SEO Title Tag Optimization

The title tag of a page is one of the strong on-page optimization signals. The title tag appears as the title in the browser tab and doesn’t actually appear on the page itself anywhere, and is also used by search engines as the title of the search result.

The title tag HTML code lives in the <head> of the HTML and looks like this:

<title>SEO KPIs | Doctor McAwesome’s SEO Blog</title>

Title tag as it appears in Google SERPs

Title tag as it appears in the browser tab

Title tag optimization is not that different from URLs: keep it short and to the point and include your primary keywords in the title. The most common mistake that fledgling SEOs make is stuffing title tags with all kinds of keywords and variants, making it look spammy both to users and to Google.

Title tag SEO best practices:

  • Include your primary keywords in the title tag
  • Don’t keyword stuff the title tag — keep it human readable
  • Keep it as short as is reasonably possible. Google will display around 55 characters of your title (the exact number of character varies depending on the width of the characters).
  • The title should accurately describe what the page is primarily about
  • List the page title first, and the name of your site afterward. For example: “How to Trade Commodities | Awesome Trading Inc.” On the home page list your site name first.
  • Targeting a synonym instead of your primary keyword (“armoires” instead of “wardrobes”) can sometimes be a good strategy.

Title Tags and Keyword Stuffing

I want to stress again, do not keyword stuff your titles. It’s incredibly common to see a title tag that looks like this: “How to Trade Commodities, Commodity Trading, Commodity Trades | Awesome Trading Inc” SEOs do this because they’re trying to optimize for variations of keywords (trading/trade/trades, commodity/commodities), but they end up making their title – and by extension their site – look like garbage.

Google understands that those variants are related and including just one is enough. The honest truth is that if you optimize specifically for “commodities” you will probably rank a bit better than if you optimized for “commodity” even though Google knows they’re related. The danger is that if you optimize for both you’ll end up ranking slightly worse for all of them, and even if you don’t you’re going to hurt your click through rate because your title looks spammy.

If it’s really important to optimize for related terms you have other places in the page where you can target the variants. Keep your title to the point and target the most meaningful and descriptive keyword.

The general rule of thumb is that you should optimize a title tag for only one keyword. Ironically, this rule is only needed for SEOs: anyone else trying to write a good title will do this automatically.

Best Title Tags for CTR

Click Through Rate, when combined with good user signals (like not bouncing), is a ranking factor. So not only does better CTR get you a larger share of traffic, but it can also boost your rankings. Since title tags are one of the most influential elements on CTR optimizing your title for CTR is very important.

I’ve done a lot of title tag CTR testing on ecommerce sites, and I can say that it’s incredibly hard to find a title that works better than simply: [Category Name] | [Site]

In other words, “Running Shoes | Awesome Shoes” is a very strong title tag, while “Running Shoes – Shoes for Runners | Awesome Shoes” is much worse. In fact, overall you’ll get less SEO traffic with the longer title with additional keywords.

Using PPC To Optimize Titles: There’s a lot of advice around title optimization these days that recommends using paid ads to quickly test to find the best title for your SEO efforts. Do not do this. It turns out that paid ads are bad at predicting organic titles. I wrote about this in dept in an article on Search Engine Land. The short version is that it doesn’t work: people who click on paid ads are influenced by different things than the people who deliberately skip paid ads.

Position, Character Count, and When It’s Worth the Work

There has always been some speculation that keywords closer to the beginning of the title are given more weight than keywords out at the end. There is no good data to support this; however, having your keywords in the beginning is going to be good for your CTR anyway, so it’s still a good practice.

The character limit is not set in stone. While it’s true that Google is only going to show a certain number of characters and if you go over, it looks a bit worse, it’s also not the end of the world. Here’s what a truncated title looks like:

Example of a long title tag that Google truncates

I do not worry about the site name being truncated at the end of a title tag – no test I’ve run has ever shown it hurts CTR. I would avoid making the title before the site so long that it truncates, and you definitely don’t want to truncate your home page title tag — that’s just sloppy town.

So when should you manually optimize every title tag, and when isn’t it worth it?

My advice is that if you have a small site (a few hundred pages or less) it’s worth your while to write each title by hand and make sure they’re within the character limit. But if you have a large site of thousands or hundreds of thousands of pages, there’s no way it’s worthwhile to do that. You aren’t going to be hurt by having the occasional title too long (within reason — don’t make them hundreds of characters) and are better off spending the next two months on something other than looking at each title individually.

Title Tags and Spam Signals

It’s worth considering that Google can and will look at title tags as a spam signal. Title tags that are excessively long and appear to be a list of keywords is something that is easy for Google to spot algorithmically and raise a flag. You can tell this has happened when Google chooses not to use the page’s title tag as the title in the SERPs — it’s also very likely that Google will ignore the title tag topicality signals when figuring out how to rank that page.

And of course, if your site gets enough spam flags of enough weight, it will eventually flag the site for human review for spam — or perhaps just decide to degrade your rankings algorithmically based on the high probability that it’s a bad user experience.

This, by the way, is true of all on-page optimization elements. There’s a carrot and stick mentality: optimize them well and you could rank better. Optimize excessively and you may cease to rank at all. It makes sense too, because over-optimized and keyword stuffed pages are a bad user experience — there are pages on the internet that will provide the same info in a more readable format.

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