Optimizing title tags is a bit like eating your vegetables. No one wants to do it, but everyone knows it’s good for you. Search engine optimization professionals universally agree that title tags are the most influential on-page element. SEOmoz recently confirmed the importance of title tags in a report that strongly correlated title tag optimization to higher rankings.
Remember that title tags are the primary text that defines a web page. They are required for all HTML documents. Search engine bots use them to help identify the content of a page. Moreover, title tags appear on search engine result pages and in browsers’ tab and page views, as shown below.
Title Tag Optimization Best Practices
The guidelines for optimizing title tags are simple. Begin the tag with the most valuable and relevant keyword phrase, use the exact keyword phrase, end with the brand, and keep the length to 70 characters or less.
The positioning of the keyword phrase relates to the importance the search engines place on text at the beginning of any element, whether it’s title tags, anchor text or body copy. Using the exact keyword phrase is important because it will be more relevant to a search for that phrase than a title tag that puts other words in the middle of the phrase. For example, if the exact phrase the title tag is targeting is “free online games for kids,” the title tag should start with that phrase rather than injecting other words like “free fun online games and puzzles for kids.”
Many sites begin their title tags with the brand, resulting in every page sending a stronger signal for the brand and a weaker signal for the phrase for which the page needs to drive organic search traffic. Sometimes the site’s content management system or shopping cart drives the order of the title tags to lead with the brand by default. In these cases, working with the vendor or in-house development teams can usually provide a way to customize title tags.
The last guideline pertaining to title tag length is related to the amount of visual real estate search engines will give to the title tag as the blue underlined link in the search results. The engines display 65-70 characters, truncating the rest with an ellipsis — a series of three periods. Because searchers won’t see those truncated characters, spammers historically crammed the ends of title tags with repetitive keywords. As such, the search engines algorithmically discount the characters past number 70 or so. If the title tag is 73 characters long and ends with the brand, the worst that will happen is that the user will see the brand truncated. Rest assured the page won’t face any sort of dampening or penalty for slight length variations unless the algorithms detect spammy behavior.
Applying Title Tag Best Practices in Real Life
Within those four simple guidelines lie many opportunities to improve or degrade the title tag’s optimization. The most obvious way to go astray is choosing the wrong keywords for title tags. Conduct methodical and thorough keyword research — the Google keyword tool is a good place to start — and use it to create a keyword map from which to optimize the site. Every page that will be optimized must be assigned its own relevant and unique keyword phrase, known as the primary keyword. Depending on the depth of the keyword research, each page my also be assigned several closely related secondary keywords. These secondary keywords lend contextual relevance and help strengthen the overall keyword theme of the page without requiring as many repetitions of the exact same word. Consequently, secondary keywords that have been chosen well can make title tags, body copy and other on-page elements read more naturally while preserving the unique and valuable keyword theme required to demonstrate relevance to the search engines.
For example, a page that offers free online games to kids might assign that page the primary keyword of “free online games for kids” based on the phrase’s 14,800 average searches a month in Google and its immediate relevance to the page’s content. This phrase would be the first words in the title tag, as well as prominently included in other SEO elements on the page. In addition, several closely related secondary keywords could be assigned to the same page:
|online games for kids||12,100 searches|
|kids games online||12,100 searches|
|kids games online for free||2,100 searches|
|kids online games||9,900 searches|
As for applying the primary and secondary keywords to create the optimal title tag, experts disagree on whether it’s best to include a single keyword in the title tag, or a mashup of related keyword phrases. Some prefer to use solely the primary keyword phrase and the brand in an attempt to laser focus the title tag:
<title>Free Online Games for Kids | MyBrand</title>
Others prefer to craft the title tag in such a way as to include several secondary keywords while keeping the prominence on the primary keyword:
<title>Free Online Games for Kids: Games Online for Free | MyBrand</title>
This example was both tough and simple, and the resulting title tag isn’t a great example of grammatical eloquence. But it serves well as an example. It was tough because the keyword phrases are all rather long at three to five words each. That makes combining them creatively while maintaining exact phrasing much more difficult. However, it was also easy because the phrases were all so similar the title tag managed to hit the four most valuable phrases exactly and the least valuable phrase, “kids online games,” in phrase match. It’s important to note that punctuation is not considered as a separator in title tags. Therefore, the section of the title tag that reads “Kids: Games Online” is still considered an exact match, even though it includes a colon.
The method of title tag optimization that works best for your site can only be determined by testing. Perhaps start with the primary keyword and brand only, as it’s easier to implement. While those title tags are live and collecting data, start working on a batch of title tags that include secondary keywords as well, paying close attention to arranging them to get the most exact keyword matches. After a month with the first set of primary keyword title tags, switch to the second set with secondary keywords for a month and analyze the impact.