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1. What is a page title tag?

Title tags are the HTML  <title>  attribute that defines the title of an HTML document. They are (or should be) included in the  <head>  section of every HTML page.

The title element is used provide search engines and users with a very succinct human-readable summary of the expected content on a given web page.

2. Where can you find the page title tag?

You can find a title tag in 4 key spots:

  1. In the source code of your HTML document
  2. As the title of a document in your browser’s title bar (at the top)
  3. As a snippet in search engine results pages (SERP’s)
  4. As the link anchor text for many external websites—especially social media sites

a. In the source code

On a page-by-page basis, you should be able to pop open a site’s source code and find the HTML page’s title within the  <head>  area. Note: The title tag does not appear to a user as on-page content.

It looks like this:

<title>Some content goes here</title>

b. In title bar of browser

Title tags are visible as the title of a document in your browser’s title bar (at the top) and in tabs.

Examples of page title tags showing up in Google's Chrome browser

c. In SERP’s

Page title tags are most commonly used on search engine result pages (SERPs) as the clickable link for each organic result/listing.

Examples of page title tags being pulled into Google SERPs.

d. As link anchor text in social

In the absence of Open Graph (or other social) tags, most social networks default to using a webpage’s title tag as the clickable link anchor text when something is shared.

Here is an example from Facebook:

Examples of page title tags being pulled into a share on Facebook

3. Why are title tags important?

Title tags are often called the single most important element when it comes to on-page optimization. According to Moz’s 2015 ranking factors study, page-level keyword and content-based features are the 3rd most important factor correlating to higher rankings—with page title tags being chief among those elements.

The fact that the title is literally the first SEO element mentioned in Google’s SEO Starter Guide should not be lost on anyone. They are that important when it comes to on-page SEO.

These short snippets represent a brand’s front-line opportunity to showcase a site’s unique content and value proposition to searchers. Additionally, good title tags provide a searcher with more information on exactly whether the given page contains the information that they’re looking for or not.

In my experience, a well-written title tag can singlehandedly improve rankings and is often be the difference between drawing clicks versus being passed over in the SERP.

While good title tags alone aren’t the end-all-to-be-all, it is a significant piece of the puzzle.

4. Title tag optimization best practices

a. Appropriate title tag length

The title tag should be approximately between 50-60 characters (with spaces) that elaborate on the page’s contents by using primary and secondary target keywords to convey the value proposition and CTA.

Since Google’s SERP redesign in March 2014, SERP design is now governed by pixel width rather than characters spaces. The set width is approximately 512 pixels wide.

This essentially means that a title may be cut off at 55 characters or it may be 61 characters, depending on how the letters in play fit within the constraints of the set pixel width. That said, 60 is the approximate number where things get cut off in my experience.

Using anything above 60 characters is likely to mean that your SERP description will be truncated – meaning your full message and Call-To-Action (CTA) isn’t likely to be seen by searchers.

Since search engines may only display 60 characters (including spaces), work to get your message across within that constraint. On page title tags that exceed 60 characters, it is especially important to ensure that your core message is included before the point of truncation.

Here is a good example of the truncation at work in a Google search for ‘homeowners insurance’:

Example of page title tag length and truncation in Google's search results

You can test the length of your title tag using Moz’s great title tag preview tool.

b. Title tag format

The page title should consist of a sentence fragment that includes the most relevant and highly-searched keywords or phrases for the page.

Keywords/phrases are typically separated by a “–” or a “|,” along with the brand name.

Some folks will advise to use the following format:

Primary keyword – Secondary keyword – Brand name

While I don’t think it is that black and white, this format is not a bad place to start though it may not apply to ever single page/template on any given site, so you have to remain flexible.

c. Brand-name, quote, and special character usage

As space is at a premium, brand name should be shortened where possible. Also, as a rule I typically leave brand name for the last position in the title.

Special characters such as ©, ®, and ™ should be avoided here if possible as they take up valuable character spaces.

d. Target keyword usage

Just like most things SEO, including your page’s target keywords remains critical. Be sure to include a unique, keyword-rich title using the most important keywords and phrases for the page (i.e. page’s primary and secondary keywords).

Utilize combinations of the page’s primary non-brand keyword target as well as include secondary non-brand keyword targets (if possible). If possible, use the page’s primary keyword at (or towards) the beginning of the title.

The primary keyword is identified as the keyword with the greatest combination of relevance to the page along with highest search volume.

When the keyword searched matches a word in the title tag, it will appear bold in the search engine results. This makes the listing more prominent and shows users that the listing is closely related to their search. It can contribute to a higher click-through rate – especially when users see exact or related matches of their search query.

Do as much as you can to write naturally, but avoid sentence-case and stop words so that you aren’t wasting space. To avoid just putting keyword #1 followed by keyword #2 as stated by the formatting recommendation above – you can try to mix keyword together.

Do not stuff unnecessary keywords in the title, stuff keywords, or use keywords that are unrelated to the contents of the page. Google will take the liberty to change it if they deem it necessary. Also, avoid repetitive use of keywords where possible.

See this example in which the title is being changed by Google:

Example of page title being changed in SERP results

Here’s a great article where Matt Cutts talks about why Google my ignore your title tag.

e. Make them accurate

Be sure to choose a title that effectively and accurately communicates the topic of the page’s content.

Avoid choosing a title that has no relation to the content on the page.

Additionally, try to stay away from using default or vague titles such as “Homepage” or “Category page”

f. Make them unique

Every page should contain a title tag that is 100% unique and should not be duplicated anywhere else on the site. Otherwise, you may suffer from reduced rankings due to duplicate content issues.

This will help Google understand how pages on your site are distinct from one another.

One way to find out if you have any duplicate title tags is to utilize the Google Webmaster Tools HTML Improvements report:

See duplicate title tags in Google Webmaster Tools

Additionally, you can also use tools such as Screaming Frog to identify duplicate page title tags:

See duplicate title tags in Screaming Frog

g. Write compelling title headlines & use calls-to-action where possible

As mentioned above, page title tags are often a brand’s first opportunity to showcase their site’s unique content and value proposition to searchers. Therefore, you should focus on crafting a highly targeted headline for each page.

Within the description, be sure to use keywords and verbiage that hits on the overall value proposition and the unique value of the page being described. Neil Patel put together a great piece on writing powerful headlines that convert.

However, I will say that this is a delicate balance, and the approach can be different for different page types (ex: e-commerce category title tags tend to look a lot different than blog title tags).

Given the limitations with space in the title tag, do your best to balance keyword inclusion, writing something compelling, and not wasting space by using stop words.

While all 3 of these sites do a good job of integrating, USAToday’s is the most compelling and would likely draw my click:

Compelling title tag example in Google SERPs

h. Implement Concatenation Schemas

All title tags within page templates should default to pre-defined concatenation schemas with the ability to manually override and customize the text.

Essentially, this will allow you to use database variables to dynamically populate page content.

Concatenation schemas are critical when it comes to ensuring that all pages have a title tag, will help reduce duplicate content, and will ensure that all titles are at least in some way related to actual page topics.

An example of concatenation might be this:

{Category name} – {Brand name}
{Product name} – {Brand name}

This is relatively easy to do on WordPress sites using plugins such as WordPress SEO by Yoast, but it may prove a little more difficult with sites managed by enterprise systems and organizations.

i. Try to drive long-clicks

A good theory to think about when writing page title tags is called “time to long-click”. AJ Kohn over at BlindFiveYearOld.com wrote some great posts on the subject of “long clicks” as it relates to how Google uses the length of time a search takes to provide what is called a “long-click.”

A long click occurs when a user performs a search, clicks on a result and remains on that site for a long period of time.Essentially, what you’re trying to do is compel a user to click your listing and keep them there – thus a long click. While many other factors impact long-clicks, writing an effective Meta Description is a key piece of the puzzle.

j. Focus on what works

There are “many ways to skin a cat,” and page title tags are no different. If you find an approach that works for you, use it, even if it falls slightly outside of what I’ve said here.

A great tool to make connections about what might be working well is Google’s Search Analytics report which is available in Google Webmaster Tools.

Knowing what you know about your page-level optimization strategies and title tagging strategies, this type of data is powerful if you know how to use it.

If you see that a certain approach is leading to a higher click-through rate than another, take advantage of it.

k. Be cognizant of mobile display

There may be some differences in how your title will display on mobile, and while you only get one title per page, you can do your best to strike a balance for positive display across all devices.

For example, mobile SERP titles may be different in length/truncation points than desktop. In the example below, notice how the mobile title shows more characters than the desktop title.

Mobile SERP result
Title tag example in mobile search results

Desktop SERP result
Title tag example in mobile search results

Additional resources

Here are some other great resources on title tag optimization:

Photo credit: Dustin Lee