(Note: This article was aided, in part, by a recent conversation with the inestimable Mike Blumenthal. Thanks, Mike.)
Is it time to rethink how we do title tags? (AKA page titles, AKA the Title element in an HTML document)
I think so. And maybe you’ll agree after I share why I’m rethinking things myself. First, let’s get on the same page.
Conventional Wisdom on Title Tags
Here’s some of what I’d call the conventional wisdom in SEO when it comes to title tags:
- They’re the most important on-page SEO factor.
- The primary keyword should be placed at the beginning of the title tag.
- After the primary keyword, use 1-2 related keywords.
- Business name/Brand should be at the end of the title tag.
- The title tag should be no more than 65-70 characters (with spaces).
- Page titles across a website should be unique, each one relevant to its page.
Those guidelines have historically applied across the board — no matter the client, no matter the industry or target audience. And to be clear, I still agree with and recommend much of that list.
But I think we need to be looking at title tags with more nuance and finesse in 2012 (and beyond). Why? A couple reasons:
- Search results are displayed in many different ways now, not just the “10 blue links” of the past.
- Google, in particular, is treating title tags with more finesse than it has in the past.
So, with that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking these days where the title tag is concerned.
New Thoughts for Title Tags
As you’ll see below, I’m not discounting every item listed above. I’m suggesting that we think a little more creatively about how we optimize title tags, and about how search engines (primarily Google) handle title tags.
1.) Keywords don’t always have to be exact, not do they have to be crammed at the front of the title tag.
This may apply, in particular, to topical content more than static pages, i.e., to blog posts and articles more than product/service pages. And I strongly suspect it’s more applicable to less competitive terms. Have a look at this Google search result.
The article that ranks No. 1 doesn’t even say “itchy back” in the title tag. And it only has that exact term three times in the article text.
It probably has a lot of anchor text like that, Matt, you say.
No, actually. Bing’s new Link Explorer tool doesn’t show any inbound links for this article, and of the nine backlinks in Open Site Explorer, none of them have “itchy back” as the anchor text.
It looks to me like Google is simply associating the article with this keyword phrase even though the exact text doesn’t appear in the title tag. That’s not new, but it seems to me that it’s happening more frequently now.
On Bing, the results are slightly different — that article is showing up at No. 3, behind two pages with “itchy back” appearing as an exact phrase near the beginning of the title tag.
And here’s another Google search — similar keyword phrase — where the top-ranked content has the exact phrase in the title tag, but at the very end.
My point: I’m seeing things like this more often, where a page is ranking for terms that sometimes don’t even appear in the page title (but similar/related terms do), or appear somewhere other than right at the beginning of the title tag.
As I said above, I think this applies mostly to less competitive terms. Are you seeing similar things in your searching? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
2.) Title tag length is a touchy issue, especially with Google.
Google has been editing title tags more often this year, and it often has to do with length. There seems to be an art to hitting the right combination of relevance and length so that Google doesn’t rewrite the title tag in its search results.
And just last week, Google announced more tweaks to title tags based on length:
This change will show a more succinct title for results where the current title is so long that it gets truncated.
Let’s look at this in action. Here’s a page about bathroom vanities on Home Decorators’ website. The title tag is:
Bathroom Vanities | Shop Bathroom Vanity Sinks | Homedecorators.com
That’s 67 characters, which — based on my testing this weekend — is right at Google’s limit of 67 or 68 characters. There are many title tags showing with 67-68 characters. But not this one. Here’s how the URL shows in Google on a search for “bathroom vanities.”
Even though I think Google could display the existing title tag, it’s not. Google seems to want to show the actual company name — Home Decorators Collection — instead of what’s in the title tag, Homedecorators.com. And when Google substitutes the full name, then the title tag passes Google’s length limit. And when the title tag is too long, Google writes its own “more succinct title.”
Title tag on the page:
Bathroom Vanities | Shop Bathroom Vanity Sinks | Homedecorators.com
Bathroom Vanities – Home Decorators Collection
Takeaway: Be very careful about the length of your title tag, particularly with Google, lest that title tag get rewritten into something else when it shows up in the search results.
3. More examples of Google finessing Title Tags
Look at another way Google is finessing the title tag display based on character length:
Do you notice that the ellipse in the top result is part of the clickable link, but it’s not clickable in the lower result? And do you see how the clickable link in the lower result ends with a capital S? I don’t recall seeing Google clip a title tag in the middle of a word (or after one letter, as is the case above).
In the top result, the actual/full title tag is 85 characters and extends for three words after the word “sink” that you see above. That’s way too long.
But in the lower result, the full title tag is only 65 characters and Google is still clipping it down to 62 plus the ellipse. That capital S is the first letter of “Sets,” which is the last word of the title tag.
That’s on page three of the same “bathroom vanities” search from above. On page two, Pottery Barn is getting the capital B treatment, which cuts a 68-character title tag down to 65 plus the ellipse.
My point: Google is doing a lot of finessing of title tags, often based on how many characters are used — even if it means cutting off a word after the first letter.
4. Google may ignore the title tag altogether.
One more from Home Decorators: They have this page about writing desks, except the title tag uses singular case (writing desk) like this:
Writing Desk | Small, Cherry & White Writing Desks | HomeDecorators.com
But what happens in the search results on a search for “writing desk”? Google changes it to plural — Writing Desks.
Where’s Google getting that? Well, “writing desks” happens to be the H1 tag on that page. And even though my search was for singular “writing desk” and “writing desk” is in the title tag, Google ignores it completely and shows the plural from the H1 tag.
Takeaway: Google is pretty much gonna do whatever the heck it wants with your title tag.
5.) Think differently for local SEO…
In local search, brand/business names are often more important than the keywords and it can be wise to optimize the title tag accordingly. In my area, for example, there’s a local hardware store that does a ton of radio and TV advertising and pushes their slogan — “a most unusual store” — at every opportunity.
As it turns out, if you forget their name and do a local hardware store search, the highly branded title tag lets you know that you found what you’re looking for.
I get the impression they haven’t done any SEO on that title tag at all, but that’s okay because what they have supports the overall brand better than a title tag like Hardware Store – Furniture – Kennewick, WA would.
6.) … but optimize those local sitelinks if you have them.
Brand recognition is great and all, but when people are searching for exact business/brand names, Google often doesn’t stop at just showing the home page URL like the hardware store above is getting.
Sometimes a local business also gets the big sitelinks display, where several pages — and title tags — appear beneath the main search result. If you’re looking for Barbara Oliver Jewelry in Buffalo, you’re likely to get something like this:
This is one of Mike B.’s clients, and also one of my favorite examples of all.
Barbara has six sitelinks. And Google is generating those uber-short clickable links from various pieces of each page. Look at this:
- Contact Us: that phrase is in both the title tag and the H1 tag. It’s also the anchor text of a link in the site footer.
- Testimonials: that word is in the title tag as “Reviews & Testimonials,” but is all by itself as the H1 tag and as the anchor text in the main navigation menu. Who knows which one is providing the text of the sitelink??!!
- Appraisals: the title tag and H1 tag both say “Jewelry Appraisals,” but the main nav menu anchor text just says “Appraisals.” (The footer does, too.)
- Custom Jewelry Design: this phrase is in the title tag and the H1 tag.
- Resources: this word isn’t in either the title tag or the H1 tag, but it’s the anchor text of the link in the main nav menu (and in the footer).
- Jewelry Repairs: this phrase is in the title tag and the H1 tag.
From looking at that, Google is creating its sitelinks from different sources — and seems to be ignoring title tags altogether in a couple cases. The sitelinks have to be short, and pages should be optimized accordingly. Which leads to my summary of this excessively long article…
Conclusion (TL;DR Version)
It seems pretty clear to me that title tags aren’t as cut-and-dry as they’ve been in the past.
Google is more aggressively changing/finessing title tags to fit its search results. Getting the right mix of relevance and length in the title tag seems more important to me than ever. And that may not even be good enough, because Google seems to be ignoring the title tag altogether in some cases.
Generally speaking, I still believe and support those original “conventional wisdom” recommendations for title tags, but moving forward I think we (SEOs, webmasters, small business owners, etc.) need to be aware that there’s a lot more going on now.
If you’ve read this far, thanks. Now let me know what you think about title tags in 2012. Comments are open.
(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)