Title tags are the nuclear warheads of content marketing: While they contain only a very small mass — roughly 65 characters — they pack an unbelievable punch. Because of title tags’ enormous impact on SEO, social sharing and conversion, content marketers should know how they work, and how to put them to work.
Definition of title tags
A title tag is a piece of meta information required for all HTML/XHTML documents. It should be thought of as the “title” of a web page, describing the overall theme of its content.
Theoretically, title tags can be of any length. However, length and composition are greatly influenced by the fact that Google displays only the first 65 characters or so in search engine results. Later we’ll discuss composition in detail, but for now just remember that each title tag on a website or blog should be unique, and completely relevant to the content of the page.
Besides appearing in search engine results, title tags are displayed in many other high-visibility locations, including in browser tabs and social media shares.
Title tags are the most important onsite ingredients for SEO because they explain to Google and other search engines what each page is about. Explain well and your pages will enjoy higher rankings; explain poorly and Google won’t know how to match up your page to search queries.
The many faces of a title tag
To illustrate where title tags appear, let’s look at a recent post from my blog, The Difference Between B2B and B2C Marketing.
The title tag for this page is:
The Difference between B2B and B2C Marketing | Straight North Internet Marketing Blog
And here is a behind-the-scenes look at what the title tag looks like in the page source:
(The page source can be found by going to your browser’s “view source” option in tools.)
Here it is in a browser tab:
In a tweet:
And, finally, on Facebook:
Best practices for composing title tags
High visibility. In all of these examples (with the possible exception of the browser tab), the title tags are visually prominent and quickly attract the attention of the user. I’ll refer to them as I talk about best practices for composing title tags:
- Keywords. Title tags should display the primary keyword phrase for the page, and they should appear at the beginning of the tag. In my example, the long-tail phrase I optimized for was “difference between B2B and B2C marketing.” Packing several keyword phrases into a tag (keyword stuffing) is always a bad practice; however, if you want to include two or three short keyword phrases that are relevant, that is OK.
- Character count. Keep in mind that Google only displays the title tag’s first 65 characters (sometimes less, sometimes more) in search engine results. Anything beyond that will be truncated: As you can see in my earlier example, my title tag’s entire branding message was invisible — but that’s OK because the name of our firm won’t influence searchers. Were our agency a household name, the tag’s branding message would influence click-throughs, making me better off with fewer keywords and more branding in the first 65 characters.
- To brand or not to brand? As I just suggested, big brands can surely increase click-throughs by emphasizing the brand in the title tag. And while I used to be a proponent of putting a branding message on every title tag regardless of the level of brand recognition, these days it is better to be selective.
Best practice for inserting a branding message is to position it at the end, separated from the thematic message by a separator element. I like the pipe bar, but a dash will do. (Note: Do NOT use underscores as space separators.) Here are examples of properly styled title tags — with and without branding.Twitt
(The second set of examples is interesting because the first uses conversion-oriented composition, while the second uses SEO-oriented composition. We’ll come back to this in a minute.)
Reasons to leave branding out. As marketers, our first impulse is to brand. However, keep in mind the branding message does not typically display in a search, and also clutters up social sharing.
1. Tactical issues. For instance, take another look at my tweet — you’ll notice how much real estate our branding message takes up. To maximize retweets, I should shorten it up, so it looks something like this:
Fewer characters make it easier for people to retweet, and increase the likelihood that retweets will not be truncated.
2. Strategic issues. More broadly, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ already provide businesses with constant and consistent branding in the design of the pages themselves; any content you publish on your Facebook Page is displayed within the context of your firm’s branded Facebook Page, etc. Furthermore, if a continual stream of title tag branding flows through a firm’s social media shares, it could be regarded as excessive self-promotion, or even spam.
3. SEO issues. Title tags should always be unique. If the same branding message appears in every tag, there is a chance that Google will regard all of your tags as containing duplicate content. I think Google is smart enough to distinguish black hat SEO tactics from legitimate branding techniques, but when it comes to the pursuit of rankings, I believe in “better safe than sorry.”
The above are three good reasons, in my view, to limit branding in title tags to pages where it really makes sense, such as a site’s Home page or About page.
What do you think?
SEO vs. conversion in title tag composition
This is an extremely important issue that I touched on earlier. Do you want a provocative title tag to persuade people to click through, or a keyword-rich title tag to impress Google and boost your rankings?
To determine this, first ask yourself how people will discover your content. Answering this question helps you determine whether to go for click throughs or rankings. If your marketing strategy involves SEO, it’s obviously imperative to stress the right keywords in each title tag. However, be aware of reasons why this does not always hold.
In some situations, content is likely to generate more traffic from social sharing than search. For instance, from Twitter I regularly click through to blog posts about keyword research because a clever title sparks my curiosity. Such posts are not apt to rank well for the highly competitive term “keyword research,” so the bloggers are wise to concentrate on social traffic generation rather than beat their heads against the wall trying to move up from Google page 30 to page 29.
Consider, too, that Google is aggressively personalizing search results. This means that when users do a Google search, they will be seeing more and more content from within their social networks, giving us another reason to favor conversion over keywords in title tag composition. In my view we are heading toward an environment where social connectivity, rather than keywords, has greater bearing on search engine visibility.
Finally, consider the beauty of long-tail search terms. The ideal situation is when the search term and the conversion term are one in the same. I picked the “B2B versus B2C” blog post to illustrate this very point. For blog posts and product category sub-pages in particular, look for long-tail phrases that your content can address, such as:
- Definition of…
- Difference between…
- How does… work
- How to…
Building title tag content around these themes will generate human interest and search engine rankings — a great way to get the best of both worlds.
Title tags versus h1 tags
Bloggers sometimes use the word “title” loosely. We’ve already talked about the SEO definition of title tags, but web pages and blog posts also contain (or should contain) a single, unique h1 tag, which is something different.
The h1 tag is the page title that appears in text on the page. It carries some SEO weight, but much less than it did a few years ago. Most blog CMS platforms default to making the title tag the h1 tag, which is just what happens on my marketing post:
Strategic options for title and h1 tags
Most CMS platforms allow you to create an h1 tag that is different from the title tag before publication, and changing the composition of an h1 and/or title tag after publication is perfectly safe in terms of SEO.
In light of this, bloggers and SEO specialists frequently alter these tags in an effort to generate conversions and rankings. Common techniques include:
- Composing a keyword-rich title tag to optimize search, and composing a provocative h1 title to generate clicks.
- Using a single, provocative title/h1 tag on publication to capitalize on an initial surge in social shares, and then rewriting the tags later with keywords to maximize rankings.
As for the first technique, I see less and less reason for it, as it is the title tag, rather than the h1 tag, that typically displays in social shares. If anything, the title tag should be optimized for conversion.
As for the second technique, this makes much more sense, since older blog posts tend to be shared less frequently over time.
As far as creating different content for a page’s title and h1 tags — I’m not a big fan, and the reason for my concern is user experience. If I click through a link displayed in connection with the page’s title tag, and the next thing I see is a destination page with a different title, I get confused. Did I click through to the right page? Does the content fulfill the promise of the link? Consistency is extremely important; any content disconnects that slow a user down or create doubt will increase bounces.
Generally speaking, uniform title and h1 tags are very important for blog posts. Greater flexibility is possible for site pages. For instance, a product page could be organized as follows:
- Title tag: Imported Beer | ABC Brewers (To hit the top keyword and communicate branding)
- H1 option 1: Low Prices on Imported Beer (To pick up a long-tail term and eliminate superfluous branding)
- H1 option 2: The Best Imported Beer in Wisconsin! (To convey a sales message)
Five final title tag tips:
- Length. Avoid over long title tags. They hog too much real estate in social shares.
- Indexed length. At the same time, keep in mind that while Google may not display more than 65 characters, they index title tags of any length (within reason). Therefore, un-displayed title tag text can still influence how Google ranks a particular page.
- Brevity. It’s OK to use fewer than 65 characters, but make sure you give Google and humans enough information to grasp the essence of what the page’s content is all about.
- Consistent style. For websites especially, you make the best impression on users when title tags are styled consistently. If, for instance, you use sentence case here and title case there, you’ll give users the impression that your site is haphazard and unsophisticated. This impression will quickly extend to your business.
- Remain relevant. By all means update your site’s title tags as your keyword strategy changes. However, be sure to update page content as well, in order to keep it fully relevant to the new tag.
Hopefully this was a thorough and useful analysis of how to optimize your title tags for better SEO results for your content. If there’s anything that’s still confusing, let us know in the comments below.