Rethinking the Title Tag for 2012 (and beyond)

Filed in MY BEST POSTS, SEO by Matt McGee on June 11, 2012 21 Comments

seo-200(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:

  1. They’re the most important on-page SEO factor.
  2. The primary keyword should be placed at the beginning of the title tag.
  3. After the primary keyword, use 1-2 related keywords.
  4. Business name/Brand should be at the end of the title tag.
  5. The title tag should be no more than 65-70 characters (with spaces).
  6. 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:

  1. Search results are displayed in many different ways now, not just the “10 blue links” of the past.
  2. 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.

google-itchyback

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.

bing-itchyback

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.

google-itchyarms

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.”

google-bathroomvanities

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

Google’s version:
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:

titletag-ellipse

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.

google-potterybarn

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.

google-writingdesk

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.

hardware-kennewick

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:

google-barbaraoliver

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.)

Comments (21)

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  1. Very fine work Matt. While I think you are on target with your analysis, there are some cases here where I think you are looking at the situation a bit too narrowly. For example, in #3 the overly-long title tag pays off: For me DecorPlanet.com ranks #1 for multiple variations of the terms in the title:

    Contemporary Bathroom Vanities
    https://www.google.com/search?q=Contemporary+Bathroom+Vanities&pws=0

    Contemporary Vessel Sink
    https://www.google.com/search?q=contemporary+vessel+sink&pws=0

    Contemporary Vessel Sink Vanity
    https://www.google.com/search?q=Contemporary+Vessel+sink+vanity&pws=0

    No clue how this URL does re CTR, or if there’s traffic for these terms, but at the moment, it looks like stuffing the title is working for them.

  2. Very perceptive article Matt – thanks for the detective work! Are you seeing the same title tweaking with Bing? I’m using more descriptive title and H1 tags on my most recent site redesign, but left the nav and footer links short to avoid confusion or a cluttered look.

    I’m also curious what your thoughts are about using the same or different content for the itemprop title tag or the og:title tag for Facebook.

  3. I’ve noticed that in every case I’ve seen lately of Google completely replacing the title with something of their own, they always replace pipe characters with hyphens. Their template seems to be [keyword phrase] – [company name].

    And if Google sees these shorter titles as an improvement, I wonder if we should conclude that they’d prefer to see us write titles that way. Of course, that would mean that the title element could no longer be optimized for two or three keyword phrases. I think I prefer to hope that examples like the ones Andrew posted continue to show up.

  4. Isaac Wendt says:

    Yeah, I think it’s important that you name your title tags naturally. Because you really don’t need to try and fake page relevance, just authority. Great post but =)

  5. Ross Jones says:

    Matt, thanks for investigating and sharing. Nice catch on the ellipses and truncation. While I’ve applied the “itchy back” theory to many page titles, I’ve always looked for a CTR boost if the title was closer to natural language. Do you think there’s an actual rankings boost from having inexact kw’s in the title &/or kw’s later in the title in some situations? That would surprise me.

    • Matt McGee says:

      Thanks for the comments, everyone.

      Andrew – yeah, there’s definitely variety in how/when Google is changing title tags. That’s kinda my point, that sometimes the long, keyword-filled title tag works, and other times Google replaces it or edits it down. But there’s not much of a pattern for when it happens.

      Wendy – no such title tweaking in Bing from the set of searches I was doing over the weekend. They seem to handle it very traditionally.

      Bob – same here. All of the Home Decorators examples (and there are several more that I didn’t include above) are that way. Pipe is replaced by a hyphen. What I didn’t look at, now that I think about it, is how their pages rank for the keywords that were replaced/edited down.

      Ross – I don’t believe there’s any rankings boost for having inexact keywords in the title tag. Logically, that doesn’t seem to make sense to me. I do think that Google has an incredibly deep graph/dictionary of terms, related terms, etc.

  6. Steve says:

    Well put, Matt.

    I think keyword-stuffed title tags are ugly, even when they’re not necessarily “stuffed” but separated by |’s or -’s (so there’s still a string of 2 or 3 keywords, with the brand name last, similar to your “Bathroom Vanities” example.

    I think it’s becoming the case that ranking #1 is not the be-all-and-end-all of the SERPs. I’d much rather rank #2 with a genuine, easy-to-read title tag – especially if the title tag of a page at #1 is spammy – simply because it’ll probably garner more click-throughs. In other words, it’s less likely to put off potential visitors, even if more potential visitors are likely to see it.

    With the likes of Rich Snippets and rel=author as well, I think Google’s making it clear that their emphasis going forward is on ‘SERP clickthrough rate + SERP ranking’ rather than necessarily just ‘SERP ranking’ all on its own.

  7. Very well written and clearly a lot of research and detective work went into this article. SEO is becoming a very complicated beast, it’ll be interesting to see if title tags change any time soon.

  8. Thanks for the informative article Matt!

    For #4, though, the word Writing Desks is in the Title Tag.

    Writing Desk | Small, Cherry & White Writing Desks | HomeDecorators.com

    In this instance it looks as though Google is doing what you pointed out in the second example — replacing the dot-com with the full brand name and replacing the rest of the Title Tag because it then becomes too long.

    P.S. I’m a big fan of your blog!

    • Matt McGee says:

      Thx for pointing that out, David. I still suspect they’re getting the wording from the H1 tag, though, considering some of the other examples up in the post. But who knows, could be either, I suppose.

      Matthew — I haven’t looked in any detail at what’s going on in the local/blended results, sorry to say.

  9. Matthew Hunt says:

    Awesome post Matt!

    You provided some answers to some questions I’ve had recently and given more homework to look at this deeper, especially your sitelinks concept. I never thought to look where they were pulling sitelink data from. I will look at that in a deeper way now.

    Q: Any tips for local with Maps/GP?/+Local whatever we call it now ;) I find often with you only get 35-36 characters for Title tag and usually they are serving up the Title Tag from the Places page on the last 2 results in the 7-pack.

  10. Justin says:

    Matt

    That’s a really nice article and reflects what we’ve been seeing at Wordtracker.

    Justin

  11. Amanda says:

    Thought you’d find this interesting- maybe only the first 12 words in a page title matter, regardless of where they are located (front/back of title)? http://www.seomofo.com/experiments/serp/google-snippet-09.html

  12. That’s actually been true since at least the fall of 2004, when I ran a similar (but very informal) test, messing around with the number of words and characters in a title tag.

    I’m not sure how much it actually proves though (and I wasn’t then, either). All of the title gets indexed, and the page may be returned for a search on the word in the title. It just won’t be returned for an intitle: search for that word. Does that mean that the word counts toward relevance, but it doesn’t carry the weight that a word in the title would, even though it’s in the title, or does it simply mean that the amount of data Google uses for an intitle: search is more limited than the amount of data they’ll index from a title element?

    http://www.raisemyrank.com/articles/11-test.htm
    http://www.raisemyrank.com/articles/11-test-2.htm
    http://www.raisemyrank.com/articles/11-test-3.htm

  13. Sunny says:

    Hi, Great article!

    I understand that if a title tag is too long then google may start amending this, but what if it is too short and only contains say 2 words.. has anyone seen an example of this?

    I recently had an issue where Google kept adding our two main keywords at the end of every title tag, it assumed the keywords were the brand name, any thoughts on this?

    Thanks

    • Matt McGee says:

      Sunny, that doesn’t surprise me. I think Google’s approach applies to title tags that are either short or long. Bottom line is that Google is going to rewrite it in whatever way that it thinks is best for searchers.

  14. Benu says:

    Matt, Great post. As a rule now, location based business should add name of the business at the beginning and keyword associated with geo towards the end. Let me know if you feel it is a good rule to follow. Also, what is your take on business located in Suburb. Most of the volume of searches are for city center. For example, hotel located in Millbrae very close to San francisco. Will it be good to Say Name of the hotel + City, State near SFO..

  15. Lenny says:

    Hello Matt,

    Should we shorten long titles (over 70 characters) of old posts ?

    Thanks

    Lenny

  16. Katie Keith says:

    When doing competitor keyword analysis for our web design clients, I have also noticed that the highest ranking sites often don’t use the keyword in the title tag. This has definitely increased in the last year.

    • Erik says:

      I’ve seen the same thing Katie. I found this article while looking for similar cases that other people had found as ive noticed it more and more over the last year. Google is definitely giving more credit to quality of the content than the quantity of keywords used in title/content- I dont think the title tag is gone by any means but the content needs to back up the title much better than it would have had to 12 – 18 months ago.

  17. Julia says:

    Great article – wanted to know if there are any “updated” thoughts on this. I am seeing inconsistences on when google rewrites the title tag. Still seeing a lot of keyword stuffed title tags.

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