Something look odd in the search results above for google checkout? Yes, that’s the official Google Checkout home page listed first, but it’s most definitely NOT the right title for the Google Checkout page. That’s got folks at Digg wondering if Google Checkout has been hijacked, sparked from Jon West’s original post here. No. It’s just Google being lame. Below, more about how HiBidder.com ended up providing the current title for Google Checkout as listed on Google, as well as a look at the problems of dealing with titles for pages that a spider can’t access.
Most search engines, including Google, primarily depend on a page’s title tag to make titles that show up in search results. Need an illustrated guide to understand this? Jennifer Laycock over at Search Engine Guide has a nice tutorial that came out recently on it.
The title tag is the text that goes within the two parts of a title tag of a page’s HTML code, like this:
<title>This is where the title goes</title>
The text in that area is used to make the title of a page as listed in search results, in most cases. If that was really your title, then your page would be listed like this:
This is where the title goes
Sometimes, pages lack title tags at all. Sometimes, they have title tags present but no text within the tag itself. In these cases, search engines sometimes do different things to come up with a title so that the page doesn’t look bad in results. They might just list a URL in place of the title. Some, in the past, have said "No Title."
It’s been some time since I’ve comprehensively surveyed the situation. But recently, both Google and Yahoo have experimented more with using anchor text to describe pages. This effectively means that how people link to you could be used to describe your pages, if you’ve neglected your title tags.
It has taken ages to finally convince search engines to stop using third-party Open Directory and Yahoo Directory descriptions as titles for web pages (an opt-out you can do by using the NOODP and NOYDR meta robots tags). Now it looks like we’ll need a NOANCHOR options, if anchor text continues to be used this way.
That brings us to the Google Checkout situation. If Google could reach the Google Checkout home page, it would likely have used this title tag:
Which would have listed the site as:
However, I think the redirection that Google has in place might be preventing the crawler from reaching the page. Many Google products like Google Checkout annoyingly have no static URL. If you try to reach the home page at https://checkout.google.com, a huge redirected URL takes its place. Come one, Google — enough with this!
It’s not an issue that the page is on a secure https:// server. If that were the case, then searches for adsense would show a funky title for Google’s AdSense page.
However it happened, Google has decided to go with anchor text to come up with the title for Google Checkout. And that anchor text came from HiBidder.com. In particular, the Google Checkout title says:
use google checkout on hibidder com free
So where is this on the HiBidder site? When I looked, I didn’t see it at first. However, a search showed 1,300 matches. I looked again, then spotted it in the code like this:
<a href="https://checkout.google.com" target="blank">
<img src="images/google_checkout.gif" alt="Use Google Checkout on HiBidder.com – Free!" title="Use Google Checkout on HiBidder.com – Free!" border="0" height="39" width="100">
I’ve bolded the text. It’s in both the ALT and TITLE attributes for an image that links to Google Checkout. So not only is Google using anchor text to make the title, it’s also using either ALT or TITLE attributes to determine anchor text content, if no actual HTML link text is provided.
For its part, Google sent me this on the situation
In the overwhelming majority of cases, we use the title tag of the page for the search results title. When we are unable to extract a title (the page has no title tag or the tag is empty, for instance), we may use the anchor text in links to the page to provide a title, which is a better experience for the searcher than no title or just the URL. This is a better result for the webmaster as well, since it likely makes the result more compelling to click on. A webmaster can ensure that anchor text is not used by including an extractable title for the page in a title tag.
The other time we may use anchor text for the title is when the page is blocked by a robots.txt file. These URLs may appear in our search results as "partially indexed pages", described here
In these cases, we do not crawl or index the content of the page, and therefore, don’t extract a title from a page. If the webmaster would prefer that even the URL for these pages not appear in the search results, they can put a meta noindex tag on the pages or can request removal via the URL removal options in webmaster tools.
Note that the lowercasing of the title is a temporary issue that should be resolved soon
I can understand the desire to put something out to describe pages that are missing title tags or have blank ones. I’d like to see the search engines come up with a common standard for this, such as saying something like "No Title" or "No Title Available" or using the URL as the title.
It’s another issue entirely on what to do about pages that can’t be crawled but still get listed (Meta Robots Tag 101: Blocking Spiders, Cached Pages & More explains more about how this situation can happen). Going with anchor text can be just as dangerous and annoying, if not more so, than going with third party directory titles. Probably, search engines will need to do the same thing in this situations as for pages with empty or missing title tags.