Page Titles – Still Crucial, Still Neglected
Page title tags offer one of the easiest opportunities for small businesses to improve their website’s performance in the search engines and yet countless numbers of small businesses – and even some bigger ones – neglect this vital piece of the SEO jigsaw. Having said they’re easy, there’s a real art to designing the ideal tags for your web pages.
It’s so important that it probably should have been the first post I published on this blog. There’s plenty of material out there on the web but this is “my take on title tags” and provides a free resource that I can point some local businesses to when they contact me for advice.
I have often seen a website achieve page 1 rankings or improve its existing page 1 rankings by doing nothing more than optimising title tags. That won’t usually be the case for the most competitive keywords but for many businesses it’s a great way to make some progress.
I take into consideration all the factors in this article each and every time I prepare a page title tag for a client. I have experimented ad nauseam and found the most painstaking attention to detail was always worth the effort in terms of improved rankings, improved click-through rate or some other factor.
What Is A Page Title Tag?
It’s a snippet of code that appears in the head section of a website page.
Please note, you can click on all the images in this post to see the full size version of the images.
What Is It Used For?
Its primary purpose is to provide search engines with important information about the subject matter, theme or topic of that particular website page. If the tag is well optimised, it can help the page rank more highly in the search results for user search queries that match or nearly match the terms in the title tag.
Let’s get this out of the way. Although it’s most commonly referred to as the page title tag, many point out that the correct terminology is really page title element. It doesn’t matter. We’re all referring to the same thing.
The Answer Is ‘It Depends’
The answer to most questions I get asked about SEO begins with ‘It depends’. It depends on context. What’s right for one website page in one sector, geography or other set of circumstances may not be right for others. The same is true for title tags which should be optimised dependent on context. However, there are some principles of best practice that apply universally.
Where Does It Show Up?
Apart from being visible in the page code and browser tab, the content of the title tag is used by search engines in various ways and can appear in different places in the search results so it’s important to bear all these in mind when designing your tags because they are highly visible.
The content of the tag almost always appears as the first line of the summary of the page that appears in the search results (see image below). When expanded site links are shown in Google, many page title tags may appear at once. They are therefore very high profile and should be well optimised to ensure the best information is presented to the viewer and that they create the most professional impression of your business. This is not the time to forget to use your spellchecker. There are a few exceptions when Google does not use the page title tag as the first line of the summary in the search results but those occasions are rare and beyond the scope of this article.
In The Back Link Anchor Text
Other websites may create hyperlinks to one or more of your web pages. These are known as ‘back links’, ‘inbound links’ or just ‘in links’. Sometimes they will link using your page title tag as the anchor text (anchor text is the clickable text that you see in the link). If you have your main keywords in the page title tag and those same keywords therefore end up in the anchor text of some of your back links, then you score twice since targeted keywords occurring in back link anchor text can help your page rank better for those keywords.
The Google ‘Site Command’
If you enter ‘site:www.anyoldwebsite.com’ (substitute your own choice of website name) into your Google search box, you’ll see a list of summaries for all the pages that Google has in its search index for that website. The first line of each of those summaries is the page title tag of each page so you can get a quick feel for how well optimised the page title tags are generally throughout your site.
Does It Have Any Other Uses?
At the same time as serving its primary purpose of providing information to the search engines about the topic of the page, the tag can be used to help meet one or more secondary objectives. It’s important to know what these are so that you can decide whether to try and meet one or more of these at the same time when designing your tags. The tag is highly visible so it’s an opportunity to get various kinds of message across.
1. Improved click-through rate (CTR)
3. Corporate message or other message
4. Improved rankings
Improved Click-Through Rate (CTR)
Improved click-through rate can be achieved in various ways by making sure your message is appealing, invokes curiosity or entices the surfer in some other way. You may decide to include a call-to-action (CTA) in your title tag. If you’re less concerned about rankings for specific keywords and more concerned with trying to encourage users to take a particular action, then including a CTA can be effective. You can usually incorporate a CTA as well as your main keyword target. For example ‘Buy the best digital cameras online here’ includes the main keyword target embedded within a CTA. There’s a bit of a trade-off. There’s a limit of about 60 or 70 characters that can be effectively used in a title tag so including a CTA reduces the amount of space remaining for other characters which could be additional keyword targets or other wording.
Some big brands may not be concerned with using their website as a means of direct lead generation but may be more concerned with brand exposure. See the example below which uses the tag to convey to the user that they are viewing the website of Apple in the UK. They don’t use the home page title tag to try and rank that page for terms like iPad, iPod or iPhone. But they do include those keywords in the tags of other pages within the website dedicated to those products. The home page tag has been reserved for the brand name and location.
Corporate Message or Other Message
The tag might be used for a corporate message which doesn’t include keywords or a CTA and could be a message about corporate values or some other message.
It’s important to remember that search engine traffic depends on many more factors than just appearing high up on page 1 of Google. The result in 5th place may end up getting more clicks i.e. enjoying a higher click-through rate (CTR) than the result in 4th place if the former has a more appealing or eye catching message in its title tag.
The following section contains most of the factors that I take into consideration when optimising title tags.
Display Limit in Search Engine Results Pages (SERP)
Currently, Google usually displays up to 70 characters in its SERP. This does change sometimes, so it’s safest to stick to 65 or less if you want to be sure your tag won’t be truncated like the one shown in the example below.
Use Excel to Lighten Your Workload
Whenever you’re doing something a large number of times it makes sense to find the best methodology that works for you and then stick to that every time. I use Microsoft Excel to make the work easy, to provide automatic character counts and to record ‘before’ and ‘after’ tags as an audit trail for client work. This also allows me or the client to review proposed changes before implementation if required.
It’s worth pointing out that just because some characters in a long title tag might not be displayed in the search results, they are usually still being crawled and indexed by Google. So keywords near the end of a long title tag may still have an impact on rankings but that impact is likely to be small. Keywords appearing early on in the tag are likely to be given more weight than other keywords. It’s best to avoid having an excessively long title tag solely for the purpose of being able to accommodate more and more keywords.
Priority of Keywords in The Title Tag
Generally, the earlier in the tag that the keyword appears, the more weight it is likely to be given by Google in determining rankings so try to include your most important keywords at the beginning.
Your title tag is likely to be most effective in obtaining a good ranking for your target keyword if the tag contains an exact match for that keyword. For example, if you want to rank highly for the search phrase ‘blue widgets’ then try to include the exact term ‘blue widgets’ in your tag.
If your tag does not contain an exact match, a partial match can still help. So, taking the above example of ‘blue widgets’, if your title tag was ‘Widgets – Buy Blue, Red & Green Widgets Online’, the exact term ‘blue widgets’ does not appear anywhere in the title tag but this web page may still rank highly on a search for ‘blue widgets’ depending on all the other factors such as the words included in the content on the page, in the back links etc.
In an exact match, the keywords are right next to each other and in the right order but in a broad match the same words might be present and in the right order but separated by other words, punctuation or other characters. In the above example, although the words ‘widgets’ and ‘blue’ are not adjacent or in the right order, they are very close, separated only by the ‘buy’ and some punctuation. So, their proximity score is high. If the two words were further apart, they would have a lower proximity score and might therefore be treated by Google as less relevant for a search on ‘blue widgets’. If you can’t get all your target keywords in your title tag as an exact match, then try to get high proximity scores by placing the words as close together as possible.
Order of Keywords
If you can’t include all the words in your targeted key phrases in the right order, it may be worth including them in reverse order. If you have ‘widgets blue’ in your tag, that is still a match to somebody searching on ‘blue widgets’. It may only be a reverse match and not an exact match but it has a maximum proximity score and is still highly relevant. And occasionally some surfers will actually type the words into their search box in reverse order so occasionally ‘widgets blue’ in your title tag might still be an exact match for the search query.
Repetition of Keywords
It doesn’t help to repeat keywords in the tag just for the sake of it. However, sometimes a keyword might occur at the beginning of the tag and again within a phrase which adds further value or information. So, ‘Blue Widgets, Blue Widgets, Blue Widgets’ is likely to be counter-productive but ‘Blue Widgets, Buy Cheap Blue Widgets Online Here’ might work well.
Sometimes you might be able to incorporate both the singular and plural version of your main keyword target in your tag. For example ‘Blue Widgets, The Cheapest Blue Widget Supplier in Town’ contains ‘widget’ and ‘widgets’.
Other close variations could be synonyms such as ‘Buy’ or ‘Purchase’ as in the Pixmania example above.
Other variations might be different cases of the word. For example you might want to rank for ‘glaziers’ as well as ‘glazing’ as well as ‘glass merchants’. In the example below, the tag incorporates the variations ‘emergency glazing‘ (as an exact match for 1 keyword target), ’emergency glass’ (as a broad match with high proximity score) and ‘repair’ and ‘replacement’ as close variations.
The Challenge With Long Business Names
If you want to maximise the exposure of your company name by including it in the title tag, that can present a conflict. If your business name is very long, there may not be much room left for other words. A short business name is more easily incorporated without compromising the other objectives you might be trying to meet with your title tags.
However, if your business name also has your main keyword targets in it, then you might be able to kill two birds with one stone. In the example below, it has been possible to include the business name without compromising one of the obvious keyword targets because one is contained within the other. It has also been possible to incorporate keyword target sub-phrases within larger keyword target phrases e.g. incorporating the sub-phrase ‘glass supplier‘ within ‘wholesale glass supplier’. Both are useful targets so, by nesting them together, you can target both within one phrase.
Punctuation – Vertical Bars | Commas, Dashes – or What?
Different websites use different forms of punctuation to separate the words in their tags. This choice may affect click-through rate more than rankings. Having punctuation does affect rankings. For example ‘SEO, services’ will be treated as different from ‘SEO services’. The choice between different forms of punctuation may be largely one of personal preference.
Ambiguity of Keywords
This is really more about choice of keyword targeting than title tags but it’s worth bearing in mind the idiosyncrasies that can arise from ambiguity. If you are a furniture supplier who is targeting ‘conference tables’ in your title tag, you need to be aware that you will be competing with all the sites about the conference tables in football. Your title tag might be better used to target ‘meeting tables’ or ‘conference room tables’.
Special Cases – The Home Page
The home page is a special case. There may be a natural choice of keyword target such as an umbrella term that encompasses the overall business but which is not already targeted on other pages within the website. If there isn’t, sometimes you see a home page targeting a series of keywords which are already targeted on other pages but for which the home page might rank even more highly than the inner page dedicated to the topic. This choice of how to use the home page title tag for targeting will depend on the particular circumstances of each business.
10 Common Mistakes
1. Identical title tag on all pages (containing the same target keywords).
2. Same title tag on all pages (containing just the business name).
3. Different title tags on all pages but still targeting the same core keyword in all of them.
4. Tags too long and containing too many keywords.
5. Keywords repeated excessively.
6. Poor punctuation.
7. Inconsistent casing.
8. Title tag is inconsistent with the content on the page.
9. No title tags at all – ‘untitled documents’.
10. Spelling mistakes due to lack of care and attention to detail.
My Top 10 Tips For Optimising Title Tags
1. Decide on what objectives you’re trying to meet before starting to design your tags.
2. Choose the keywords very carefully so that you include as few as you have to. Each one will carry more weight than keywords in a title tag containing, say, 20 keywords.
3. Make sure your tags are consistent with the theme of that page i.e. the content on the page. If they’re not consistent with each other, then either the title tag, or the content on the page, should be changed.
4. Use Excel to make the job of drafting and reviewing offline easy, prior to implementation.
5. Take all the relevant circumstances of your own business into account. What’s right for one business is not necessarily right for another.
6. Keep a record of rankings immediately before and about 14 days after any changes to title tags so that you can try to establish cause and effect i.e. did your changes help to improve things?
7. If you don’t have an eye for detail, you likely won’t spot some important differences between a good tag and a bad one so it might be better to get someone else to check your work or possibly even do them for you.
8. Don’t hurry them. It’s worth spending as long as it takes to get the best versions.
9. See what your competition is doing to help generate ideas but don’t blindly copy. Another business may be very successful in spite of its title tags not because of them.
10. Every page should ideally have a unique title tag. If you have many pages with the same tag, you won’t be penalised but you’ll be missing opportunities to get the other pages to rank for additional, different terms.
I hope you found the above helpful and/or interesting. Please feel free to leave your own tips or other considered comments below, using your real name.
Less than an hour after I made this post live, it was ranking on page 1 of Google for terms closely related to the subject matter of this post.
As you can see from the image below which is a screenshot of the results for a search on ‘guide to page title tags’, this page came up number 2 in Google, behind my good friends at SEOMoz.
The search was made using Firefox private browsing so was not a set of results influenced by my own search history. I also set the search location to Glasgow to see whether my 2nd place was just local or nationwide.
The exact search term that was used i.e. ‘guide to page title tags’ does not appear in the title tag of this page/post and it did not appear anywhere on this page when the search was carried out.
There is a reverse broad match in the title tag because it includes the words ‘page title tags … guide’ so the words in the search term are there but (a) in the wrong order and (b) not adjacent (because the word ‘detailed’ separates them).
Interestingly though, this addendum now includes the exact phrase ‘guide to page title tags’ a handful of times so it will be interesting to see if this page moves into the number 1 position for that exact search term. If it does, I’ll update this post with another addendum!
Blogging about SEO is fascinating, eh?
OK, now it’s a couple of hours since I published this post and I decided to look at Google’s image search results.
The main featured image at the top of this blog post ranks number 6 in Google’s image search for ‘page title tags’ and one of my older posts has an image that ranks number 1 for the same search term.
Images can be an important source of additional traffic via google’s image search, so it’s always worth including a large high resolution well optimised image in your blog posts, both from a search engine point of view and user perspective.
12th May 2016 – http://www.thesempost.com/new-title-description-lengths-for-google-seo/
16th May 2016 – http://www.thesempost.com/google-mobile-title-tag-length/
20th May 2016 – http://www.thesempost.com/why-google-increased-title-description-lengths/