Most SEOs rate using keywords in your title tag as one of the most important ranking factors. In this post I’m questioning to what extent placing your target keywords in your page title really does have an influence on your search engine rankings.
I’ll argue that optimising your title tags is really important – but for users, click through and conversions, rather than for ranking.
Why title tags are important
Firstly, your title tags are displayed at the top of a user’s browser and on the tabs they have open:
If I have a few sites open (as I usually do), without good title tags for these pages, I’d quickly get mixed up. So title tags really help users navigate.
Secondly title tags are often used to form anchor text when other sites are linking to you, as well as for social shares. Again, using good title tags helps users understand what the link is about and whether it’s useful to them.
Thirdly, writing relevant titles for your pages is highly likely to improve your click through rate (CTR). If you have a poor title or no title (but something Google sees as being good content, relevant to the user’s search), Google will try and generate a title itself for the page. But since by carefully crafting your page titles you can make them both informative and enticing, yours are likely to perform better. So try and write good highly relevant titles so that Google uses them, rather than generating its own.
Finally, writing relevant titles can improve conversions. How? Simply because you are a human and Google is a machine. Just as Google struggles to interpret our witty news headlines (and has introduced the news_keywords tag so webmasters can help ‘explain’ their wit), Google doesn’t always get it right. If Google’s generated title is displayed and it gets it wrong, you’re likely to get more visitors that are looking for something other than your content.
…but will including keywords in my title tag affect my rankings?
I’ve read a lot of different opinions on the web answering this question. When SEOmoz surveyed 37 influential thought leaders in the SEO industry on the search engine ranking factors, 35 of the 37 participants said that keyword usage in the title tag was the most important place to use keywords to achieve high rankings. But since every site has the option to put its major keywords in the title tag, and with so much aggressive SEO taking place, could this really be such a high ranking factor?
We know that Google still displays pages that have no title tag, or where the title tag is too short – in these cases, Google generates its own title tag from anchors, on-page text, or other sources (per Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and confirmed again in January 2012 on Google’s Webmaster Blog). Google tells us that its generation of page titles takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web (Google Webmaster Blog, 14.09.2012). In other words, Google decides what title to display, based on the content (and other factors). It would follow that Google doesn’t decide what the content is about based on the page title as if this were the case, it would be a circular reference! If your title tag about one subject and your document was about another, this wouldn’t influence your rankings for the topic of the title. Google would determine the relevancy of your content to the user’s search results, and as your title tag is off-topic, it will simply generate its own. As we can see in the search results, Google is still happy to include such pages in its results.
So do the contents of title tags affect search engine rankings? Carefully creating descriptive relevant title tags may be best practice per Google’s advice, and as stated above, your title tags will likely improve your CTR, but when you consider Google’s practice of generating title tags where it sees fit, it seems unlikely that title tags would be a highly weighted ranking factor – in other words, including your main keywords in the title tag is unlikely to help you much in ranking for those keywords. Other factors – content relevancy, authority, freshness, trust, links from trusted sites, and in the near future, authorship, are likely to carry far more weight.
It certainly seems however that from Google’s guidelines, what’s included in title tags can be a negative ranking factor. For example, its webmaster guidelines state: “…keyword stuffing [in titles] can make your results look spammy to Google and to users”. Google’s guidelines also note that repetitive/boilerplate titles hurt readability. I would speculate that these and other factors might be considered a negative where the offending is very widespread across a site. Go to Google Webmaster Tools –> Optimisation –> HTML improvements – you’ll see a list of missing, duplicate, long, short and non informative title tags. So Google is clearly identifying here what it doesn’t want to see and what you need to avoid.
Title tag length and guidance
How long can the title tag be?
Your title tag should be less than 70 characters. If it is longer, the text appearing after the 70 characters won’t display in search results as this is Google’s limit. Note that Google’s webmaster guidelines don’t suggest this would be a negative ranking factor, but simply state that they are likely to get “truncated” when they show up in the search results.
Ways to check your titles
Here are 3 ways you can find problems with your site titles quickly:
- Google Webmaster Tools – go to Optimisation –> HTML improvements and you’ll see a list of missing, duplicate, long, short and non informative title tags. Click on the individual links to see which pages are affected.
- SEO Moz – if you’re using SEO Moz’s amazing tools, you’ll be able to see duplicate page titles within the Crawl Diagnostics report.
- Xenu – when free link checker Xenu crawls your site, its super useful report includes a big clickable long list of all titles which is very handy – generic page titles are easy to spot.
Google’s top tips for good titles
- Avoid vague descriptors like “Home” for your home page, or “Profile” for a specific person’s profile.
- Avoid keyword stuffing e.g. A title like “orange orangeade orange pop orange juice” doesn’t help the user, and this kind of keyword stuffing can make your results look spammy to Google and to users.
- Avoid repeated or boilerplate titles. It’s important to have original, descriptive titles for each page on your site.
- Brand your titles, but concisely. The title of your site’s home page is a reasonable place to include some additional information about your site—for instance, “ExampleSocialSite, a place for people to meet and mingle.” But displaying that text in the title of every single page on your site hurts readability and will look particularly repetitive if several pages from your site are returned for the same query. In this case, consider including just your site name at the beginning or end of each page title, separated from the rest of the title with a delimiter such as a hyphen, colon, or pipe, like this: ExampleSocialSite: Sign up for a new account.
Many SEOs also believe placing the keyword early on in the title tag helps rankings. Although in the past studies have shown a correlation, all of the studies I have found are before the PANDA and Penguin updates (PANDA of course targetted over optimisation amongst other things) so aren’t reliable. Your titles should be crafted for users, not search engines – this is something Google is very definite about. I would recommend using the keyword early on if it makes sense to a user for it to appear there, and certainly keep it within your 70 characters, or Google won’t display it. Also keep it before any company or brand names in line with Google’s advice – the important part of a title to the user is how it describes the content.
Titles from anchor text
Google tells us specifically that if a web page is linked from another, it may display the page in the search results even if you’ve used robots.txt to stop Google crawling your site. In this case, it will use the anchor text to generate a title. Since people could be linking to you using all sorts of weird and wonderful anchor text (“check out this terrible company…” for example), you’re far better off blocking URLs using meta tags, as per Google’s advice in its Webmaster Guidelines.