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November 26, 2009

How To Control Your Listing Text in Google’s Search Results

A Google Webmaster Help video from Matt Cutts released on Nov. 10, 2009 got me thinking how the listing text in Google’s search results can easily be overlooked by some webmasters in their SEO efforts.

SEO is all about extending the reach of your web site content to your target market using online search platforms. You can tell when this has been achieved, and to what degree, by using web analytics software to monitor referral and visitor data. But what that data won’t tell you is how your site appears to users in a SERP (Search Engine Results Page). Sure, you’re getting traffic but perhaps you’re missing out on a lot more because your listing text is weak. You wouldn’t take out a newspaper advertisement without looking at the final proof first. So don’t be in the dark over how your site appears to people who use Google.

Poor page titles, visible copy, and description meta data can result in a weak listing. Webmasters have a lot of control over what text is displayed in a SERP, but in the end, Google reserves the right to modify result snippets if it feels the original isn’t up to par.

It’s important to remember that this decision by Google is based on a highly refined algorithm and is ultimately for the benefit of people searching for your content. That said, I’m willing to bet most webmasters still prefer to retain control over how their web site is shown in search results.

By ensuring your on-page content is the best it can be, you’re greatly increasing the chances Google doesn’t step in and tweak your listing.

Let’s look at the different elements of an organic Google search result and how we can control what is shown.

Page Title

The large blue link at the top of the snippet. As Matt points out in his video, most people know Google can modify the description snippet in the listings but not everyone is aware that Google may also change the title. In this case, it is usually due to a shortcoming with your web page’s title attribute. If the title is missing, too long or irrelevant, Google may show something more on-topic to the search query made.

Here are some tips to ensure Google displays the best possible title text to a user:

  • Always ensure that page titles are unique and not just copied page to page across the site
  • The page title isn’t something you stuff with keywords. Yes, always include your most important key phrases but don’t offer a long list of everything your web site is about. It should be a concise headline that describes the content on the specific page – my personal preference is to use no more than three different keywords or phrases.
  • Page titles over 60 characters in length are likely to get cut down and manipulated by Google. If the search term(s) appears in a lengthy title tag, it’s likely that a snippet of it will be used where the term appears.

Listing Description

Using the same logic as for the title, the description displayed in a SERP comes from the most relevant area of your web page. IE. The area of your text containing the word(s) used in the Google search query.

The listing snippet is typically generated from your visible copy on the page or the description meta tag. This is a good reason to optimize the description meta tag as part of your SEO campaign. While Google’s algorithm ignores it for purposes of determining rankings, it can still pull the tag’s content and display it to its users. A good description meta tag uses proper grammar and explains the page content in under two or three sentences. Remember; don’t stuff the description tag with a list of keywords. That isn’t helpful for users or the search engines.

If you write focused, quality on-page content for your target audience and create a helpful description tag, you should have your Google listing snippet covered.

Cache Version of the Page

Next to the green URL in your Google listing is usually a “Cached” link. Clicking this will display the version of your web page that was indexed by the Googlebot when it last crawled your site. Also included is the crawl date.

Why is this important? Well, if you’ve recently updated your page title or visible copy and the changes are not reflected in Google results, it probably means Google hasn’t returned to check your site’s content for updates.

Common reasons for this include few inbound links or existing inbound links of poor quality. If Google doesn’t crawl the pages that link to your site, it stands to reason they won’t visit your site frequently.

If you find your site isn’t getting crawled enough by Googlebot or other search engine robots, consider submitting your site to local business directories or swapping links with other good quality, relevant web sites. The benefits of inbound links also go much farther than just increasing crawl frequency – they will also play a significant part in how well your site ranks.

Now that we know the elements of a typical Google listing and the factors that determine what is shown, all that’s left is for you to monitor your site listing for various keyword searches and make changes when necessary.

Remember: a top Google ranking doesn’t mean anything unless people actually click on it. Have a look at your competitors’ listings in Google and see how yours compares – which one would you click on if you did a search for that topic? In my experience, there is often room for improvement when it comes to copy writing and content relevancy. In the end, your users and the search engines will like you more for it.


John Metzler is the founder of FreshPromo, a Toronto-based SEO company, and has been managing SEO campaigns since 2001. An expert at traffic analysis and organic optimization, John routinely helps clients generate more targeted search engine traffic and raise their conversion rates.

10 Responses to “How To Control Your Listing Text in Google’s Search Results

    avatar Dave Ferrick says:

    Great article, John. I agree entirely. The goal is to get the user to click thru to your site, not just get your site at the top of the listings.

    Regarding the Title tag, I actually prefer to list the most page-specific content first, then the site. So instead of:
    “SiteProNews: Webmaster News & Resources >> Blog Archive >> How To Control Your Listing Text in Google’s Search Results”

    I would title it as:

    “How To Control Your Listing Text in Google’s Search Results << Blog Archive << SiteProNews: Webmaster News & Resources"

    I'm not sure if Google loves or hates this but I feel it puts the most relevant part of the description first and invites more clicks.

    avatar Dave Ferrick says:

    Really good article, John. I agree entirely with your thinking here. It’s not just about getting listed, but enticing user’s to click through.

    I have a further suggestion on Title tag construction but due to some limitations on the commenting system here, I had to post it on my own blog. I’d love if you took a quick look and let me know if you agree. http://webmeister.me/blog/2009/11/26/john-metzlers-serp-article-a-further-title-tag-idea.html

    avatar Babyliss Flatiron says:

    I have noticed over the last few months that google seems to be picking a few differant pieces of the page and randomly using that instead of just the description.

    Babyliss Flat iron

    avatar Cary White says:

    This is an excellent article summarizing steps that should be reviewed frequently. Thank you for this well organized and thoughtful reminder.

    avatar John Metzler says:

    @ Dave

    Thanks for reading. I agree with you that the most relevant terms should appear near the start of the page title. The only exception to this would be putting a business or product name first for branding purposes. But most small businesses on the Net aren’t in this boat.

    I’m glad you found the article useful. Btw, your blog link returned a 404 error when I clicked on it.

    avatar Steven Gray says:

    Yes this is good advice. I am afraid i am one of those keyword stuffers. My descriptions are 95 percent keywords. My only advice to your readers is to not change the title unless u need to . as u will have to wait a long time for that page to be indexed again. I would rather make the changes to the description so u dont lose your page ranking. Maby just publish a new page with better titles.

    Best wishes for the holidays
    Steven G

    avatar Dave Ferrick says:

    @John

    Thanks for the reply and I apologize for the double post (Ran into some script issues with the live preview). After thinking about your article I change some things with my URL construction and managed to create a 404. Whoops! Here’s the correct link http://webmeister.me/blog/john-metzlers-serp-article-a-further-title-tag-idea.html

    avatar remonatrix says:

    The title is certainly one of the most important pieces of the puzzle when you are creating your web site or adding more pages with content.

    Always good to see a concice
    article about the fundamentals of Web SEO when it comes to Google… Thanks a bunch…

    avatar watch twilight eclipse online says:

    Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be down… Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

    I would appreciate if a staff member here at http://www.sitepronews.com could post it.

    Thanks,
    Peter

    avatar wimbledon says:

    well and good post

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