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Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO experts Jenny Halasz and Kristine Schachinger. Come up with your hardest SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

Welcome to another edition of Ask an SEO! Today’s question comes from Steven in Connecticut:

If you change an article of content on your website by just changing its title, could that cause a drop in traffic? Does Google see that as an attempt to game the system? We recently changed the titles of a few articles on our site and saw a significant drop in traffic. What do you think?

The simple answer to this question is yes, changing title tags can cause a rankings drop.

While, no, Google does not see this as a way to game the system as their needs to be a consistency between what the title tag terms and what terms are in the content on the page itself.

Let’s elaborate.

Title Tags & Rankings

While title tags used to be one of the very few ways for Google to determine what to rank a page for in terms of content and key terms, in this day and age of machine learning and RankBrain, that is not the case.

Yet, title tags are still one of the best ways for Google to determine what query for which to rank a page.

Title Tags in the Wild

In fact, a recent tweet by Distilled shows us that removing key terms from title tags can have a serious effect on the site’s ability to rank for that term – even when the term is obviously implied by the site itself.

During the recent Search Love conference, Distilled tweeted this use case about removing the word “online” from title tags from a site that is well – obviously online.

It did not go well.

This shows us that despite Google adding variants, synonyms, contextuality, and machine learning to its interpretation and understanding of page content, the title tag is no less important.

If your high traffic key term is in the title tag and you are ranking for it, you don’t want to remove it.

There is Always an Exception

Unless, of course, you change the page content to a point where it no longer matches the title tag. In that case, Google can determine the mismatch and de-rank the page for the query term you have in that title tag.

If you have a great ranking page that drives traffic and you want to completely change the content, don’t without a good business case. Just create a new page with a title that matches the new query.

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Featured Image Credit: Paulo Bobita

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