Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Search Strategist, SEO
Title tags aren’t just for breakfast anymore, unlike orange juice
Two of our alert SEO specialists, Patrick Marshall and Antonio Casanova, found an interesting new wrinkle in how your sites appear in Google search results pages. This new discovery might just mean re-thinking the elements on your Web page and what they might mean to your visitors.
SEO Specialist Antonio Casanova performed the following search on Google:
One of the results returned appeared as follows:
So far so good, in that “Colocation” appeared at the front of the link on Google and the site was a page on HostForWeb.com. This really seems like a relevant result, doesn’t it? Yet when we visited the page, we found the following title tag:
<title>HostForWeb.COM – Ultrafast Hosting Solutions – Reliable Service</title>
Whooah—the title tag is different than the link appearing in the Google search result! The word “Colocation” doesn’t even appear in the page title tag! Everything we thought was true was a lie!
Well, not really, but this did seem kind of important.
Performics recommends (and continues to recommend) that the title tags of your pages should contain useful and descriptive information that explains their function and purpose to search engines and human visitors. Since time immemorial, search engines have used the <TITLE> tag of a Web page as the link you see on search results pages. Title tags have been the best way for search engines to get an accurate summary of your page’s content that is easy to communicate to the engines’ human visitors.
So we checked the code on the HTML page—we wanted to know where Google was finding the text it used in the link. Maybe it used the contents of an <H1> tag in the link, or a <B> tag, or something. It was like Google was making up the title tag itself!
After some looking, what we eventually found was that the HTML page contained the word “Colocation” in several different places. Colocation appeared as the ALT attribute of an image, as the filename of a graphic (collocation_o.gif), and in outbound links on the page (e.g. the page contained a link to “/colocation/index.php”), and in the anchor text of the outbound link.
In this case, the anchor text Google showed on its results page was obviously something it generated on its own. Essentially, Google composed link anchor text that was relevant to the search query, but the text didn’t appear in the title tag of the linked page. We checked around and found a couple more instances where this happened; in one instance, Google even used the text from a PDF file linked from the destination page as the anchor text of the link on its results page.
Our research also established that in some cases, Google link anchor text was dependent on the words appearing in the query. For example, if you used a page URL as a search term in Google, Google might show you the <TITLE> tag of the page without the extra information (this didn’t happen in all instances, however. Some pages seemed “stuck” with the link anchor text generated by Google).
So what this means is that Google is not only looking at your Web pages for their anchor text links, but it’s looking at the information linked from your Web pages, as well as making judgments about the elements of your site that are relevant and useful to visitors. Google will compose a pastiche of different Web page elements to create their anchor text links.
Remember, there are no laws that Google has to use your title tag as the link; as we’ve demonstrated, Google can basically do whatever it wants. This is pretty smart behavior, considering it is programmatically deriving this information from a crawl of your site.
Naturally, there’s a potential that Google might make the wrong guess about the contents of your page and develop a link anchor text that incorrectly describes your page. Time will tell if Google keeps doing this, or if it goes back to merely using the site’s <TITLE> tags as the link anchor text. Think about the elements on your page and compose them accordingly; potentially any discrete element, such as a link anchor text on the page, an ALT attribute, or an <H1> tag, might appear as a link anchor text in Google’s results.