When I do an SEO audit on a webpage, one of the first things I check is the <title> tag. Why? Well, I have several reasons.In my book, the <title> tag possesses all of the following:
- It has the most SEO power of any tag on the page for establishing keyword relevance
- Its contents are the source for the blue-link text shown in the search engine results pages (SERPs)
- It’s the best place to get a concise description of the content on the page (well, that’s the theory)
In an optimal world, the last bullet above would always be true. But how many times have you seen a page come out of development sporting the <title> tag text “Page 1″ or “Home Page” or “Template” or even simply left blank? Yeah, too many times (me, too).
Given the theory that the <title> tag’s text is supposed to describe the page, search engines ascribe a huge amount of SEO value to the tag’s content – but only if it’s well-formed, contains page-relevant text, and reflects in the limited space available what the page is about (there’s not much SEO power in “Page 1″).
This one tag is a huge opportunity to properly introduce your page to both human users (via the SERPs) and to search engines (for building keyword relevance). Whatever you do, don’t let this opportunity go to waste!
Best Practices For <title> Tag Optimization
When you are reviewing the code of your webpages, look for the <title> tag. See what it says. And note the following suggestions for making it be all that it can be for both human users and search crawlers alike:
1. Use only one per page, placed within the <head> tag
I have seen many pages in my reviews that have either no <title> tag at all, have multiple <title> tags in the code, or have put the <title> tag within the <body> tag instead of the <head> tag. All of that is wrong, and negates the potential value of the <title> tag.
To keep your code valid and earn the value inherent in this key HTML element, simply keep this in mind: there should only be one <title> tag used per page, and it should only be used within the <head> section of the code.
2. Place top-performing keywords in descending order
Your <title> tag is the place to put your page’s best keywords. In fact, the value of the words used in the tag are so potent that the search engines can deem the first word the most valuable word used, the second word next most valuable, and so on in descending order. Given this knowledge, write your <title> tag text with care.
When you do your keyword research (such as with Google AdWords), note the search traffic that each word or phrase generates per month. Also note how competitive the word is as well for close calls and as tie-breakers between keywords. Then use these traffic values as a general guideline to help you create your <title> tag text in descending order of value.
That said, don’t make the <title> tag text a mere keyword dump field. No one wants to read a list of words. Write your <title> tag text in natural language, making it as compelling to the human reader as possible (after all, they are the ones who click the most interesting link in the SERP!).
3. Ensure site branding goes last
Because of the descending value of keyword relevance given to <title> tag text, unless your company branding is a more searched-for term than the individual products or services you offer (and there aren’t that many Amazon.com-like businesses out there), always put your branding last in the <title> tag text.
For pages other than your homepage, you might even leave it out of the <title> tag text if you have stronger keywords on the page competing for exposure.
4. Use no more than 70 characters, including spaces
The search engines don’t typically like long <title> tag text. After a certain length, the keyword relevance value drops to pretty much zero.
In addition, the blue-link text in the SERPs only shows so many characters before it’s truncated by an ellipses. To stay within the limits where the keywords used earn relevance value, limit the <title> tag text length to no more than 70 characters, including spaces.
I’ve noticed over time that as the search engines redesign the presentation of their SERPs, the <title> tag length at which it’s truncated by an ellipses changes.
As of this writing, after running many test queries, I found examples of 70-character <title> tags showing in both the Google and Bing SERPs, but I could not find anything longer than 65 characters in the Yahoo! SERP. Given the rate of change recently, however, that’ll probably change again tomorrow.
5. Avoid using stop words
Stop words are words that carry little to no keyword value. Your best keywords are, grammatically speaking, nouns and verbs, with adjectives in close support. But function words are your stop words, which consist of:
- articles (such as “the”, “an” and “a”)
- auxiliary verbs (such as “am”, “is”, and “can”)
- conjunctions (such as “and”, “or”, “but” and “while”)
- particles (such as “if”, “then”, and “thus”)
- prepositions (such as “of”, “that”, “on” and “for”)
- pronouns (such as “he”, “we”, “which” and “her”)
- and more
Given the limited real estate allocated for developing keyword relevance in <title> tag text, minimize the use of stop words.
But as stated earlier, <title> tag text should never be a keyword dump. Use your writing skills to maximize your keyword usage while creating a naturally compelling message. Those links don’t click themselves.
6. Reflect the most important keywords used in the page’s body text
To get the full benefit of keyword relevance for the words used in the <title> tag text, you want to reflect important words used in the body text of the page.
This tells the search engines that these words were selected for the <title> tag because they best define the overall contents of the page.
7. Keep it unique between pages
On a well-designed website, you don’t have multiple pages devoted to the same topic over and over again (duplicate content, anyone?). So don’t repeat the same <title> tag text over and over again! Ensure each page has a unique <title> text string, reflecting the targeted keywords used in that page.
8. Avoid duplicating the exact text string within the <h1> tag text
Similar to the <title> tag, the text contents of the <h1> tag also represents a description of the main theme of the page. However, while the <title> tag’s content is really only seen in the SERP’s blue link text and in the label of the tab in your browser (I’m assuming we’re all using modern desktop web browsers by now), the <h1> tag text is analogous to the on-screen headline of the page.
That’s how the search engines regard it’s intended role. As such, the contents of the <h1> tag also develop keyword relevance for the page. But by merely repeating the <title> tag text in the <h1> tag text, you’ve lost a great opportunity to develop other keywords for the page. I’m not saying both strings need to be completely different, but tag text duplication is a sad, missed opportunity.
9. Avoid keyword stuffing
Lastly, using the same word seven times in the <title> tag text is as subtle as a punch in the nose. The search engines certainly see the intended effort made here. And the algorithms are a tad more sophisticated than, “if using a keyword once is good, using it seven times must be seven times better!” I could rail about page spam for an entire column (and perhaps I will someday soon).
Suffice it to say that such a clumsy attempt to game the system is foolish, and potentially dangerous. If a keyword-stuffed <title> tag is detected, might there be other forms of page spam in the page code? It potentially raises a red flag that prompts a more detailed page review, and if additional spam problems are found, penalties could be levied.
It’s akin to claiming a $25,000 charitable tax deduction to the IRS with only a $28,000 gross income. You’re just asking for an audit. At a bare minimum, consider this perspective: keyword stuffing <title> tags wastes keyword development opportunities for other, valid terms and phrases for the page!
Tell the search engines what your pages are about. Help them understand the theme of each page by using well-conceived, powerful keywords and phrases, used in order of search usage potency, limited in length, unique to each page, reflecting text used on the page, all within the <title> tag text string. It’s really pretty simple!
Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.