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The Link Is Mightier Than The Title

Traditional SEO wisdom has it that the title tag of an HTML page is of paramount importance and I'm not about to disagree. However, a recent observation of the Google search engine results page illustrates why the title tag may not be as important as the anchor text inside the common or garden HTML hyperlink.

The commercial photographic studion formerly known as David Whiting Photography

Think like a robot

One of the key strategic messages which The Art of Search has to offer business leaders charged with securing search engine visibility is the importance of thinking like a robot and watching the search engine results pages for tiny clues which offer glimpses of how the algorithm has been programmed to behave.

This is one such glimpse

This morning I was doing a little housekeeping on a website, updating hyperlinks to new and better webpages, and I noticed how Google had modified the way it formatted a hyperlink in a search engine results page.

I have just launched a website showcasing the work of the photographer David Whiting and needed to update a hyperlink on the website of his commercial studio (now named DWP Imaging). I needed to check on which page I had placed the reference to the founder of the commercial studio - I could have executed a quick MySQL database search but, instead, elected to run a Google query to find the page. As captured in the image above, I searched "david whiting" - knowing that Google would return me the pages of it had indexed with the keywords david whiting.

The results Google returned were not what I was expecting

Take a look at the screengrab above. You'll see that Google returned two webpages: ranked 1st) the webpage I was expecting to find; and ranked 2nd) a webpage that mentions David Whiting only in the alt tag of an HTML image. I looked hard at the hyperlink Google had created for me to link to the 2nd page because it was not written in a format I employ or expected.

Traditional SEO wisdom has it that HTML title tags are primarily important because Google trusts that these strings of text are reliable indicators of the content that is to be found on the webpage. Google trusts these tags so much that it'll lift a website's title tag from the index and use them as meaningful hyperlinks to websites which rank against any given search query.

The link is mightier than the title

The screengrab above displays the 1st page referring David Whiting; look closely and you'll see that this keyword concept is anchored inside a hyperlink: formerly David Whiting Photography. Now take another look at the hyperlink Google has placed in its search engine results page: it's altered its usual output and, instead, has replaced the 2nd webpage's title tag DWPi - The Image Makers Since 1969 with the text anchored within the hyperlink found on the 1st page.

What does this tell us about the way Google thinks?

What this glimpse confirms to us is that Google is an independent thinker; it'll accept what you tell it but will and can overrule you when it thinks it knows best.

In this instance, Google's opinion is 100% right

What you're seeing here is true machine learning and intelligence at work. Despite there being no other reference to David Whiting in the webpage other than the photographer's name in the alt text of an HTML image; Google's smart enough to realise that the 2nd page gives you further and better information about David Whiting as the founder of DWP Imaging in 1969.

Not all algorithms are evil

Right now there's much talk about algorithms; much of this chatter revolves around the use of algorithms to shuffle social media timelines - showing users content that the social media platform thinks is best. Users are becoming annoyed that their social interactions are beginning to be manipulated; an annoyance that I would add my voice to in order to wrestle power back to adult users who should be empowered to filter their own timelines.

You see the issue is that we want to remain in control of our own friendships. It is suggested that (at the time of writing) the average Facebook user is connected with 338 friends, suggesting that keeping track of (relatively) small numbers of connections isn't a problem for the average human. However, the worldwide web is formed of an unimaginable number of links and making sense of it calls for supreme machine intelligence and helpful algorithmic thinking. Please don't join the chatter and fall into the assumption that all algorithms are evil. Some are really very good indeed.

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