As any SEO agency, or in fact anyone in the search industry, knows all too well, Google is constantly updating and adjusting its ranking algorithm, and causing continual changes to the way that our sites are ranked and displayed on results pages. Many of these changes are unexpected, and some are even often difficult to explain.

Titles and meta descriptions have always been elements that are edited, adjusted and sometimes completely changed by Google, based on what it deems to be most appropriate and relevant for the searcher’s query. Often, site owners will see their designated meta descriptions swapped for something completely different, or their title tags have extra words added into them.

It’s the latter of these two things that caught the attention of our marketing team this week at EdgeThreeSixty.

When words are added to page titles

Google altering a webpage’s title tag is not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening since as far back as 2011 (at least). What can be slightly more unknown are the exact reasons why the search engine may decide to make changes. Recently, we noticed that we were subject to such an adjustment with our site’s homepage title.

As you can see in the source code, we’ve set the title on the homepage to be;
“Web Design Liverpool, Development & Marketing | EdgeThreeSixty”.

 

We add our brand name, separated with a pipe, to the end of all of our page titles as a standard convention. However upon performing a branded search in Google recently (i.e. searching for ‘EdgeThreeSixty’) we noticed that the search engine had elected to add the brand name plus a colon to the beginning of our homepage’s title.

Why does Google add words to titles?

The main reason that Google would add something into a title when displaying it in SERPs is to better meet the need of the user – typically this would mean the addition of the user’s search term. This could be an explanation as to what we see happening here: the search term is ‘edgethreesixty’, so google adds ‘edgethreesixty’ into the title tag.

However, this does seem slightly odd seeing as the search term already exists in the title tag that we designated, albeit at the end.

To test this, we searched using a different term that we knew our homepage would be displayed for. We used the search term ‘web design Liverpool‘. Below is our listing for that term:

Again, Google is inserting ‘EdgeThreeSixty:’ at the beginning of the title. This rules out the previous theory of the insertion being related to the search terms used.

Finding an explanation

We noticed that our site was not the only one that had ‘brand:’ affixed to their title tag, where it was not specified in the source code. In order to find an explanation as to why Google might be doing this, we started looking for similarities between these sites.

We performed random searches to gather a handful of sites that fit the bill. These are the ones we ended up with:

Nelsons solicitors

SERP result:

Title in source:

MLB Properties

SERP result:

Title in source:

Pursglove & Brown

SERP result:

Title in source:

Turn Beautiful

SERP result:

Title in source:

We now had to find a common theme through all these sites, that also applied to our own. As you can imagine, to begin with we felt like we were quite blindly stabbing around in the dark. None of these sites seemed to be similar to ours in any way – technically or otherwise.

In order to gain some direction, we instead began to think about what could have caused the change in the way that Google displays our homepage’s title in SERPs. It didn’t always display it with ‘EdgeThreeSixty:’ inserted at the beginning, but it certainly does now. So what changed, to cause this change?

It was possible that the change was caused by Google altering its algorithm in some way, and it was also possible that it was caused by us changing our website in some way. We recently made changes to the structured data on our site, so decided to further explore this as a possibility.

a change in structured data

We had recently undertaken an exercise to review and amend the structured data on our site (see: schema.org), not only updating and adding some different schema types, but also changing our markup from microdata to JSON-LD. Looking again at the source code of our homepage, we noticed that our markup specifies the “name” of the organisation:


Going back to look at the other sites that had their brand name prefixed to their title tags, this seemed to be a common trend:
Nelsons:

MLB Properties:

Pursglove & Brown:

Turn Beautiful

Is structured data the answer?

Despite the trend that we can see here, it’s hard to say definitively if structured data is what is causing Google to insert brand names at the beginning of the title tag in SERPs. On our search for other sites that this was happening to, we did also find a number that did not appear to have implemented any structured data on their site, but were seeing the brand amendment to SERP titles.

As such, we can’t, with any certainty, deem structured data to be the cause. Equally, we can’t rule it out altogether, as there is no guarantee that Google’s algorithm will apply its rules to all sites equally, or even to the same site equally in different situations. For example, you may have noted in the screenshots above, the presence and subsequent absence of organic sitelinks in EdgeThreeSixty’s SERP listings for branded and non-branded search terms, respectively. For the brand search, Google displays deeper sitelinks for our site, for non-branded search, it doesn’t, despite the same page being returned in both circumstances.

This is just one example of why we can’t make blanket assumptions about the way search engine algorithms work, because they simply don’t apply equally in all situations.

Image from Pablo by Buffer

Have you noticed your site’s titles being changed by search engines? Do you have any theories as to why this may have happened? Let us know in the comments below.