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How to Strengthen a Site via Title Tag Strategies, Part 1: The Basics

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Why is it that one of the most important elements of a Web site—title tags—which also tends to be one of the easiest to manage, is so often done incorrectly? What makes that shortcoming even more amazing is that SEO practitioners constantly talk about title tags.

In fact, if ever there could be an area of universal or near-universal agreement in the SEO community, it would be in regard to the importance of title tags.

We know that all major search engines use the contents of the title tag as the title of their search snippets in nearly all cases (there are rare exceptions): The title appears in a larger font size and as a blue hyperlink above the search-result description. Therefore, the title tag serves as a strong influencer of click-through as searchers hone in on references to their search phrases.

Perhaps more importantly, in relation to getting the title into the results for searchers to even consider clicking on, search engines use the title tag behind the scenes as one of the leading signals for determining what a page is about.

As critical as title tags are, the basics for optimizing them are quite simple. Because of the importance that search engines place on the title tag, getting this even partially right can have real impact for a site. Sadly, though, far too many sites fail to get it right.


Placement and Location

Title tags are different from most Web page elements because they are actually contained within the head section of the code and don't actually appear on the Web page. Though there may be similar or identical text on the page, that text doesn't come from the title tag.

The content (text) of the title tag does appear in the top "chrome" area of the browser window, and if the page is bookmarked in a browser the tag text typically becomes the default text (bookmark name). And, as noted above, it nearly always appears as the snippet title in the search results.

Uniqueness

Most of us, at one point or another, have been told something along these lines: "If you walk away understanding only one thing from I'm saying, then this is it." Hopefully, I'll be able to explain more than just one thing well enough... but, just in case, we'd better get that one thing out on the table right now: Make the title tag unique.

Or, put another way: No two pages of a Web site should have the same title tag.

Remember, the title of a page is a, if not the, key signal of what that page is all about. Therefore, if there are two or more pages with the same title tag, then search engines are likely to consider those pages to be the same.

Keywords

Once we've grasped the importance of uniqueness, the next key concept is the use of keywords. Fortunately, this part makes sense to a lot of people, since it is the text within title tags that serves as a signal to search engines. That, however, does not mean that more is better.

The reality is that most of the answers to the question of quantity are wrong, or at least not entirely correct. There is no magic quantity. Every page, every site, every industry is different, and many other elements come into play as well.

The right quantity of a keyword's presence may be as little as one instance, or it may be as much as two, three, or four. However, it is probably best not to go beyond that... as it may appear to be keyword-stuffed. So, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Also keep in mind that only about 65 characters are actually visible in most search results, so anything beyond that probably isn't going to be visible. Obviously, search engines know this as well, so it is likely that they have greatly decreased the value of anything beyond that point to avoid being "gamed."

Keep in mind that it makes sense to avoid "unnecessary" words, making sure that each word carries the most value. Imagine a title tag with 10 words in it. A simple way to think about it is that each word shares 1/10 the value of the title tag; therefore, each additional word may dilute the value of each word.

As we'll see next, the formula isn't quite that simple, but it helps to get the idea across.

Prominence and Density

Along with keywords and quantity come the concepts of prominence and density—the percentage of keywords to the rest of the text. Often, the question of density morphs back into the question of quantity—and the idea that some magic number is the key.

Rather than trying to calculate density, it is probably better to just focus on how it sounds: Say the title tag out loud and see whether it sounds good, or silly or downright stupid because of too many repetitions of the keywords.

Prominence, on the other hand, deals with the relationship of position and importance. In relation to title tags, this means that those words used toward the beginning of the title tag are believed to be more important and a better signal to search engines as to what the page is about.

* * *

Now would be a good time to review the current title tags of your site. How well are these basics being covered? Do you see any areas for easy improvement?

Next time, we'll cover some more-advanced elements of title tag strategies.


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Brian R. Brown is a consultant with natural-search marketing firm Netconcepts (www.netconcepts.com) and blogs at www.cnet.com/seosearchlight.

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Comments

  • by Chris Keller Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    I was intrigued by the title but the copy writing in this article is a bit rough

  • by Jaime Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    I did not learn anything new from this article. This seems to be common knowledge in the SEO world.

  • by Ruth Seeley Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    In order for this article to really make sense, it would need some illustrative examples. I think I got lost at 'title tag.' We aren't all web designers, you know. Some of us just write for a living. :)

  • by Jeff Bach Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    With only 65 characters, or some other smallish number, and therefore only a few words per each title, I think it will quickly get difficult for a site to come up with unique titles, that make sense, for what could be several HUNDRED pages on the same site.

  • by Brian R. Brown Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    Thanks all for the feedback. I know I can't please everyone here, but let me see what I can do to even things out a bit.

    Ruth, if you right-click in your browser on a web page and do a "view-source," one of the first things you'll see is the title tag. You may be accessing that directly or through a field in your content management system... that part I can't help out with.

    But by way of example, and to help Jeff see that 65 characters is still quite a bit... let's dig a little further. Jeff, yes it can be challenging, but keep in mind that the 65 number is just something to shoot for. Possible on a site with several hundred pages? Most definitely -- even several hundred thousand... it's more in the millions that things start getting challenging.

    So let's take Jeff's site as an example. When I do a "site:" search in Yahoo (site:2wheelfilms.com) and expand my listings to 100, I can quickly see that things look pretty good for title tags, but there is some heavy duplication with "Progress pictures for Sport Legends Bike." What's more challenging is that many of these pages are just photographs with only a few words of text on the page... so about all the search engines have to judge those pages on for content value is the title tag.

    So are all these pages the same, no, not at all. They are all theme related, but each features a different UW Madison celebrity. Unfortunately, Google at least has only indexed the Jeff Sauer and Joe Panos pages, yet there are 34 of these individual pages, along with the page leading to these to be indexed. It will probably be awhile for Google to get around to indexing them all because they appear to be the same.

    So how do we differentiate each of these pages? The best way, especially for super large sites, is to identify a pattern and handle it programmatically. But the logic holds true even for hand-coded, static sites.

    Or even mix and match... here are some examples...

    Barry Alvarez signs UW Sport Legend Bike
    Jeff

  • by Brian R. Brown Tue Apr 1, 2008 via web

    okay... no surprise, we hit a limit on the comments, so here is the rest...

    Jeff Sauer Autographs UW Sport Legend Bike
    Ron Dayne - University of Wisconsin Sport Legend Bike

    You could even add " - 2 Wheel Films" onto the mix and Ron Dayne's page will just stretch past the 65 mark by 4 characters.

    The general approach is to start broad, and work ever more narrowly, placing the most important, targeted words prominently at the beginning. For the case of a more traditional ecommerce site, perhaps something like this:

    Color - Product Name - Brand - Sub Category - Category | Website

    Tweak as necessary.

    Yes, much of this is basic SEO knowledge, yet I see sites everyday that are missing this key element. While it may seem challenging, once you start looking at it in this way, it is quite doable... and can be done in a way that satisfies both spiders and humans.

    Good luck,

    Brian

  • by Chris Wed Apr 2, 2008 via web

    A good basic often forgotten. Thanks for the reminder.

  • by Ryan O'Donnell Thu Apr 3, 2008 via web

    This posting was a nice intro for those individuals who don't know very much about SEO and title tags. Well done. A few examples (what to do vs. what not to do) might have been helpful for inexperienced SEOs / developers, but as an intro, this was pretty good.

    One aspect of title tag development I would stress is consistency and communication within your organization. Be sure engineers, copywriters, designers, and execs know who gets the final sign-off on title tags. In my opinion, this should be a combination of an SEO expert and a copywriting expert.

    Be sure to establish a title tag pattern and make it widely known with all those involved. I have seen sites that have all of the following being used throughout their site:

    [product] | [company]
    [company] | [product]
    [product] %3E%3E [product]
    [product] | [category] : [company]

    This is very common within larger organizations that have multiple platforms within a single company. In some cases, a good argument can be made for having different title tag structures. However, for many companies it arises from lack of communication and from never defining an owner. From a branding standpoint, inconsistent title tag structures really look bad.

    Mark my words, if no one is tasked with optimizing title tags, you can expect two outcomes:

    1. Duplicate title tags
    2. Poorly optimized title tags

    Remember, it is a lot easier to get your content right before it goes live than it is to have it updated later.

  • by Santhosh Thu Aug 27, 2009 via web

    Very good article. Sadly many people working for ears in Content Management/ HTML authoring does not know how search engines work and the relevance of Title tag. Thanks for the article

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