Posted by Dr-Pete
For the past couple of weeks, Google has been testing a major change to the width of the left-hand column, expanding containers from 512 pixels to 600 (a 17% increase). Along with this change, Google has increased the available length of result titles:
This naturally begs the question — how many characters can we fit into a display title now? When Google redesigned SERPs in 2014, I recommended a limit of 55 characters. Does a 17% bigger container mean we’ve got 9 more characters to work with?
Not so fast, my friend…
This is where things get messy. It’d be great if we could just count the characters and be done with it, but things are never quite that easy. We’ve got three complications to consider:
(1) Character widths vary
Google uses the Arial font for result titles, and Arial is proportional. In other words, different characters occupy different amounts of space. A lower- case ‘l’ is going to occupy much less space than an upper-case ‘W’. The total width is measured in pixels, not characters, and the maximum amount you can fit in that space depends on what you’re trying to say.
In our 10,000-keyword tracking set, the title below is the longest cut or uncut display title we measured, clocking in at 77 characters:
This title has 14 i's and lowercase l's, 10 lowercase t's, and 3 narrow punctuation marks, creating a character count bonanza. To count this title and say that yours can be 77 characters would be dangerously misleading.
(2) Titles break at whole words
Prior to this change, Google was breaking words at whatever point the cut-off happened. Now, they seem to be breaking titles at whole words. If the cut happens in the middle of a long word, the remaining length might be considerably shorter. For example, here's a word that's just not going to fit into your display title twice, and so the cut comes well short of the full width:
(3) Google is appending brands
In some cases, Google is cutting off titles and then appending the brand to the end. Unfortunately, this auto-appended brand text still occupies space and counts against your total allowance. This was the shortest truncated display title in our data set, measuring only 34 words pre-cut:
The brand text "- The Homestead" was appended by Google and is not part of the sites <TITLE> tag. The next word in the title was "Accommodations", so the combination of the brand add-on and long word made for a very truncated title.
Data from 10,000 searches
Examples can be misleading, so we wanted to take a deeper dive. We pulled all of the page-1 display titles from the 10,000-keyword MozCast tracking set, which ends up being just shy of 90,000 titles. Uncut titles don't tell us much, since they can be very short in some cases. So, let's focus on the titles that got cut. Here are the character lengths (not counting " ...") of the cut titles:
We've got a fairly normal distribution (skewed a little to the right) with both a mean and median right around 63. So, is 63 our magic number? Not quite. Roughly half the cut titles in our data set had less than 63 characters, so that's still a fairly risky length.
The trick is to pick a number where we feel fairly confident that the title won't be cut off, on average (a guaranteed safe zone for all titles would be far too restrictive). Here are a few select percentages of truncated titles that were above a certain character length:
- 55% of cut titles >= 63 (+2) characters
- 91% of cut titles >= 57 (+2) characters
- 95% of cut titles >= 55 (+2) characters
- 99% of cut titles >= 48 (+2) characters
In research, we might stick to a 95% or 99% confidence level (note: this isn't technically a confidence interval, but the rationale is similar), but I think 90% confidence is a decent practical level. If we factor in the " ...", that gives us about +2 characters. So, my recommendation is to keep your titles under 60 characters (57+2 = 59).
Keep in mind, of course, that cut-offs aren't always bad. A well placed "..." might actually increase click-through rates on some titles. A fortuitous cut-off could create suspense, if you trust your fortunes to Google:
Now that titles are cut at whole words, we also don't have to worry about text getting cut off at confusing or unfortunate spots. Take, for example, the dangerous predicament of The International Association of Assemblages of Assassin Assets:
Prior to the redesign, their titles were a minefield. Yes, that contributed nothing to this post, but once I had started down that road, it was already too late.
So, that's it then, right?
Well, no. As Google evolves and adapts to a wider range of devices, we can expect them to continue to adjust and test display titles. In fact, they're currently test a new, card-style format for desktop SERPs where each result is boxed and looks like this:
We're not even entirely sure that the current change is permanent. The narrower format is still appearing for some people under some conditions. If this design sticks, then I'm comfortable saying that keeping your title length under 60 characters will prevent the majority of cut-offs.
Note: People have been asking when we'll update our title tag tool. We're waiting to make sure that this design change is permanent, but will try to provide an update ASAP. Updates and a link to that tool will appear in this post when we make a final decision.
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