An opportunity to improve title tags and drive more organic traffic

Back in February Google made significant changes to the layout of search results pages and stopped showing ads on the right side of pages. Naturally a change this big attracted lots of attention, speculation, and hand-wringing by search marketers and advertisers.

A more subtle change has become apparent in the last week or two which affects the display of organic search results. It’s certainly not as dramatic a change, but it’s one you can leverage to your advantage.

Google is using some of the space freed up from dropping ads on the right side of pages to widened the space used for organic search results. This has increased by 20% from 500 to 600 pixels for desktop searches.

Below are examples of how this looks before and now for the search term “wellington broadband providers”.

Google SERP changes


So why is this a big deal?

The increase in display width impacts both title tags and meta descriptions.

Google is now showing more text for title tags with up to about 70 characters displayed – an increase of 10-15 characters. Previously it would cut off what was shown after 55-60 characters and truncate the last full word with an ellipse (…). You can see in the above examples that this means an extra word is being displayed in the title tags of the first search result for www.kiwimoneysaver.com.

Even more significant, the number of title tag characters that Google is displaying in mobile search results has also been increased and is even higher than desktop results, with up to 78 characters being shown.

Illustrating this is a screenshot showing mobile results for “wellington broadband providers” and as you can see the title tag for www.kiwimoneysaver.com is significantly longer.

mobile search results


If you’ve been following best practice to date and limited the size of your title tags to 55 characters these changes now mean that there’s an opportunity to enhance them using more words. Be aware, if you work to the 78 character limit, then your title tags will be truncated in desktop search results due to only 70 characters displayed.

So what about meta descriptions – can these now be longer? You would have thought so, given Google’s now showing up to 100 characters in the first line of descriptions. However, it seems that Google is only showing a maximum of about 60 characters on the second line of descriptions. This means Google is typically still truncating descriptions after 155 – 160 characters.

We won’t be surprised if this changes and in time Google shows descriptions of up to 200 characters. And should that happen, this again provides an opportunity to add extra words and enhance your meta descriptions which can dramatically impact click through rates.

If you have pages that currently have short meta descriptions of between 80 -100 characters in total then there is an immediate impact on desktop results to be aware of. Instead of your desktop description wrapping on to a second line as before, it will now be fully accommodated in just one line, as shown below in the desktop listing for Unlimited Internet.


issue with short description

The loss of the second description line effectively means a listing is now taking up less real estate on the page with a smaller footprint. This may make it less noticeable and so result in less click throughs.

Why should you care?

Google takes into account over 200 factors when it’s determining where pages should rank for a given search term. Title tags are a key factor and generally high ranking pages feature the keyword in their title tag. The limitation of 55-60 characters means that many websites have title tags which, while featuring keywords, are pretty bland and less than compelling.

The change in title length now gives you a greater opportunity to craft title tags that stand out from those of other results and thus increase organic click through rates. And higher click through rates means you’ll get more organic traffic.

A challenge will be deciding whether to work on a 70 character or 78 character limit for title tags. Opting for the former is the safer option and means your titles won’t get truncated in desktop search results. However, if the majority of your traffic is mobile then it probably makes more sense to go with 78 characters so you can fully exploit the extra text in your mobile search results. You’ll just have to accept that your titles in desktop results get truncated and craft them accordingly, so the least important text is lost.

Finally, while we’ve talked about character counts, Google works on defined pixel widths. Characters vary in physical width (for example, the letter “i” is narrower than “w”) which means the total number of characters that can can be squeezed into a title will vary. However, as a rule of thumb, working on 70 characters for desktop and 78 for mobile should mean that truncation is avoided.

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About the Author Mark Sceats

Mark is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire which he founded back in 2002. Prior to establishing SureFire he worked for KPMG Consulting. Today Mark heads up SEO, embracing the challenges that can come with complex website implementations. Outside of work, his interests beyond his family are running, snowsports, diving and fishing (badly).

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