Writing HTML Title Tags For Humans, Google & Bing

I generally enjoy John Gruber’s writings, but today he’s dishing out SEO advice about HTML title tags. Some of it is bad advice. So with respect, here’s how I’d suggest you write page titles in a way that can please search engines and humans alike.

What Is An HTML Title Tag?

Let me go back to the basics. The title tag is a section of HTML code that every page should have. It declares what the page’s title is.

For example, here’s the title tag for the Search Engine Land article I wrote earlier this year, Some SEO Advice For Bill Gates:

The <TITLE> tag appears within the <HEAD> section of a web page. Other content may also appear in the header area, including meta description tags, the canonical tag, special tags for Facebook and much more. In my example above, I’ve eliminated much of what’s in the head area so that we can focus on the title tag.

How Is An HTML Title Tag Used?

Every page can have an HTML title tag, but how that tag is used can vary. Most browsers will show the title in the reverse bar at the top of the browser window. Below, I’ve showed how that “Some SEO Advice For Bill Gates” article that I mentioned appears in Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox:

Chrome is also shown in the illustration above. Rather than use the title in the reverse bar, Chrome uses it at the top of the “tab” for each page it displays. The others also do this in addition to using the title at the top of the browser window overall.

Title Tags Versus Headlines

The HTML title tag is often used by many blogging systems and other content management software as the main headline for a web page. Again, here’s that page I used as an example:

You can see how the HTML title tag is also being used as the main headline on the page.

This is common, but it is not required. For example, here’s a recent New York Times article that attracted much attention about a merchant who believed that being mean to customers was helping him rank better on Google:

Notice how the title tag, which is used at the top of the browser window, is different from the main text on the page.

Title Tags For Bookmarking

When you bookmark or make a page a favorite in your browser, the title of the page will be suggested as name of the bookmark (generally, you can edit the page name before saving). Here are the two articles I’ve mentioned above, as bookmarked in Firefox:

The title tag will often be suggested as the text used to record a page with social sharing sites, such as Delicious:

Here’s another example at Digg:

Title Tags As Displayed By Search Engines

Search engines make use of title tags in two ways: for display purposes and for ranking purposes. In John Gruber’s article today, Title Junk, he gets upset about title tags that produce a bad display or readability situation. He’s correct, on some fronts. He also suggests that title tags play no role in ranking. He’s dead wrong, in that regard.

Let’s talk about display first. Below is a search on Google for seo advice:

You can see my article listed. The headline of the listing matches the page’s HTML title tag. In most cases, the listing will do this. Not always.

When Google Ignores Your Title Tag

In some relatively rare cases, Google will make use of the Open Directory’s headline for a page. Similarly, if a page lacks a title tag, Google may create a listing title by looking at common text used to link to that page. Additionally, Google sometimes decides to craft a listing’s title by combining text from a title tag, text from links, text from the page, the domain name or other methods that it decides is best.

As a site owner, I hate this. I want Google to use whatever page title I give it. Google argues back that it has to be creative, especially in cases where people have failed to provide titles. I’ve argued in the past that as a solution, Google should provide site owners with some type of “yes, I’m really really sure” meta tag to declare that they absolutely want their pages titles to be used. I’ve not won that argument. But, at least, Google will obey the NOODP meta tag and not use Open Directory titles, if you object to that.

Good Titles Versus Too Many Keywords

One of the things Gruber is upset with are titles that seem “sloppy” or filled with “junk.” Perhaps the best example of overload is MSNBC, which has this title tag:

Breaking News, Weather, Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports, Politics, Travel, Science, Technology, Local, US & World News – msnbc.com

Gruber writes:

Who are these title-junk keywords aimed at? Google? Do you they really think that putting “breaking news” in their home page title makes it more likely that Google will rank them higher when people search for that term? It’s like they’re taking advice out of an SEO book from 1995.

I’ve actually been doing SEO since 1995 and writing advice about it since 1996. I can tell you that my advice from back then wasn’t to shove in a billion keywords like this. From April 1996:

Focus on the two or three keywords that you think are most crucial to your site, then ensure those words are both in your title and mentioned early on your web page.

So I agree. I think MSBC is overdoing it. It has 12 different news topics that the home page’s title tag is targeted. Really, it should focus on only two or three topics. But I’ll get back to this more when I talk about ranking issues.

How long is too long? Google and Bing don’t really care. If you have a long title, they’ll simply truncate the excess, like they do in this case for a search on breaking news, which brings up MSNBC:

Some, like Gruber, may feel having a title cut short like this is ugly. Some searchers might not care. I’ve never seen studies that say one way or the other. Personally, I’d prefer titles that fit. But ultimately, I’m not writing my own titles to precisely fit within the space that Google and Bing will display (about 70 characters at both places).

Site Name In The Title Or Not?

Gruber also offers suggestions on what he views as the only sensible formula for creating page titles. These are to show:

  • Name Of Site –Headline
  • Headline — Name Of Site

I’ll provide an simpler formula:

  • Show what you think is important to your potential reader

Do you think that your readers need to know the name of your site on each and every page? I don’t. Not for my site. That’s why we don’t put Search Engine Land into the title of all of our articles.

For example, here’s a search on Google for pages from Search Engine Land about SEO. Most of these are articles, features and columns that we’ve written. None of those types of pages carry our site name in the title tag:

Search Engine Land has what I believe to be a good brand in the search marketing space. I suppose putting our name in the title of each article might further resonate with those who do a search at Google and know our brand. However, I also know that people will also look at the entire listing, and the name of our site is included in our URL.

More important, I expect many people who search for the content we provide do NOT know our brand. They’re new to search marketing, and I think a short, focused title will be more likely to attract them to visit. So, in our case, we leave off our site name.

That’s not in every case. For example, we have a number of guides about popular search topics. In those cases, we deliberately want our brand to be known, so we include that in the page title:

Over at the New York Times, that publication clearly feels having its brand in the title is important, which is why you see it in its titles, tucked at the end:

In the last listing, “NYTimes.com” is in the title. It just doesn’t show, because it’s at the end, and the title gets cut off.

Ultimately, You Decide What’s Best About Titles

What exactly you put into your title ultimately depends on what you decide is best — not what I personally think is best, not what John Gruber personally thinks is best. No one will know your site and your visitors better than you (assuming you’re a diligent publisher). Advice can be good, but advice from afar can also lack specific insight.

Going back to Gruber’s advice, the idea of some type of template that you use for most of your pages does make sense. Do you want your site to be listed in the title or not? Make a deliberate decision about that. List it first or last? There have been debates on what’s best in this regard (or even if it’s required) that go back for years. There’s no definitive answer.

I will suggest that when it comes to home pages, they’re special. If you’re a known brand, in a space where there may be brand confusion, especially consider adding the word “official” to your title tag. Yes, others could pretend to be official as well. But they usually don’t, and you’ll usually come first.

While adding “official” doesn’t make sense for every page, it does make sense that every home page should be focused around one to three key terms that you hope the entire web site will be found for. Your most important terms. They go in your title. They do help with ranking. Leaving them out is like handing out a blank business card.

Yes, Virginia, Title Tags Do Help With Rankings

I’ve been writing about SEO for nearly 15 years now. I’ve moderated around 50 “Ask The Search Engine” sessions at conferences with reps from the major search engines. Consistently, from SEOs and search reps alike, title tags are consistently said to and found to have a ranking impact, when this question comes up.

For example, keyword in title tags were found to be the fourth most important SEO factor in SEOmoz’s ranking factors survey in 2009. Google has written about the importance of titles on its Webmaster Central Blog. Google also offers an SEO Starter Guide. I’ll get back to more advice from it in a moment — as well as a link to it — but the guide says:

A title tag tells both users and search engines what the topic of a particular page is.

The tag tells users about the topic from a display perspective. It tells search engines from a relevancy ranking perspective. A descriptive title helps the search engine know what the page is about, which in turn can help the page rank for the key terms in the title.

The title tag is not the only thing Google uses. It quite famously has over 200 signals that it contemplates. Bing similarly has a complicated recipe or “algorithm” that it uses to analyze which pages should rank tops. Yes, pages will rank well even if the key terms are not in their titles. But having key terms within a page title can help, and it is recommended as a good SEO practice.

Getting Focused

Going back to MSNBC, a good SEO practice would mean breaking its title tag down to the most important topics, maybe:

Breaking News, Politics, Sports & More From MSNBC.com

If MSNBC wants to be found for other topics like “weather” or “business,” it has other pages within the site that can do the heavy lifting for those topics.

Then again, while Gruber might not like how MSNBC’s long title looks and makes an assumption that having “breaking news” in the title doesn’t help MSNBC rank, the site IS showing up for that term:

In fact, EVERY page in the top results for breaking news makes use of those words in their page titles.

Of course, you could argue that it’s natural that the most relevant sites for breaking news would use those words in their page titles. If they suddenly dropped those words, maybe they’d retain their ranking. Maybe. Or maybe not. But when Google — and Bing — and scores of SEOs tell you that title tags matter, why on earth wouldn’t you create a short, descriptive title for your home page that encompasses what it’s about?

If Books Get Good Titles…

So when Gruber writes:

Surely, the name of the site should be the first thing (and in many cases, the only thing) in the title of the home page.

I have to disagree. It’s like saying that the title of a book should only be the author’s name. A web site is like a book. It deserves a good title, just like a good book does.

By the way, while I’d agree that MSNBC might want to trim its title to be more specific — which could then include having its brand showing — consider this search for MSNBC itself:

Notice the title is “msnbc.com” — but this is the exact same home page that has that long title before. What’s up? This is one of those cases where Google is trying to do the right thing. I searched for MSNBC. Google has changed the title that it shows for the page, probably using patterns of how people link to it, to present a title that Google believes is most relevant.

Some Closing Advice

Goodness knows there are plenty of people who dismiss everything about SEO as junk. SEO is not junk, and people who continue to have that type of knee-jerk reaction are simply ignorant of how search engines work.

If someone cannot distinguish between spam and SEO, if they cannot distinguish between good SEO practices and going overboard, if they write off all of SEO off as nonsense, my advice is to safely ignore anything they have to say. They are effectively web bigots, and you should treat their advice as you would the rantings of any bigot.

I don’t get the impression that Gruber is such a bigot. I think he understands there are good SEO practices and is justifiably upset at some excesses. As I said, I agree with much of that.

However, writing off the importance of title tags period is bad advice. That takes me back to that SEO starter guide from Google (PDF format & the image at the top of this article comes from it). It’s from Google! Unless you buy into a conspiracy that Google is deliberately trying to mislead publishers about the importance of title tags, I think it’s good advice to follow. Here’s what the guide has to say about title tags:

Accurately describe the page’s content
Choose a title that effectively communicates the topic of the page’s content.
Avoid:
  • choosing a title that has no relation to the content on the page
  • using default or vague titles like “Untitled” or “New Page 1″
Create unique title tags for each page
Each of your pages should ideally have a unique title tag, which helps Google know how the page is distinct from the others on your site. using a single title tag across all of your site’s pages or a large group of pages
Avoid:
  • using a single title tag across all of your site’s pages or a large group of pages
Use brief, but descriptive titles
Titles can be both short and informative. If the title is too long, Google will show only a portion of it in the search result.
Avoid:
  • using extremely lengthy titles that are unhelpful to users
  • stuffing unneeded keywords in your title tags

It’s basically what Gruber wants — short titles that are relevant to the page. No disagreement there. But if you want to “trust the Googlebot to figure it out,” as Gruber writes, then you should also trust that Googlebot does indeed want some help in doing that figuring. That means being descriptive, even on your home page.

Heck, if Google said “Google: The World’s Leading Search Engine” in the title tag of its home page, maybe it would finally start ranking itself for those words!

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | How To: SEO | SEO: Titles & Descriptions | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Nice title-tag article, Danny. Who is Gruber and what makes him an expert on titles?

    I also think that titles should be distinguishable, scannable, and look clickable (when they are used as a clickable element on a page, such as a SERP). Titles are a navigational element, too. See http://searchengineland.com/keywords-text-links-navigation-design-59144

    The brand or company name is not the only item that should be in an (X)HTML title tag on a home page. A lot of people search for the term “homepage” or “home page.” Sometimes a trademarked tagline is also good to put on a home page’s title tag. Or, if the tagline isn’t very descriptive of the site as a whole, a brief summary as to what users/searchers will find.

    Web pages aren’t the only “documents” that should have titles, BTW. But that might be lost on Gruber at this particular point. I wonder where his information source(s) about titles is.

  • http://javaunmoradi.com/blog Javaun Moradi

    Well said as usual Danny. I work at a media company and when I conduct training (often), I spend most of my time teaching the importance of good titles. Good titles are important *everywhere*, but they are especially important at media companies. Most websites have a different set of SEO challenges — notably they lack a lot of high value content upon which to build search authority. Most media companies have the opposite problem: they have tons of content and don’t spend the time to get the credit they deserve.

    I tell our writers and editors that if they want to control their own destiny (and everyone wants their work to be read), a good title is 80% of what *they* can do to help themselves in search. More importantly, it’s something that adds little to no time in their hectic day. The reality is that if an SEO change takes more than a few minutes, they’ll never do it for every one of the thousands of stories we write each month.

    Titles are the biggest single on-page component they can influence for SEO as well as for other vehicles like viral news sites (Digg, Reddit, etc.) and social media (FB, Twitter). This is a crucial understanding, because it’s impossible to quantify the traffic you may lose in social media when you use bland or keyword stuffed titles to strictly appeal to search engines.

    Above all, I tell them to write great titles that work for humans and that stand on their own. In the fragmented and syndicated world wide web, the title may be all that a person sees when deciding what to click. If titles don’t stand on their own, they don’t work for search, news sites, social media, or even email links.

    I showed everyone how search engines work, showed them some tactics they can use in titles, from pure keyword relevance to subtle keyword mention to no title SEO at all. Each story has a different appeal, and I want the writers and homepage editors to understand the tools and nuance at their disposal. Ultimately, I think SEO is just another (beautiful) part of the craft of online writing. A good writer can almost always have it all in a title, including: compelling (even snarky) human appeal, good SEO relevance, and clear and literal communication of the story subject matter.

    Finally, one word on the NY Times use of an alternate on screen headline and HTML Title (the blue browser frame title). We have this same capability, and it gives us a lot of flexibility. They don’t like on screen headlines to wrap to two lines, so they sometimes have to omit key words on screen, but the optional second field for HTML title let’s them include the full title. Editorial loves this because the HTML Title (as you mention) goes not only to Google but also Facebook and other external sites, where it may not have the same context as say the NPR Movie Reviews page. They can sneak in a few extra words in the external title to make it clear that their story is a movie review . But on NPR.org, they can be less literal in the on screen headline, since our site will give added context. So the second title actually gives them more editorial freedom on sight and more flexibility off. I do caution them to make sure the on screen headline and HTML Title aren’t too different, because it risks exactly what that NY TImes story above shows: the two titles seem like different stories. If I read part of that story and then came back to try to find it in Google, I probably wouldn’t click on it because the HTML Title would be so different from what I remembered seeing on the page. Just my .02.

    Great article. Clearly, you’ve hit a nerve as this is something I really believe in and preach.

    Javaun (Search guy at NPR).

  • http://rosmarin-search-marketing.com Myron Rosmarin

    For a search result to be “highly clickable,” it must quickly communicate relevance and credibility. A title tag is an excellent opportunity to do that. That is why I support the “headline – site name” structure. The headline can quickly tell the searcher “this is what you’re looking for” while the site name can communicate “this is a site you trust and respect.”

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Hm. All poor Mr. Gruber seeks is “a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. That is, he wants people to create title tags that make sensible bookmarks.

    I do often find myself editing my bookmarks to make my title tags more sensible.

    Google’s reliance upon title tags for relevance scoring is no more sensible than asking that girl scouts raise money by selling cookies. It’s a signal that can be ignored or used at a search engine’s discretion, but it should be mistaken for a standard or even a best practice.

    In an indexable Web that supposedly uses 100s of factors, people should not be admonished for using titles that do (or do not) conform to any one person’s expectations of what is best for Google.

    Mr. Gruber seems to look down his nose at some of the SEO techniques that major news organizations are applying. Frankly, after scanning some of the bad examples he plucked out of the SERPs, I should say he needs a longer nose — some of the news organizations DO practice atrocious SEO titling..

    But then, that’s just my opinion.

    And in an industry where there are no standards, no one’s opinion matters more or less than anyone else’s.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    WROTE: “but it should be mistaken for a standard or even a best practice”

    MEANT TO WRITE: “but it should NOT be mistaken for a standard or even a best practice”

  • http://zerman.net/content.html michaelzed

    “It’s not about him, or me or you. Or about bookmarks. It’s about many, if not all, English language users.”

    Earlier today a colleague in New Mexico wrote and asked my opinion of Gruber’s piece. And then a while later the SELand daily feed arrived with Danny’s response. Ta.

    >I just thought you would naturally have a reaction to the SEO stuff.

    I do.

    It’s not about him, or me or you. Or about bookmarks. It’s about many, if not all, English language users.

    1. The two biggest uses of the web are for search and email, not bookmarks.

    2. Typography and proofreading considerations (em dashes, double colons, etc) are perfectly fine and important in long-form (or even short form) writing/journalism. They are much less important in the world of website tile tags and SEOness, unless they impede the reading.

    3. Different people read … anything, everything … very differently, and his concerns are unique to … his concerns.

    4. “Even worse, from an SEO perspective, is that Google, and all other major search engines, use web page titles as the name for pages in search results.”

    This is a crap response, from someone who should know better as I presume he’s a longstanding user of databases and info searches – two years at BareBones, I note, plus science at uni. It’s called “metadata” and it was called that well before wubbleU, wubbleU, wubbleU and that’s how folk interrogated private datasources.

    5. As to bookmarks, use them if you like, but don’t expect the world of date retrieval and info-finding to accede to one’s (JG) wish as a very personal and idiosyncratic use of datamining techniques.

    6. His statement “Write them for humans, not search engine spiders.” presupposes every writer of metadata has a similar idea/perception of how people search and find – absolutely not true.

    7. As to large newssites having fairly crappy metadata, I have no argument, generally.

    8. “It’s the user(s) stoopid”, and they’re not all the same as him (JG), me or you and nor do they want the same setup as me or you or him or whomsoever.

    My main concern is “task completion” for users, viewers, readers and he offers a very specific idea of how the web is used by “everyone” ie me, JG.

    [See, as an alternative view about web useage, Gerry McGovern’s “The Stranger’s Long Neck”, a response, inter alia, to Chris Anderson’s Long Tailism, chapter one at:

    http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/sln-ch1.htm

    McGovern bio at:

    http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/index.htm

    Gruber’s piece is not very useful John, IMHO.

    Cheers

    Michael Z

  • John Elcock

    Spot on advice Danny and love the final piece of insight! For Google, meta titles are clearly important for ranking specific phrases against individual pages. In a crowded SERP we also use a crafted title and description to help users differentiate our sites from more generic direct news or local listings sites that can clutter p1. This is the user focus that Javaun also talks about and I guess is a traffic rather than ranking factor.

  • http://www.onlinesales.co.uk/ Liam Delahunty

    Some time ago I wrote a bookmarklet ( http://www.onlinesales.co.uk/seo-bookmarklet/ – the JS itself is here: http://www.onlinesales.co.uk/seo/bookmarklet/seo-bookmarklet.php ) that can be used to help with tuning titles / headings.

  • http://www.visionefx.net Rick Vidallon

    Glad to see you mentioned branding in meta titles. I like to call this on-page visual branding. Forming your title tag in this way helps to call more attention to your website listing within the search page itself. This helps you to stand out in the crowd.

  • PIXELTechnologies

    I know this is not the good post, but the other post is comment locked, I would like to mention that Bill Gates Blog listened to your post and are now #1 on Google. Good job again!

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    “I know this is not the good post, but the other post is comment locked, I would like to mention that Bill Gates Blog listened to your post and are now #1 on Google. Good job again!”

    Except the blog is still not ranking well for the much more highly trafficked term “bill gates”, where it SHOULD have been positioned instead of for “bill gates blog”/ Danny’s advice to Bill Gates was a major SEO fail in that respect.

  • http://www.alwaysonmessage.com/ Gids

    I’ve asked this question on LI but haven’t had a conclusive answer – I think I probably asked it of the wrong crowd!
    Danny, I hope you don’t mind me asking it here…
    Given that all three terms are in the correct order, which do people think is a better title tag:
    A) Office Design | Office Furniture | Office Interiors
    B) Office Design, Furniture & Interiors
    i.e. does exact match trump having two less words or vice versa?

  • http://www.adamsofineti.com Ádám Sofineti

    I really liked the way you compared a page title to a book title. Just as a good title will influence the position of that page on Google, the same way as in a bookstore, you might end up getting a click from a visitor who’e yes were caught by the title.

  • http://This1That1Whatever.com/ David Wong

    I understand that superfluous words in the title can garner dilution penalty from Google. i.e. better to have fewer keywords that are to the point. For my website, I make the title short and succinct but with enough to tell the user what the page is mainly about.

  • http://www.gearyseo.com Ramsay Crooks

    SEO title tags are imperative for search and not only help the search engine rank pages, but also allow users to navigate to what type of information they are looking for. To back up the guidelines from Google, they also report duplicate title tags as errors in their Webmaster Tools crawl. I don’t think they’d consider it an error to have dupe title tags on your site unless they considered them relatively important. And most of us know that adjustments to authoritative pages’ titles can have a significant impact on rankings. I don’t know about John Gruber, but title tags to me, serve as one of the best on page opportunities to help rankings, though, the purpose is a bit defeated when people skew their tag with irrelevant keywords. When you have a bit more room in the tag and it won’t cannibalize keyword optimization, it’s always fun to attempt to make that title more readable and enticing when a spark of “literary brilliance” presents itself to you.

  • http://www.trafficnymphomaniac.com/weekly_traffic_and_income_secrets2.php Robert A. Kearse

    Great article Danny:

    Since Google uses the title tag for its search engine listings
    it is highly beneficial to follow this formula for tile tags:

    Start with KEYWORD — end with BENEFIT

    Obviosly, the keyword at the sart helps with search engine
    ranking, but the BENEFIT will motivate the searcher to
    clcik through to your site.

  • http://MSprague.com Mark Sprague

    The importance of the TITLE in search relevancy has not changed since the 60′s. There is not a search engine on this planet, regardless if it is web-based or enterprise-based that does not use the title of a document or webpage as a strong indicator of relevance.

    If you as a business owner are in the market for SEO expertise, I suggest that you take a little time, and read up on how search engines really work (start with TF/IDF) – you will find that this self education will allow you to more effectively deal with ambiguous SEO advice.

    Mark Sprague

  • alexbotkin

    I’m chief cook and bottlewasher for a very small site in a competitive online retail market – Woodworking. We have a fraction .009 of the leader unique visitors based on Doubleclick/Google data, but we are currently 12th (SEOChecker http://www.seocentro.com ) for a keyword that is important to us. I believe this is primarily because it is part of our title, and the three-word phrase is repeated in whole and in parts in other areas of the text on the homepage.

    Before I re-worked the homepage we were in the 30′s in rank.

    Trust me it isn’t because of our looks.

    However, on Google/Yahoo we don’t even rank. Not sure what to do about it.

    Alex

  • http://www.facebook.com/GuruShowStoper Dabbang Guru

    one more best website for seo tutorials

    freetutorialsseo.blogspot.com 

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