BACK TO BASICS: Title Tags Deconstructed
When it comes to SEO, the page Title tag is one of the most important factors, or signals, that the search engines use to determine the relevance and importance of a particular page in relationship to a user's query. The search engines don't tell us which factors rate the highest in their algorithm, partly because if they did, it would be much easier to game the system. We can only guess on the importance of factors based on systematic testing or intuition gleaned from prolonged exposure to search engine results pages (SERPs).
Many search engine optimization experts agree that page Title tags carry particular importance. Earlier this year, SEOmoz hosted a roundtable discussion where they asked industry experts to rate and comment on the importance of many supposed SEO factors. Some factors have been explicitly identified by the search engines in order to help webmasters create stronger Web sites. However, the search engines don't go out of their way to alert the SEO community of the existence of the more subtle signals.
During this roundtable, SEOmoz came up with a list of page factors, and the one that topped them all was "Keyword Use in Title Tag". This factor was deemed to have more weight than the anchor text of inbound links, the global link popularity of a site, the age of a site and the link popularity within the site. This was surprising to many, as before reading the article, many would have assumed that the PageRank signal was the most important to ranking.
Why Page Titles?
Philosophically, the idea that the page title would be a significant factor in search engine rankings is unimpeachable. For the most part, determining important factors is a matter of experience, hypothesis, testing, inference, and balancing the small nuggets revealed to us by search engine representatives. In this case, we can infer that the Title tag should be important for ranking purposes partly because of its prominence in the engines user interface. Page titles act as the entry point and advertisement for a site in the SERPs. Therefore, titles have to be written in such a way as to encourage users to click on them. Each of the major search engines, Google, Ask, MSN, and Yahoo, use the page title as the link to follow through to a result.
Webmasters tend to avoid obviously manipulative titles. Manipulative titles are often confusing. They're too long to be clear. They contain terms that weren't in the user's query. They're recognized as spam by the sophisticated user familiar with Web and email spam, or other overly aggressive ad copy.
Since the point of attaining rankings is ultimately to get a user to click on your link, there's a natural tension between manipulating Title tags for ranking improvements, such as keyword stuffing, and achieving adequate click-throughs. This confers the page Title with higher trust than some other possible signals. Compare this visibility to that of the Meta Keywords tag. Because that contains text content that users hardly ever see and is explicitly designed to transmit the purpose of your site to robots, it's just begging to be gamed.
The Title tag comes in the head section of the HTML page, where non-layout properties of the document are set. The Title is considered one of the Meta tags of the document, meta meaning information that is not the document but is about the document. Meta information helps you classify something. The Keywords tag was once an efficient shortcut to tell spiders what your pages were about (before spammers broke the engines' trusts), the Description tag is a brief synopsis of the content of the site, and the Title is an even briefer synopsis.
The Title tag should be used to express the SEO goals for that page. Great care must be exercised in choosing the keywords that will be used here. You can't put in every keyword that you'd like to optimize for, so it's recommended that you choose the select few that will give you the biggest bang for your buck and are most relevant to the page. It acts as a good focus point for the page.
Aside from the strict ranking value of the Title tag, there are other benefits to carefully optimizing the Title, as well. Remember, search engine optimization doesn't isn't about chasing rankings for rankings sake. It's about creating a better experience for your users, improving relevance and, ultimately, increasing sales. To this end, your Title tag must be crafted to encourage click-throughs. You need to be more than a technical expert, you need to be a marketer.
When optimizing for click-throughs, you have to think about the text as if it was ad copy. In Google, the maximum number of characters allotted for the Title tag is 70. When it gets down to it, there's not much difference between the PPC ads on Google and the organic listings. They both represent marketers using text to engage the users and encourage them to click-through to their Web site.Give a unified, complete message that fits in that space.
For most of us, increasing conversions, regardless of how you define that, is our main SEO goal. By tweaking and perfecting your Title tags, you're able to attract more qualified visitors and increase your overall ROI. When a searcher types in "cowboy boots" and your Title tag for your page on that topic reads "cowboy boots", that searcher is going to click on your listing.
Think about your own searching habits. You click on the listing that has the title that most closely matches the terms you queried. Of course, sometimes the content turns out to disappoint, but that's a subject for another article. This points to the critical importance of including the terms that users are most likely to search for. In most cases, users are only going to click on the link that most resembles what they typed into their search box. Not a listing with the search terms and some other related terms, not a listing with padding words--just the listing with his or her search terms.
According to an eye tracking study of Web users conducted by the Poynter Institute in May 2000, users tend to not devote their full attention to any particular site for a long period of time. Page titles need to be simple and concise so that users can easily identify the tab or window which houses the page they just loaded from Google, so that when they leave that window, they can return to it again easily. Another thing Poynter noticed is that Web users preferred headlines that were direct, rather than clever, like newspaper headlines. While not directly researched with regards to SERPs, we can assume that this advice translates to the page Titles there too, where they serve the same function as headlines.
We recommend that a typical site use a page title of between 6 and 12 words. The middle of the bell curve is 8. You can use the Keyword Density Analyzer found on our free SEO tools page to help you determine the optimal configuration and length for your page Title. For some industries, we adjust our recommendations based on the SERP landscape we encounter. In that case, we analyze sites ranking for the keywords we're trying to and determine common numbers for the competition. Subscribers to our SEOToolset can utilize the Multi-page Keyword Density Analyzer to find an industry appropriate level for the on-page elements.
At Bruce Clay, we recommend avoiding tag duplication. No two tags on the site should be exact duplicates unless absolutely necessary. Obviously, on some very large sites, especially sites employing a CMS, you'll see a lot of tag duplication. In these cases, even when the tags aren't exactly the same, they'll be substantially similar, e.g., when using a template for the main words and simply variable substituting in a product name or knowledgebase article identifier. If a site has a hundred thousand pages, it would be a daunting task to tackle hand copywriting 100,000 Title tags. When dealing with a clever development team, they can come up with scripts that are more unique. For example, if the site has been siloed, a site's automatically generated Title tags could incorporate elements of its ancestor titles or other identifying properties. This may result in sibling pages having similar Title tags, but that would still be an improvement over an entire branch of similar Title tags.
Tackling duplicate Title tags is a matter of priority, also. It's critical that Title tags at the tops of your silos--your home page and landing pages--be unique and targeted to the theme. Adjust these first, and drill down through the linking hierarchy as time permits and benchmarking suggests is necessary. Duplicate Title tags are likely to be a signal for Google to activate content filtering. Google doesn't filter merely because pages are identical. While this could mean that they simply use LSI vectors of the content to determine similarity, another possibility is that Google uses multiple signals to determine duplicate content filtering.
There are some methods you may want to experiment with in order to obtain more visual separation in the SERPS. Examples are using all capitals, spacing out characters, or using extra punctuation. For ranking purposes, we don't recommend this, but in cases where you've already got plenty of ranking power, drawing attention to your listing may result in extra click-throughs. Beware, however, that some tactics can be interpreted as spam and result in filtering or penalization. It's important to always play within the rules.