Everyone who knows even a little about SEO knows that it is vitally important to put your keywords in your title tag. Or is it? A recent statement by John Mueller made many question whether this is still true. Barry Schwartz wrote an article titled, “Google: Title tags are not a critical ranking signal” in which he quotes John Mueller in saying, “We do use [the title tag] for ranking, but it's not the most critical part of a page. So it's not worthwhile filling it with keywords to kind of hope that it works that way.”
This lead many to wonder whether the common practice of ensuring that you have your main keyword at, or near the beginning of your title tag was still important.
So, I decided to do a little experiment.
(Note: Things are actually still changing in the SERPS after I published this post. Click here to jump to the update.)
First, I created 3 completely made up words for which there were no Google results:
snirklewagger (haha…”did you mean snorklewacker?”)
For each keyword I wrote 4 articles. For each article I used the keyword as the H1 tag and then once in the first line of content. I then wrote some content that is not likely to win me any pulitzer prizes. I could have used spun or autogenerated content, but I wanted to make sure it looked like it was legitimate English:
Then, for each of my 4 articles, I used one of the following title tags:
- Keyword is the first word.
- Keyword is in the middle of the title tag.
- Keyword is at the end of the title tag.
- No keyword in the title tag
I created these in a different order for each keyword just in case Google decided that with all else being equal they would rank them according to the order in which they were published.
Submitting to Google
I did not link to these articles. Instead, I used Fetch as Googlebot in Google Search Console to fetch each page so that Google could know that they exist.
I then submitted each of these to the index.
I was amazed that within a couple of hours (possibly even earlier as I didn’t check right away), all of these pages were in Google’s index. Here is how Google initially presented the pages for glurglewart:
It’s interesting to see that Google rewrote my title tags. I did not have “- MyTrafficDropped.com” in any of the title tags. Also, the title tag for #3 was:
A really long title that tells you a whole bunch that you need to know about Glurglewart
and for #4 was:
Holy Moly. There is nothing in this title to tell me what the page is about
Still, the initial results were as expected. Google listed the result with the keyword at the front of the title tag first, the keyword in the middle second, the keyword at the end third, and no keyword last.
It is important to note that these are not necessarily how Google ranked the results as often pages will get indexed quickly and then ranking follows a week or several weeks later. I had intended to follow these for several weeks, but if you’ll read on, you’ll see that Google foiled my experiment.
Now, let’s look at our second set of pages:
Once again, Google rewrote one of my title tags. It’s interesting that this time, the position with the keyword at the front and the keyword in the middle were reversed. But, as expected, the results with the keyword at the end, or no keyword at all, did not get listed as highly.
And for our final set of articles:
These were once again in the order which I expected. Once again Google rewrote some title tags. The title tag for the result listed at #3 was:
A long long description of everything that one should know about blabbynuffy
And #4 was:
You would not believe what happens after you read this article.
What I intended to do next
My plan was to continue to watch these rankings for 1-2 weeks to see if eventually Google changed them. I had anticipated that for the second set of queries that Google would eventually list the result with the keyword at the start of the title first. If that didn't happen, then I was planning to create several new sets of articles to see if I could replicate these results.
The next step that I was going to take was to take the articles that had no keyword in the title (and were ranking #4) and see if I could push those up higher by adding more keywords in the text, writing longer and more polished text, and also adding some images and possibly video. The goal here was to see if I could make it so that the content in the article trumped the title.
But, here is what happened when I went to check my positions today:
Dammit Google! >:-(
(Update at 3:45 pm EST January 22: Some of these posts are now appearing in the index again. Glenn Gabe just sent me a screenshot of the mytrafficdropped.com page for glurglewart appearing in the SERPS. I can also see one for snirklewagger. I may have published too soon! I will document what is happening and update the post in a few days.)
What just happened here?
It looks to me like initially my request to submit these pages to the index did just that - got them indexed. But then, today, three days after they were submitted, Google started to figure out how to rank these pages. I suspect that the algorithms were able to determine that the pages were junk and not helpful to anyone who was searching on Google. Somehow the algorithm made a decision to remove these from the index.
I can’t find them at all on a site: search or even if I search for text from these articles in quotes.
It’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from this experiment. As with most SEO experiments there are a lot of variables. John Mueller did not say that the title tag had no bearing on rankings anymore. But, rather, he was implying that the content on the page is more important than whether or not you can get keywords in your title tag. Still, I do believe that it is still important to have your main keyword in your title tag and preferably at the start of the tag, provided that you can do this in a way that reads well for users and is not keyword stuffing.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Here are some questions that I have:
- Why do you think that Google rewrote my title tags?
- Why do you think that these pages got indexed and then deindexed?
- Can you think of a way that I can repeat this experiment and make it better?