Are the Standard Title Tag Rules Really True?

Mike Sobol3 comments

Tite Tag Rules can Lead You AstrayTitle tags tell web browsers and search engines important things about your pages, so they can reveal relevant information to users in search results. That makes title tags very important for a web page. Do a bad job with your tags and you’re unlikely to get the clicks you deserve.

As with so many things SEO, however, title tag “best practices” and “rules of thumb” can be built upon over-generalizations, logical leaps and downright falsehoods. Don’t fall into the trap of the quick and easy rule. Understand what does and doesn’t work, and your tags will do a better job for you.

Just to be sure we’re clear, ‘title tags’ technically refers to the markup used to designate text as a page title, so that search engines (like Google, Bing and Yahoo) know how to list a page in search results, and web browsers can appropriately label the page in your browser tool bar or tabs, and your favorites. They look like this:

<title> Your Page’s Title </title>

Practically speaking, when we talk about title tags, we’re really referring to all the characters inside the tags, or the title element– the actual content of your titles. Basically, it’s there to convey what your page is about, according to you, anyway.

Google won’t be told what to think.

Google, as well as other search engines, has become extraordinarily adept at deciphering “aboutness” and how that relates to a specific user’s search query. It’s not the search engines’ jobs to serve up your page when and how you’d prefer. Search engines care about the searcher’s experience first, so they’ll show pages in results that seem like the best ones for that searcher, at that time.

What you chose to enter as your page title, therefore, isn’t necessarily going to be copied verbatim in search results. Your title tag is just part of the evidence that Google gathers to determine what your page is about. Sometimes it will be used exactly, and sometimes not.

If your page title is very long, or doesn’t seem to accurately represent your page, Google does take liberties to “improve” it for you. But that’s only if your page is worth showing in the results despite a less than ideal title.

Searching for “cell phone plans Denver,” in Google for example, this was one of the results on the first page:

Google changed the title in the listing

This is the actual title of the page:
“International Student and Scholar Services – Cell Phones | University of Denver”

Google decided that the intro text wasn’t what mattered as much as the fact that a very reputable site (www.du.edu) contains the page, putting authority over strict relevance, and tweaking the listing to make it fit.

So, more than likely, a “perfectly” optimized title on a weak page isn’t going to help your SERP placements very much, while better, more authoritative pages will get served up to a wider variety of searches. If Google is willing to show pages that aren’t exact matches for a search phrase, listings that aren’t exact matches must be getting displaced. Which means, of course…

Exact match keywords don’t always win.

The results below for “organizing a closet” show that, even though the term sees 40,500 US searches a month with “high” competition according Google’s Keyword Tool, Google didn’t return a top result that is specifically optimized for that term. Not only that, but the top result is five years old, and the url doesn’t even mention closets!

That said, the page is obviously about closets, it’s rich with images and links, and it’s gotten a lot of attention, including over 16,000 pins on Pinterest. I’m not going to dig further into all the reasons it could or should be ranking, but it’s worth pointing out that throwing a search term in your title tag won’t make you rank above a better, more popular page on a better, more popular site.

Exact match keyword titles? Not exactly.

The exact phrase, “organizing a closet,” actually shows up just two times on the first page of Google, and again twice on the fourth page– never again in the top 10 pages of results! Clearly, Google didn’t like enough exact match results to list them above other pages that use different words for the same subject. So better pages that Google figured are catering to the essence of the search query are given more exposure.

Keywords at the front don’t always win, either.

Obviously, if exact matches of the search phrase only appear four times in ten pages, they can’t often appear at the front of the title, either. An exact match phrase appears at the front of the title just once. Even variants of this particular phrase naturally follow introductory words like “20 Ways..,” “How to…,” “Tips and Tricks,” and the like.

Some search results do seem to follow both the exact match and front-loading words “rules” perfectly. However, that only seems to be the case when the competition is lower, and there aren’t better ways of phrasing the term, as with a term like “guest blogging services.” We’ll take it where we can get it. ;-)

Guest Blogging Services SERP Capture

The 70 character rule doesn’t fit the SERPs.

The rule of thumb about 70 characters being a good length for title tags (including spaces) doesn’t hold up when you take into account two simple facts.

  1. The best search listings that aren’t truncated are almost always below 70 characters, often fewer than 60, or even 50.  (see the image above).
  2. SERP page widths are always the same pixel width– characters vary widely.

There are arguments about what Google indexes from the title tag in total (could it be 1,000 characters?), what Google indexes as titles (is it 12 words?), and what it shows in SERPs (not a character count, but a pixel width).

I would argue that title tags under 500 pixels in width are very rarely truncated, are more likely to read as you planned them, and can provide users enough information to click on your page, when coupled with a smartly-worded meta description.

Remember, there is no point in getting a page high in the SERPs if it isn’t clicked, and it’s not likely to get there if it isn’t a high quality page in the first place. So here’s my rule:

Write your title to get the click, not the rank.

Title tag text is important, there is no doubt, but there is more and more evidence that the old rules of thumb don’t paint an accurate picture of how to create a highly-ranked search result that users want to click. There are just too many exceptions to the rules.

Treat your title as an extension of a great page, supported by a meta description that captures the value of the page for search users. It should contain the keywords that accurately describe your page succinctly. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to change the keywords you’re targeting, or change the text of the page, because your page isn’t going to rank for a keyword just because it’s in the title. And if it does rank, Google may alter your title, your meta description, or both.

Note that our first place ranking for guest blogging services doesn’t even get the honor of it’s actual meta description– Google pulled content from the page to use instead! More evidence that Google will rank a good page well, even if it doesn’t agree with the meta information provided.

To compete for more competitive keywords, your page quality and authority matter more, while exact matching of terms matters less. Clear, descriptive content at the top of your page, above the fold, is going to do more for your SERP listing than an over-engineered title tag. Because, of course, you can’t tell Google what to think about your page.

Do you have any title tag tips you’d like to share or discuss? Let us know in the comments.

About

Growing businesses since 1999, Mike's always focused on growth. His continual quest for more traffic, more prospects and more customers was the impetus for co-founding Guest Blog Genius.

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