Google Title Tag Update Demotes Joe Biden to Vice President
Alternative Title Tags & Alternative Truth
In 2012 on Google Search Central, Pierre Far, a Webmaster Trends Analyst, wrote a piece titled, Better page titles in search results in which Pierre describes the importance of title tags and describes scenarios where Google might change the title shown in the SERP.
…for some pages, a single title might not be the best one to show for all queries, and so we have algorithms that generate alternative titles to make it easier for our users to recognize relevant pages. Our testing has shown that these alternative titles are generally more relevant to the query and can substantially improve the clickthrough rate to the result…
Though Google’s rewriting of pages titles is nothing new, an update this week has many SEOs perplexed and frustrated as Google began ignoring the defined <title> attribute in even the most authoritative of sites. Take WhiteHouse.gov for example, as first pointed out on Twitter by Mark Williams-Cook:
Google is showing “Vice President Joe Biden – The White House” instead of the defined <title> of “Joe Biden: The President | The White House”.
While you can clearly see through the other SERP elements that Joe Biden is in fact the 46th President of the United States. These alternative titles are presenting alternative facts.
But where is Google getting this text from? The exact text “Vice President Joe Biden” does not appear anywhere on the page, though “Vice President” is mentioned several times in the text, including an H4.
SEOs have spotted several sources for the text of re-written page titles including anchor text used in internal linking, image alt text and filenames and heading tags, but what if it goes even deeper than that?
Using the Wayback Machine we can see that Joe Biden’s Whitehouse.gov page while he was Vice President had the title “Vice President Joe Biden | whitehouse.gov“.
That Vice President URL now 301 redirects to Biden’s President page:
Further muddying the waters is that the most common anchor text for backlinks to the redirecting page, including links from many high-authority sites is “Vice President Joe Biden”.
While it’s unclear which source or combination of sources Google is pulling this inaccurate title from, it’s easy to understand the frustrations many are feeling in having Google replace their carefully crafted page titles with clearly inferior ones. What is clear is that Google is using a number of on-page and off-page factors to understand the contents of a page.
As of Friday, August 20th many of the more egregious overwrites that have made the rounds in the search community have been rolled back, including the Joe Biden example.
This update doesn’t warrant changes to SEO strategies, but rather reinforces the importance of clear and consistent signaling. We’ll continue to test and research which factors are influencing page title rewrites as Google continues to refine this update.