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Title Tag Optimization: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Effective Titles for SEO

Jacob StoopsJacob Stoops
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Effective title tag optimization can have a tremendous impact on your site’s search engine ranking, and is the backbone of every effective SEO campaign. Learn how such factors as title length, keyword usage methodologies, duplication of content, and repetition can impact your search engine rankings. But before we get into tactics involved with writing good title tags, lets first identify where it is on your site and where it will show up in search engines.

What is a Title Tag? Where Can You Find It?

The title tag is the text that appears on your browser’s title bar. A title is required in every HTML and XHTML document.

You can find your title tag in your site’s source code:

The old Agent SEO Title in the source code

You can find your title in your site’s browser window:

The old Agent SEO Title in the Browser Window

See your title in your the search results:

The old Agent SEO Title in Search Results

Okay, now we know what and where you title is. Let’s get on to tips on how to compose it effectively for SEO.

#1. Homepage vs. Internal Pages

Okay, here comes a baseball reference. Think of your homepage as your clean-up hitter and your site’s internal pages as the rest of the lineup. Your cleanup hitter (i.e. homepage) should be the page that gives you the most production and should have the most power. Your site’s internal pages should be built in support of your homepage, should act as a supplement to your homepage’s optimization efforts, should get into far more detail about your site, but should be able to stand on their own two feet in terms of ranking abilities.

Your homepage typically wields the most ranking power and should be used to target the most top-level generalized keywords. Your site’s internal pages typically wield less power (especially the deeper they are in the site), but can be much more targeted in terms of keyword focus and conversion opportunities (i.e. long-tailed keywords).

#2. Length

The length of your title tags is a very important matter. If you’re familiar with search results, you’ll notice that search engines typically only display so much of your webpage’s title before it cuts them off with an ellipsis (…).

Based on my research and experience, here are the average character space lengths allowed in titles before the cutoff, along with the max length I’ve seen:

What I’ve see is that if your title tag is over 70 characters, the search engines will find an appropriate place to cut it off. If it’s right at around 70, then they’ll typically allow the full title to show.

The moral of the story is that you need to maximize the space available to you in the title tag – for now that’s about the first 65-70 character spaces. This means that you should try to focus on only 2-3 keyword phrases per page as that is probably all you’ll be able to fit within reason.

Stay away from title tags that are too short (shorter than 50 character spaces) as those waste valuable space, and try to stay away from writing titles that are too long (anything over 80 is too long) as there is a diminishing return after the title gets cut off – not to mention that nobody typically reads after the cutoff point and it might look like spam to a search engine (if you use it to stuff keywords).

#3. Keyword Use

This one is a no-brainer. Use your target keywords in your title tag. For example, if your website’s main purpose is to sell an “Apple,” then you’re going to want to mention that in your title tags.

Before doing that, you’ll need to conduct extensive keyword research to determine which keywords are best for your site.

#4. Keyword Relevance & On-Page Correlation

Search engines are all about relevance – meaning they are in the business of displaying the most relevant results for any given search query. In order to meet that criteria, you’re going to have to ensure that the keywords that you’re using in your site’s title tags are relevant to the content on the page.

For example, let’s say you have an internal page on your site about “D’Arcy Spice Apples.” Which of the following title tags would you consider to be more relevant?

Apples - Agent SEO


D'Arcy Spice Applies - Yellowish-Green Apples - Agent SEO

If you’re thinking like a search engine, then you’d probably guess that the second title is more relevant to the term “D’Arcy Spice Apples.” You’d be right!

In addition, having title tags that are highly correlated with on-page content is good for both usability and click-through rates. If a user is searching specifically for D’Arcy Spice Apples, then they’ll be more likely to click on a title that says as much. Also, if they’re looking for D’Arcy Spice Apples and they land on a page that is about something different, that could be a turn off which will lead to more bounces and poor user engagement/conversion.

#5. Keyword Placement & Prioritization

Keywords at the front of a title tag tend to have more weight and ranking power than those at the back of a title tag – or those that are past the cut-off point. Therefore, you should place your most important keywords should be at the beginning of the title.

For example, if on your homepage you wish to target the keyword “green apples” as your most important target keyword and “red apples” as your 2nd most important keyword, then it might make sense to write a title similar to this:

Green Apples - Red Apples - Agent SEO

If you’re really targeting the keyword “Green Apples,” then it wouldn’t make sense to write a title like this:

Red Apples - Agent SEO - Green Apples

Pretty self explanatory. But this is the easy part. You’ll see that there are far more dynamics that go into writing an effective title tag out than just listing keywords in order of importance. Please remember, its about maximizing the space!

#6. Keyword Repetition vs. Combinations

While simply repeating keywords over and over again may have worked with SEO 2004, that is simply not necessary today. There is no need to be repetitious in your keyword usage within the title tag. Instead, try to think of ways you can combine phrases so as to give you more room to add other relevant phrases to the title tag.

For example, this keyword phrase is 25 character spaces long:

Green Apples - Red Apples

This one is only 18 character spaces long:

Green & Red Apples

That’s a difference of 7 character spaces, and you’ve still targeted both keywords. I know 7 may not seem like a lot, but when you only have 70 to work with every little bit counts. Remember, search engines are smart so they can match and map keywords together to determine relevance. Use that to your advantage in order to maximize your space.

#7. Keyword Proximity

Okay, here’s where it gets tricky. I will flat out tell you that nothing beats a good old exact-match phrase in your title tag in terms of relevance. For example, if somebody is searching for “Green Apples, ” a title tag that says “Green Apples” should win out of one that says “Green & Red Apples” if all things are equal.

The issue is keyword proximity. Keyword strings that appear closer together are better than having to rely on a search engine’s ability to match them together. Consider the following sentence…

The boy jumped over the red fence carrying an <strong>apple</strong>.

In a round-a-bout way, the above sentence could be considered somewhat relevant to the term red apple. A search engine would loosly be able to distinguish this. But is it more relevant to the term “Red Apple” than a sentence that says…

The boy ate a red apple.

I think not.

The issue here that you must find is balance. If you only want to target the keywords “Green Apple” and “Red Apple” then writing a title tag like the one below makes more sense:

Green Apple - Red Apple - Agent SEO

However, if you have a need to target more keywords, then you’ll need to work in combinations rather than exact-match phrases by necessity.

Green & Red Apples - Planting Orchards - Agent SEO

Hopefully that helped demystify the issue a bit.

#8. Use of Brand Name

I have a couple of opinions on brand names.

#9. Unique Titles on Every Page

Your title tags for ever webpage should be unique and different. Why? Well, since Google only displays a max of two results from one site in the SERPs, then having multiple pages with the same title may make it difficult for them to determine which one is more deserving of being ranked. In this case, they may choose to rank none at all.

Think of it like reading a book. If you’re skimming the table of contents and see that all the chapters have the same name, how will you be able to quickly jump to a highly-specific point in that book with any confidence? You won’t. You’ll just put it back down, and so will a search engine.

Duplicate title tags can cause the appearance of duplicate content, which may cause some pages to get stuck under a search engine’s filters – which is the opposite of what you want. This can be done by accident, negligence, or on purpose. Either way, its something that should be corrected.

Every webpage and every title has to be able to stand on its own two feet in terms of ranking in search engines. Its perfectly okay to have title tags that are very similar, but having duplicates really hinders their individual ability to be highly relevant to the site’s on-page content, and thus for any search queries.

#10. Avoid “Stop-Words” if Possible

Stop-Words” are words that are extremely common (pronouns, prepositions, etc) that most search engines skip over in order to save disk space, or to speed up indexing. They have no inherent value to a search engine.

Some of the stop-words: a, about, an, as, are, but, be, or, and, and there are many others.

Try to avoid using them if at all possible. The best example I can think of was a client a while back whose homepage title started with, “The official website of the…”. This was pretty bad, and a tremendous waste of space in terms of optimization of target keywords.

#11. Use of Special Symbols

This one is up to you. I’d say using dashes (-), the (&) symbol is okay. Hell, I even use plus signs in my titles (thinking about changing that). However, I’d stay away from using other symbols that may just serve to waste space such as the (©), (®), or (™) symbol.

Here is a full list of HTML Accent Entity codes that I refer to often.


#12. Geo-Targeting

If you service a specific geo-area, then you’re probably going to need to mention it in your title tag in order to show up for a local search query such as “Green Apples Columbus Ohio.” I’d recommend something like:

Green Apples - Columbus OH - Agent SEO

Important note: Make sure that the use of a geo-term correlates with similar use within your site’s content or it won’t be as effective.

Anyhow, hope this helps you write better title tags. Let me know if you have any questions!

I'm an Associate Director of SEO at Rosetta, a dedicated husband, dad, lover of mafia movies, eternally tortured Cleveland sports fan, marketing & tech blogger, web designer, and WordPress aficionado.

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