial change.

I’d guesstimate that the remaining title tags remained unchanged because they were optimized for shorter lengths. Even those that were completely changed seemed to be done because the title tag was not an accurate description of the page or was a duplicate title of another page on the website.

Meta Descriptions

These title changes go hand-in-hand with other updates we have seen related to meta descriptions. Google often discards pre-written meta descriptions in favor of other phrases or keyword sentences found on the page copy. This happens for a number of reasons including:

  • The meta description does not reflect what is actually found on the page.
  • Another phrase or part of the page copy better matches the searcher intent.
  • The meta is not optimized or stuffed with keywords.

While Google does not consider meta descriptions to be an official ranking factor, they affect rankings indirectly through click-through rates, dwell time, and user engagement.

When a meta description is well written, engaging, describes the page content and inspires curiosity, it drives up the click-through rate. If the page content successfully satisfies the user’s needs and they click around, spend time on the page, maybe convert this tells Google that the website is worth ranking for the original keyword phrase.
Eventually this can mean better rankings as other pages fail to satisfy users through poor content, no CRO, and more.

Writing for 2015

As you perform a site audit, make updates to your website, or finally get around to that blog post in the back of your mind; here’s what you need to keep in mind:

Title Tags:
Keep your title tags under 55 characters or 512 pixels (if you want to get technical). Include your brand name if possible to play to Google’s “brand” preference. Ensure that they accurately reflect the content on your page and no two title tags are the same.

This is particularly important in e-commerce with similar products. Often you will have different pages for products that may have just one or two small differences. Ensure that your title tags are able to distinguish between the products. Use the meta description space to include more information.

Meta Descriptions:
Optimize your meta descriptions to less than 156 characters (they are not pixelated like title tags) with these guidelines in mind:

  • Be accurate.
  • Be descriptive of the page. Bait-and-switch meta descriptions will only hurt you.
  • Pique curiosity and encourage the reader to click for more information.
  • Use keywords. While meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor, users RARELY read an entire meta description but rather scan the SERPs for keyword phrases that Google has bolded.

Relevant results drive more clicks so no matter what write for you audience. Know what people may be searching to find you and use that to your advantage. Write naturally and you will be fine as the algorithm continues to be tweaked.