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This article previously appeared in Amy's blog, Contentious.

I've got to say it. It really bugs me when I see great content presented on a Web page for which no page title (or a poor page title) is specified.

I realize that many writers neglect to specify page titles either because they are unaware of the existence or importance of this key Web page element or because they don't know how to specify a page title.

However, if you publish content online and you want people to find your content easily via search engines, bookmark lists and other common online way-finding tools, it's pretty important to understand what a page title is, how to specify it and what makes a successful page title.

It's easy. Here's what you need to know….

What Is a Page Title?

I'll show you.

Launch your Web browser and go to the main page for my Rename RSS contest. Look at the top of your browser window, above all the menus and buttons, and above where the URL is displayed. See text that says “RSS Nickname Contest: CONTENTIOUS” at the top? That's the page title for that page.

How did it get there? You can specify the page title in the HTML code for a Web page. It goes between the tags in the “head” portion of the file. You can specify or modify a page title in any HTML editor or text editor. Here's what the code for the contest page's title looks like:

That's all there is to it! Just put the text between the title tags, and it will show up as the page title in a Web browser.

Why Is the Page Title So Important?

  1. It gets displayed prominently in search engine results. If you want good search engine ranking and results for your Web content, good titles for your Web pages are absolutely essential. Here's what CommerceHost.com has to say about that:

    Your page titles are without doubt one of the most important optimization areas on your site. They are important because:

         - They are generally heavily weighted by the spiders.

         - They are often used as the heading for your site on the
           search results page.

         - They may be what your potential customers will use to
           decide if they want to visit your site.

    Since you not only have to impress the search engines with your page title, but your customers, and have to do it in 60 characters or less, you need to give careful attention to the formulation of your page titles.

    That's good advice whether your site is sales/commerce-oriented or not. If your site's pages have no title specified (or vague, cryptic, or non-intuitive page titles), then chances are that your site will not be well ranked in search engine results, and will be overlooked even when it does show up well in search engine results.

    Here's the main benefit of a good page title. Go to Google and type in the phrase “rename RSS” (include the quotation marks). See which page is listed first? If that page had no title, or a cryptic one, the ranking would be much lower or possibly not even on the results list at all.

  2. It's the default text label for Web browser bookmarks. It's likely that at least some people who visit your site will like what they see and want to return. How do they remember where to go? They add the address of your site to the “bookmarks” or “favorites” list in their Web browser.

    For almost every Web browser, bookmarks are assigned a default text label to help you remember what each site was about. Typically, that default label is the page title. If your page title is missing, cryptic or doesn't stand alone well, people may not recognize and remember your site when they see it listed in their Web browser.

  3. It can get displayed as a headline in RSS feeds or content management systems. Depending on what you use to create your site's RSS feed, your feed generator may display your page title as a headline in a feed reader. If you create content or pages that are then managed by a content management system (common in large organizations), your page title also may get used in unexpected ways. The safest course is to follow the tips listed at the end of this article to create effective, multifunctional page titles.

  4. It will get republished out of context. The Internet is full of various indexing and aggregation services. Often, these scrape page titles and other key data from Web sites for presentation in various kinds of lists. Again, offering a clear intuitive page title can leverage this aspect of the Net for your benefit.

Tips for Effective Page Titles

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen offers these tips for effective “microcontent”—and page titles are an important kind of Web microcontent:

  • Keep it short. 40-60 characters, maximum. Longer page titles will probably get truncated when displayed in search engine results and other ways.

  • Clearly explain what the article (or email) is about in terms that relate to the user.

  • Write in plain language: No puns, no “cute” or “clever” headlines.

  • No teasers that try to entice people to click to find out what the story is about. Users have been burned too often on the Web to have time to wait for a page to download unless they have clear expectations for what they will get.

  • Skip leading articles like “the” and “a” in page titles (but do include them in headlines that are embedded within a page). Shorter page titles are more scannable. Also, since lists are often alphabetized, you don't want your content to be listed under “T” in a confused mess with many other pages starting with “the.”

  • Make the first word an important, information-carrying one. Results in better position in alphabetized lists and facilitates scanning. For example, start with the name of the company, person or concept discussed in an article.

  • Do not make all page titles start with the same word: they will be hard to differentiate when scanning a list. Move common markers toward the end of the line.

One other tip I'd like to add is that if your site relies heavily on frames, it's likely that page titles from specific pages within your site might only display the title of your home page.

Even worse, pages within your site might get indexed incorrectly or not at all by the major search engines! Frames generally are bad news from a content-access perspective. If you want to make your site easy to find and bookmark, don't rely on a frame-based design.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Gahran is an editorial consultant, journalist and writing trainer/coach based in Boulder, Colorado. She helps people and organizations communicate effectively online and in print. For more info, see gahran.com. She also publishes the CONTENTIOUS blog, which offers news and musings on how we communicate in the online age.