When it comes to SEO the title tag is arguably the most valuable piece of on-page real estate. It’s the first thing that a spider looks at when visiting a page and it’s the most noticeable element of your page that’s displayed in the search results. So it’s hardly surprising that Google places so much weight on title tags.

Yet despite the obvious importance of title tags, and how easy it is to get them right, it’s amazing how many people still get them wrong. Run an allintitle:homepage search in Google and you’ll see that nearly 20 million webmasters have chosen to label (and effectively optimize) their strongest page for the keyword ‘homepage’. Now that’s a serious waste of prime real estate.

A well-crafted title tag should provide a succinct description of the contents of a page. Spiders use this information to help rank a page, while visitors use the same information to decide whether or not to click on a particular search result. So when writing title tags you need to think about both searchers and search engines.

TOP TIP: Title tags are one of the most important on-page ranking factors, and a little SEO time spent getting them right can go a long, long way.

Top tips for SEO title tag optimization

Writing title tags is as much of an art as it is a science. There are some basic guidelines to follow, but you’ll also need to be a little creative. And here’s how it’s done:

  • Write a unique title tag for each page: Because every page is unique, every page deserves a unique title tag.
  • Make sure title tags are relevant: Google is smart and doesn’t appreciate you trying to pull the wool over its eyes. Fudging keywords doesn’t work.
  • Stick to one keyword concept for each title tag: Each page focuses on one primary keyword and this should be reflected in the title tag. Use your primary keyword once and then include any secondary or long tail keywords
  • Don’t get greedy: Think of the title tag as a signpost and aim to keep all the information pointing in the same direction. If you stuff a title tag with keywords you’ll just confuse Google. Similarly don’t repeat keywords, once is usually enough.
  • Remember keyword positioning counts: Make sure that your primary keyword is as close as possible to the start of your title tag. The sooner visitors (human or otherwise) know what a page is about the better.
  • Keep title tags short and sweet: Search engines rarely display more than 65 characters, which means that you’ve got a maximum of 8-10 words to make your point before your title is replaced with …

While title tags come in all shapes and sizes, they can be divided into two broad categories: those that are ‘keyword strings’ and those which are ‘naturally written’.

Keyword strings are typically used to label homepages as they allow you to make sense of all the services you offer… and include a diversity of keywords. Dividers (including the pipe bar or hyphen) are used to separate keywords, as in the following example for a fictional motoring organization:

OnTheRoad.com | Car Insurance | Breakdown Cover | Motoring Advice

Aside from on the homepage, try to write all other title tags as naturally as possible. You’ll avoid repeating primary keywords and it’s a great opportunity to include secondary keywords. Hence an internal page for OnTheRoad.com might look like this:

Children’s Car Seats | Choosing and Using Child’s Safety Seats

WARNING: Tweaking title tags isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted. First-hand experience has shown that it can do much more harm to your rankings than good. And if you put yourself on Google’s side of the fence it makes sense. After all, who but a SEO would even think about changing a title tag?

TOP TIP: Poor title tags are one of the most common SEO stumbling blocks for dynamic sites. There’s a good chance that your database won’t have a predefined ‘title tag’ field, in which case the title will be pulled from another aspect of the page. This usually means that your tags won’t be targeted or unique… unless you take action.

How not to write title tags for SEO with some all too familiar examples

The best way to show how easy it is to ‘go wrong’ is to look at some real-life examples. The following company names may be fictitious, but the title tags are bona fide:

SEO title tag example one: no user information

Say you’re heading to Nottingham in the heart England for a friend’s wedding and plan to work off the next day’s hangover with 18 holes of golf. You go online to find a course that’s near to your hotel and are slightly put-out to discover that you’ll be facing a 45-minute drive the following morning. Anyhow, you go ahead and make the booking.

When you arrive at your hotel you discover there’s actually a golf club next door…and they’ve got a website. However, poor optimisation means that the site is virtually invisible to the search engines and it’s the title tags that are to blame. Take the homepage as an example:

Current title tag:

Home Page

Improved title tag:

Green Tees Golf Club Nottingham | Best Championship Golf Course in the Midlands

TECHNICAL TIP: In HTML syntax the above title tag would be as follows:

<title> Green Tees Golf Club Nottingham | Best Championship Golf Course in the Midlands </title>

TOP TIP: Browse through any SEO forum and it won’t be long before you come across the eternal ‘company names in title tags’ debate. The jury’s still divided, but it’s enough to say that optimizers are happy to omit the company name (and with good reason) while marketers want it included. Perhaps there is an argument for using your company name in the title tag of the homepage, but you won’t hear it from an experienced SEO.

SEO title tag example two: keyword stuffing

Too little information is one thing, but it’s easy to go overboard and stuff title tags with keywords. Repeating the same keyword over and again won’t do your website any favours and looks suspiciously ‘spammy’ to the search engines. Primary keywords should only be used once in the title tag and twice at a push.

When Alexander Pope first opined that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ he wasn’t thinking about DoggyDinners.com, but fast-forward 300 years to the age of the Internet and he may well have been.

As a fledgling SEO the webmaster of DoggyDinners.com has decided to have a go at optimising a page of his website for the term ‘dog bowls’. He’s been reading up on SEO and knows that plurals and singular terms are treated differently by Google, and that ‘food’ and ‘feeding’ are different search terms. Here’s the real world example:

Current title tag:

Dog food bowl for dogs feeding bowls for dogs bowl pampered pet luxury food bowl

Improved title tag:

Dog Bowls | Buy Luxury Dog & Pet Food Bowls

SEO title tag example three: missing secondary keywords

‘Car insurance’ is among the most competitive search terms in the United Kingdom and as a result all of the websites appearing in the Top 20 search results are expertly optimized. However, some of them are still missing out on secondary keyword opportunities.

Have a look for yourself; type ‘car insurance’ into Google and you’ll be surprised at the results… especially if you consider that most of these companies are spending thousands on SEO every month.

Below we’ve made-up three insurance companies, but the title tags are very real:

Tom’s Insurance Company

Title Tag: Car Insurance | Compare Cheap Car Insurance Quotes Online

Dick’s Insurance Company

Title Tag: Cheap Car Insurance Quotes | Low Cost UK Car Insurance

Harry’s Insurance Company

Title Tag: Harry’s Car Insurance

While all three companies rank on the first page for the term ‘Car Insurance’; Tom and Dick are enjoying substantially higher volumes of traffic, quotes and conversions.

Tom is also ranking for: ‘Compare Car Insurance’, ‘Cheap Car Insurance’, ‘Car Insurance Quotes’ and ‘Car Insurance Online’

Dick is also ranking for: ‘Cheap Car Insurance’, ‘Car Insurance Quotes’ and ‘Low Cost Car Insurance’

…And poor old Harry only ranks for ‘Car Insurance’. To turn his fortunes around all Harry need to do is to target some secondary keywords into his title tag. It’s that easy.

Google Gets Semantic

Now that Google’s get the hang of semantics it can be argued that title tags are becoming a less important factor in ranking algorithms. Google knows that ‘cheap’ means more or less the same things as ‘low cost’ so there’s no need to repeat yourself. At least that’s the theory, but Google’s still got a fair bit of homework to do.