SEO Title Tags: Best Practices, Rules, and Gray Areas

There is a subtle art form to crafting the ideal title tag for a web page. It is the first impression of your website to both users and Google alike. And like any other first impression, if executed poorly, can take some effort to correct. In this post, I want to talk through not only some best practices and rules but also entertain some grayer areas when crafting title tags.

What are Title Tags and Why are They Important?

First and foremost, a title tag, or meta title tag is an HTML element. It’s appropriately named because this HTML element specifies the title of the page and serves to describe the page’s content concisely.

Title tags function in a few different capacities:

  • First, Google displays the title tag as the blue, clickable headlines within search engine results pages (SERPs).

Google displays the title tag as the blue, clickable headlines within search engine results pages

  • Second, they show as the title in web browser tabs. This comes in handy when a user has multiple tabs open.

Title Tags show as the title in web browser tab.

  • Finally, external sites, such as social media, use title tags. Different social media outlets have their own criteria for length and how it is displayed, and some even have their own unique meta tags to call out that information.

Social media site use title tags and often have their own HTML title tag element.

Google also uses title tags when crawling a page as the first indication of what a page is about.

With that in mind, it becomes crucial to understand how best to construct this foundational piece of our SEO strategy.

Ideal Title Tag Length

We’re going to start things off with a little bit of the gray area I mentioned earlier. Title tag length is a bit of a moving target. Search engines change or adjust the rules somewhat frequently so make sure to stay up to date on things. That said, there is a general range we can aim for and find success. A title tag between 50-60 characters has shown to be the ideal length. More to the point, an ideal length for a title tag would be no longer than 600 pixels. The reason it makes more sense to speak in terms of pixels as opposed to character length is not all characters have the same pixel width. A 40-character title with four uppercase “w’s” might longer than a 50-character title featuring multiple uppercase “i’s.” I bring this up not to be nit-picky but to keep in mind because, at a certain point, search engines will truncate your title. The shortening of your title doesn’t affect your ranking, but it might impact your ability to draw the click if the meat of your title is toward the end.

Google truncates Title Tags in Search Engine Results Pages if they are too long.

Optimal Title Tag Content

Keywords: Which and Where

Now we can get into the nitty-gritty of what to include in our title. Keywords. We want the most relevant and pertinent keywords in the title. Remember, this is the first impression and best way to tell Google what the page is all about.

Before we get excited and start stuffing the title with keywords, keep in mind that a user is less likely to click on a result that doesn’t sound natural to them. Also, search engines have become very intuitive and can detect “keyword stuffing” and can actually penalize your ranking based off using what’s become something of a schemey way to win.

In the title tag, the order of the keywords in a title matters. It’s best practice to lead with the most relevant terms and then feature the rest in descending order. If your brand is a key selling point, it may be worth including in the title to draw the click over competition. If you choose to include branding in your title though, it’s typically a good idea to have it listed further down in rank so as not to dilute the message of the page’s purpose. Is the page about your brand or about a specific product your brand offers? Take that into consideration when it comes to brand inclusion in titles. If your brand isn’t a key selling point, you might not need it in the title. In fact, in most cases branding is excluded.

How to Say It

Another gray area to bring up is what kind of voice to use within a title. There are typically two pools of thought on this: a natural voice or using more of a list format.

  • Natural or headline: A strength of using a more natural tone in title tags is it allows you to express a brand voice to connect emotionally with a user. This could set your page apart from the competition in the SERPs. The disadvantage is that it can be difficult to word a title in a natural voice without using too many stop words. Stop words are particles, articles, prepositions, etc. used when constructing complete thoughts and sentences. Removing them might make your title nonsensical but including them takes away from valuable characters/pixels that could be better used by keywords.
  • List format: This takes advantage of hyphens and/or pipes to save space. It’s also not prone to need many of the stop words, which also saves space. It provides a clear and concise picture to both the user and Google what the page is about, and makes it easy to create unique titles for the entire site that follow a predictable and familiar pattern. The downside is that they are rather robotic and therefore don’t allow you to show your brand’s personality.

I prefer the latter method. You can show your personality in the meta description, which also shows up in SERPs, and for users who are scanning the results, a concise heading will save them from having to read an entire headline and will stand out.

Uniqueness and Avoiding Duplication in Title Tags

Every Page is Special

Each page should have a unique title tag. This might take some time, but the juice is certainly worth the squeeze. As Google crawls the site, duplicate content is a huge roadblock and can have an large impact on a page’s ranking. One big glaring red flag of duplicate content is duplicate title tags. So put in the effort to get those cleaned up.

This is easy when speaking in terms of the home page versus top category and subcategory pages, but what about when there are two similar pages? This happens a lot with product pages. There are only so many creative titles for pages about screws. Find the differentiating factor between the pages; sometimes this is a product or model number, other times it can be a feature that a user may be keying in on. Get creative and include that unique facet early in the title. This will tell Google and users why this page about self-threading screws is different than that page about galvanized steel screws.

The Relationship Between Titles and H1s

Speaking in terms of HTML, the title tag is different than the H1 on a page. In terms of purpose, the two are closely related. Both serve the purpose of informing not only the user but Google what the content of the page is about. So should the title tag and H1 match?

There are slightly differing opinions on this topic, but it mostly falls upon a spectrum ranging from “match your title tag as closely as possible to the H1 if not exact,” to “they should be unique and not even have KW crossover.” The best practice lies somewhere in the middle: Your title tag and H1 are complementary tools on the page and therefore should be used to serve the same ends, but be sure to leverage their unique qualities.

What this means is, the user should not be confused when they click your title tag in the SERPs, arrive on your page, and read the H1. The two elements don’t need to match perfectly or even contain the exact same keywords, but there should be a logical and clear correlation between them. We aren’t stuffing all the keywords in the title, so use the most relevant keyword there, and then use a different variant in the H1. Take full advantage of the opportunity you have to present the theme of the page in two different ways.

Putting It All Together

Title tags are critical to the successful ranking of a page as well as drawing the click from a user. Determine what the page is saying then put on your “user-hat,” get creative, and come up with some ideas on what will resonate with the user. It isn’t a difficult process, and by following the best practices and rules above, and testing some of the gray areas to find what works best in your niche, you can find success! Or if you feel like you need a little extra help in this department, contact Ecreativeworks and we’ll assist you in getting started.

Written by: Kyle Warner, Digital Marketing Specialist at Ecreativeworks

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