If Google changes your SERP title, does the original title’s content still count towards the page’s relevance score?

I was reading a discussion thread in the SEO Training Dojo about how Google doesn’t always use the content of a page’s title tag to generate that page’s SERP title. (For those of you who aren’t Dojo members, you can get the gist of it via this article by Dave Harry about how Google changes your page title in search results.)

In the discussion thread, esteemed SEO professional-slash-SEO radio celebrity Terry Van Horne brought up an interesting question, which I’ll paraphrase for you:

If Google changes your SERP title, does the original title’s content still count towards the page’s relevance score?

That’s precisely the question I’ll attempt to answer with this post.

The Setup

I’ve created a post (i.e., the thing you’re currently reading) with a title that is specifically engineered to bother Google. That is, it intentionally tries to trigger Google’s newfangled Title Mangler algorithm, which theoretically generates more-relevant SERP titles when the original title tag content sucks.

For this experiment, the title I’ve chosen contains 200 pipe characters, followed by a unique phrase that currently returns 0 search results in Google. (I know from experience that Google hates pipe-stuffed titles.) The unique phrase is only mentioned in the title; it is not in the page content itself (and let’s keep it that way, ye commenter of little thinkitthroughedness).

The goal here is to see if Google will return this page for search queries that contain the unique phrase–while refusing to display the original title in the SERPs.

I wanna play too!

Itching to verify the results of this experiment for yourself? Of course not, you lazy bitches! But for the 0.01% of you who might be curious…here’s how you can play along:

  1. Find the “unique phrase” at the end of this page’s title. If you’re viewing this page in a typical desktop web browser, then the page title is probably displayed at the top of your browser window. If not, you can find it by viewing the HTML source code of this page and looking at the content right before the </title>.
  2. Search Google for that phrase (wrapped in quotes).
  3. Did Google return this page in the search results?
  4. Did Google display a SERP title that’s different from what I used in the title tag?
  5. If you answered yes to #3 and #4, then you might conclude that Google does in fact count original title content towards a page’s relevance score, even if the Title Mangler deemed it useless!

Even if that’s true…so what?

If Google refuses to display your ugly, keyword-stuffed title in its SERPs–but it still gives your page credit for having keyword in the title–then the time-consuming task of balancing SEO-friendly and User-friendly just got a helluva lot easier, didn’t it? Think about it…

I could change my home page title to something like:

The Web’s best search engine optimization website offering optimal SEO tips to search engine optimizers opting to optimize their search engine optimisation options.

…and thanks to Google’s title mangler, my SERP listing would show something completely different–probably something like this:

SEO Mofo

Maybe that’s not the best example, but your mileage may vary depending on what alternative title signals you feed to The Mangler. Like what, you ask? Well, I know of at least 3: create a User-friendly DMOZ title, start the page content with a User-friendly heading tag, and/or point links to the page with User-friendly anchor text.

If this exploit works, is the potential benefit worth all the extra effort?

Highly unlikely. But remember: SEO isn’t about ROI, it’s about proving to yourself that you’re smarter than those assholes in Mountain View.

1/27/2012, 17:50 GMT: Okay, my bothersome title is apparently too easy to unfuck, since The Mangler simply hacked off the leading string of pipes and used the unique phrase as the alternative title. This unfortunately prevents us from making any kind of logical conclusion (I’ll explain why in the next post), so I’ll need to rethink my title content and try again. Click the link below to see what happens in Round 2.

SERP Experiment No. 6 »

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