Google’s Title Rewrite Dropped Our CTR by Up to 37%! (Here’s How We Fixed It)

Google’s Title Rewrite Dropped Our CTR by Up to 37%! (Here’s How We Fixed It)

We’ve known for a while now that Google will sometimes change a page’s title in the SERP based on the query. But on Monday, August 16, many SEOs began noticing their titles being completely rewritten, in a detrimental way.

We, too, noticed this, as one of our top trafficked pages took a big hit from the change.

chart showing CTR drop up to 37% from google rewriting page title

Needless to say, we were a little taken aback. So what’s going on here? We investigated and are sharing with you:

  • A clear case study of a title tag rewrite that significantly hurt our traffic.
  • How it happened and what we did to fix it.
  • How this story has been unfolding in the SEO community.
  • Google’s comments on the change and what it means for all of us.

Special thanks to Elisa Gabbert and Gordon Donnelly for collaborating on this piece.

How Google’s title rewrite dropped our CTR

On Monday, we noticed that traffic to one of our long-standing top pages (our Free Keyword Tool) for the week of August 16-22 was down 25% compared to the previous week, with a noticeable drop-off between August 16 and 17.

When we started digging into this issue in our Search Console account, we saw that average position for the page in Google was steady, and impressions had actually increased, but the page’s organic click-through rate (CTR) had fallen sharply, from 33% to 26% for the top traffic-driving query—a 21% drop.

chart showing 20-37% drop in CTR due to google page title update

We saw a 21% drop in CTR for the top query to our Free Keyword Tool page, with no change in position.

This significant drop was for the query “free keyword research tool,” the single query that drives the most traffic to the page (and one of the top queries for our site overall). We saw similar drops across a range of related keyword searches. For example, for the query “free keyword tool” the CTR fell by 37%.

It was then that Elisa Gabbert, our Director of Content and SEO, did a little further digging and noticed that Google had changed the title displaying on the SERP, from “Free Keyword Tool” to “Learn More About The FREE Keyword Tool.” This was not the title we had given the page—it was an H1 tag from a section pretty far down on the page.

free keyword tool title in SERP saying

He also noted his observations that the rewritten titles seem to be shorter—not due to pixel limit but perhaps for readability purposes, and also to be able to include the brand name at the end of the snippet.

broadie clark's example of google's page title change update

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Danny Sullivan says this is not a new change

On August 23, Schwartz’s follow up article covered Danny Sullivan’s response to the feedback on Twitter. Here’s what Sullivan said.

He confirmed that Google has heard the feedback, but the change isn’t new.

“Suffice to say, we’ve heard the feedback & looking into all this. That said, it was never the case that writing the ‘perfect title’ guaranteed that title would be used. We have long used more than title tags for creating page titles. That’s not some new change…”

danny sullivan's tweet acknowledging the google page rewrite

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He reminded us that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Sullivan then pointed out that there are many cases where this “long-standing system of generating titles has helped pages with “terrible title tags.”

danny sullivan's tweet saying google rewriting titles often helps a page

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He talked about potential solutions for “problematic titles.”

Matt Southern refers to this as the “I really mean it” tag in SEJ’s coverage on Sullivan’s response.

danny sullivan's tweet with proposed solution to page title rewrites

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Google confirms the update

Then finally, the following week on Tuesday, August 24, Google came forward about their web page title update, where it:

  • Announced that it will no longer generate titles based on the query.
    Instead, “our new system is producing titles that work better for documents overall, to describe what they are about, regardless of the particular query. It also mentioned placing particular importance on what a visitor can visually see on the page.
  • Reinforced that this is not entirely new
    Google has been using more than the HTML title tag to generate titles since 2012—since some pages have tags that are very long, keyword-stuffed, or no tags at all.
  • Reassured us that creating good HTML tags is still important.
    Google stated that the HTM title is “still by far the most likely used, more than 80% of the time.” And that they will soon be updating their help page on the topic to reflect the change.

Where does this land us?

As with any algorithm update, it’s generally not a good idea to go into your pages and optimize for that particular update, but instead to make sure you’re focusing on quality across the board. But it will be important to pay special attention to your traffic and CTR to see if there are any fixes or optimizations you need to make. As we’ve seen, Google doesn’t always get it right when they try to “improve” on your work!

How about you? Has Google rewritten any of your titles? Share your stories in the comments below!

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