SEO page titles cause their fair share of confusion among B2B and B2C content marketers. In the old days, it was easy to throw a bunch of words in there with commas and rank well for some of those keyword phrases.
The SEO page title still carries weight, but other ranking variables matter as well. If the quality and quantity of inbound links had to go head to head with SEO page titles in a strange Internet game, the links would crush the titles.
No one has a crystal ball about the degree of their influence. But over time my experience with many websites makes it clear to me that SEO page titles matter more than elements like load speed and image-alt attributes. In other words, don’t neglect SEO titles if you want your content found.
To help you make the most of SEO page titles, I created this checklist of 15 key facts, variables, and best practices:
1. Be aware of what text makes the cut
Web developers used to recommend that SEO titles incorporate about 70 characters, including spaces. It was good advice because that’s what Google displayed in search results. But that changed in 2014 when Google updated its design, allowing 512 pixels for the titles. Now, you should plan on 55 to 60 characters if you don’t want any words to be cut off in the search result (the number of capital letters makes a difference).
2. Go long and don’t sweat it
OK, you sometimes go past 55 to 60 characters. Does it really matter? Is it horrendous that a word gets chopped off? Google doesn’t explicitly indicate how many characters it weighs with its ranking algorithm. Judging from ranking experience, some of the words that go beyond the standard length and don’t appear in the results still provide some value for brands.
For example, Haas Automation still ranks well on the first page of Google even though “Milling” is cut off after “Best in CNC.”
3. Put the most important keywords first
You’re better off including your most important keyword or phrases early in the page title. They’re more likely to help with rankings.
4. Use non-branded keywords
In my 2015 study, Big Businesses Fall Short with SEO and Content Marketing, I looked closely at the Fortune 100. Fifty-six percent didn’t include any strategic keyword phrases in their home pages’ SEO titles. Yes, they used company names, but the site already would rank well for its brand name without the reference.
5. Use relevant keywords with interior pages
In my study, 71% of Fortune 100 websites merely repeated the visible interior-page headlines as the SEO page titles. It’s not a good approach. Visual headlines are often useful, but they don’t always include strategic keyword phrases. Or, if they do, it might be a single word.
Phillips 66 has this page:
The visible page headline is a single word – Environmental (not very descriptive). It gets worse. The SEO page title is repetitive and doesn’t contain any additional words:
6. Look for an opportunity to add variety
If you think through an SEO page title, you can include a keyword or phrase appearing elsewhere in the page’s content. For example, Phillips 66 could have at least created this SEO page title:
<title>Environmental Investments, Technology and Research</title>
7. Take advantage of simplicity
Yes, it’s good to leverage SEO page titles to showcase some diverse keywords or phrases. But some companies rank well when they repeat a keyword-rich visible headline.
Toys “R” Us ranks well for “baby toys.” The company uses the same words from the visible content header and adds the corporate name as it appears at the end of the SEO page title:
<title>Baby Toys | Toy “R” Us</title>
8. Make a tough choice about your company name
It’s a dilemma that may never disappear. With limited space, do you really want to include your company name in the SEO page title? Sure, I get that some executives would expect to see a corporate reference when it appears in the blue link on search engine results. Toys “R” Us managed to do this well.
What’s the downside if a business name consumes precious characters? I imagine that some B2B and B2C brands suffer from lost leads and sales because their search engine rankings aren’t as high as they could be with a more descriptive, searcher-focused SEO title.
The upside? You get to see your company name in a blue link. Including your company in the SEO title could inspire users to click if they are familiar with the brand. In that way, using the name could help. But what website traffic will you fail to get? If you must include your brand, at least put it at the end. I hope it’s as short as Best Buy or GE.
In this example, I don’t think Ally Bank suffers much because “Bank” made the SEO page title too long:
In this example, Google removed some words in the middle of a Web.com SEO page title (“Web.com” still fit):
Don’t forget that your corporate name also can appear in your meta description that is displayed below the SEO page title in search engine results. That option (also known as a “snippet”) might suffice and eliminate the need to use it in the SEO page title.
9. Get ready for Google to overwrite your handiwork
Yes, search engines like Google sometimes display text differently than you intended. Google could display your company name first, which could kill your original strategy.
Google wants to ensure that the SEO page title reflects the content and provides a good user experience. Google may publish a title from part of your meta description, anchor text of an inbound link, or a listing on the Open Directory Project (DMOZ). You can prevent search engines from using DMOZ with this code: <meta name=”robots” content=”NOODP”>
Google was kind to Overstock, which ranks well for “gold jewelry.” The actual SEO page title in the source code is:
<title>Gold Jewelry – Shop Designer Jewelry At Discount Prices – Overstock Shopping</title>
But Google went with a shorter version:
Google also provides a shorter SEO page title for UnoClean.
Unfortunately, the company ranks at the bottom of the second page of Google for “janitorial supplies.” It’s likely that this long, crowded SEO page title isn’t doing them any favors:
<title>Janitorial Supplies, Cleaning Chemicals, Commercial Cleaning Products & Maintenance Supplies – UnoClean.com – Jan/San Cleaning Supplies & Equipment</title>
10. Pick the right keywords
You get the idea that keywords matter, but which ones should you use? Online marketers know that Google doesn’t just focus on keywords. Rankings are based on the overall nature of the content and concepts. In other words, you may rank for a phrase that’s not in the content. If you’re promoting “baby clothes,” you may rank for “baby outfits.”
But you shouldn’t neglect primary keyword phrases for your brand. You need to be realistic. Why go after a keyword phrase that’s searched 20,000 times a month when your other pages rank 10th for keyword phrases searched 1,500 times a month?
11. If you have room, add a call to action
By all means, play up free shipping” or “buy” if those extra words don’t jeopardize a top ranking.
12. Pay attention to formatting
Don’t just list a series of words and/or phrases with commas. SEO titles usually look better when you structure them as statements or in headline formats. Maybe you can use a vertical pipe [ | ] to separate two short statements or one statement from the company name. I still use a comma or a dash here and there. I also start some SEO titles with a colon, which helps me get the keyword phrase early in the page title. Here’s an example from CMI:
<title>Visual Storytelling: 3 Key Factors You Must Nail</title>
13. Avoid repeating keywords
You don’t want to end up with an SEO page title like:
<title>Sales Training for New Employees, Sales Training Books</title>
It wouldn’t be the worst SEO page title, but it could be better:
<title>Books and Sales Training for New Employees</title>
<title>Sales Training for New Employees and Popular Books</title>
14. Don’t fall into keyword stuffing
Don’t cram all the potential search terms into the title so it reads like a thesaurus.
For example, if your company is a performing arts center, avoid an SEO page title like this:
<title>Theater, Amphitheater, Venue, Venues, Arena, Arenas, Concert Hall</title>
It’s easy to think of SEO and SEO page titles as a one-time exercise. Don’t be ruled by that mindset. Look at your rankings and make adjustments. You can always restore what you alter or try something else.
For example, I changed one word in an SEO title and the target keyword phrase jumped from No. 16 to No. 8 on Google. Because of that simple adjustment, monthly traffic increased 300% for that competitive phrase.
Collectively, all of these points about SEO page titles may seem overwhelming. However, if you’re familiar with your content and current rankings, you can choose what might be most helpful to your page.
At a minimum, remember this – you’re better off including some keywords rather than your company name or a page headline like “products.” Even if you use highly competitive single words or phrases, the presence of those words in your SEO title resonates with similar words in the content and helps you rank for any number of long-tail keyword phrases.