For many years now, the debate of pipes (|) vs. dashes (-) has been prevalent in the SEO industry. Some people prefer dashes as they keep your eyes – flowing – across – the – text, whereas pipes can | stop | you | mid-sentence. Although, others argue that the narrow width of the pipe provides a few extra pixels of space to squeeze another keyword into the title before it becomes truncated by Google.
However, with Google now re-writing up to 61% of title tags the debate has re-surfaced and become a hot topic of discussion again. Supposedly, having dashes instead of pipes will lead to far fewer re-writes, which gives webmasters more control over the way in which their site is displayed in the SERP.
Who’s to say that re-writes are a bad thing though? Surely, if a re-write leads to an increased click-through rate this is something every website owner should welcome?
Anyway, with so much speculation on this topic, the only true way to discover if an SEO technique works or not is to actually test the theory in action. It may sound like a trivial detail, but here at Koozai, we like to know the facts.
Therefore, we created a 3-month test to compare the organic traffic, click-through rate and total re-writes across a test and control group of URLs for our own site.
By changing the pipes to dashes, there would be a decrease in the number of titles that would be re-written by Google in the SERP.
Whilst every effort has been made to keep as many variables as possible fixed, there are regular changes to the ranking algorithm which can ultimately skew results.
The dataset will become more statistically significant as more URLs are tested. Our dataset was made up of 10 pages in the control group and 10 pages in the test group (20 total) so more URLs will need to be tested to confirm our findings.
First, on March 25th we identified the top 20 organic blog posts in Google Search Console (28-day period), that had pipes specified in their HTML via the meta title tag. These pages were then arranged in order of their organic traffic levels and every other URL was separated into the test group, whilst the remaining URLs were used as a control group.
The 20 pages were recorded in a Google Sheet here to re-visit in 3 months’ time:
Once the 20 pages had been documented in the spreadsheet, we were able to populate the remaining columns with our measurements, these included:
- Organic clicks
- Organic impressions
- Average click-through rate
- Average Position
- Meta title specified in the HTML
- Meta title displaying in the SERP
- Has the title been re-written?
- If it’s been re-written, what changed?
The Testing Process
Once these data points had been recorded, we then went through and updated all of the meta titles for the test group by changing the pipes to dashes, this was the only alteration made.
After the 3 months had elapsed, we re-visited the Google sheet and re-recorded our datapoints, looking specifically for any significant changes to the organic impressions, organic clicks, CTR and meta title re-writes.
- The test group (swapping pipes to dashes) had 30% of their titles changed in the SERP. The control group (keeping pipes) had 80% re-written in the SERP
- The average CTR across pages showing a dash in the SERP was 0.81% vs. 0.91% for pages with pipes in the SERP
- When Google re-wrote meta titles, the CTR before the change was 0.66% vs. 0.54% after the change
- Organic clicks declined by 13.7% for the test group and increased by 13.5% for the control group
- Changing pipes to dashes led to far fewer re-writes (3/10 vs. 8/10).
Changing pipes to dashes led to far fewer re-writes (3/10 vs. 8/10). This illustrates Google’s preference to show dashes over pipes.
However, pages with a dash in the SERP had a lower CTR than pages with a pipe, which illustrates the user’s preference to click on titles with pipes. Also, there was a negative effect on the organic traffic for the test group, so taking the extra time to re-write pages with dashes actually led to fewer organic clicks.
Therefore, it is advised that pipes are used in meta titles instead of dashes. This might mean that Google re-writes more titles but the overall outcome of leaving the pages with pipes is an increase in CTR and organic traffic.