A few months ago one of my clients has changed platforms. The new platform changed almost everything we’ve optimized on-site for years. It even messed up the obvious SEO basics like title tags and we’re struggling with them to this day as the platform maker insisted that title tags “get assigned automatically” in their system.
While title tag optimization is the daily bread of every SEO, for many people, like
- software vendors
- content creators
- business leaders
title tags appear to be completely random and negligible. They assume that
title tags won’t get even really seen by the average user so why bother with them at all?
They forget that title tags get displayed in search results on Google and elsewhere and that it’s still one of the most important ranking factors for Google.
Also it’s not just one ranking factor.
There at least around 30 signals from the title tag alone if you ask me. Thus I decided to list what I perceive to be the 40 title tag SEO for Google ranking factors and optimization techniques plus resources every website owner should consider. Many are common sense by now, others will be new to some people. Also I added some factors I personally assume to count on Google. I have no objective proof for those but I hope you will provide their own opinion on them.
Not all title tag optimization techniques are ranking factors for Google but they need to be implemented as well in a thorough on-site SEO campaign.
- Exact Match (of search query) – When your title tag matches the search query exactly than it’s 100% relevant for it. Example: searching for [seo news] without brackets would match a page with SEO News as a title tag. Nothing more or less.
- Keyword Order – On Google it’s first come, first serve. The first word in the title tag is most relevant. So in case you want to rank for [seo news] you better write “SEO News” in your title tag and not “News SEO”.
- Keywords vs Keyphrases – As we have seen in the examples above we in most cases attempt to rank for keyphrases containing two or more terms not single word keywords. You won’t rank for [seo] or [news] easily anyways unless you are Wikipedia or CNN so you better target keyphrases not just keywords.
- Collocations and Compounds – Many keyphrases are just phrases for the sake of SEO but many others are already a combination linguistically. Many of them are not yet phrases but they are collocations (two or more words often used together) or compounds (one term consisting of two or more words). In English it is often difficult to find out whether you are using a collocation or a compound but in other languages it is. “Blue sky” is a collocation but “skyscraper” is a compound. Here you can spot it easily because it’s one word. Google users are often looking for compounds and collocations. So you want to write “blue sky” in your title to rank for it instead of “blue, sky”.
- Modifiers (like “cheap” or buy) – There are common modifiers many searchers look for. In case you have an e-commerce website you certainly have users who are seeking “cheap [insert your product here]” or “buy [insert your product here]“. Google also tries to extract the searcher’s motivation from such queries. A search like [seo wikipedia] is different than [cheap seo] or [seo.com]. Depending on the query Google will attempt to find the right kind of website. So when you sell something you better add the appropriate modifier.
- Length (70 characters) – Google will only show 70 characters on its search results page (SERP) so you want to make sure that the most important stuff is at the beginning while the brand is at the end. This item has been suggested by @SorbetDigital
- Stop Words – Stop words are words that get ignored by Google, or are not useful in the title tag and search results itself in most cases. “And” is such a word. The less of them the better but some people really search for phrases containing stop words. In these cases you may rank better when you actually use one. “SEO UK” is not the same as “SEO in the UK”.
- Numbers – Numbers, that is digits, not written numbers, are quite popular on the Web these days, especially on social media. The top 10 ways to do something are better than just ways to do it. When it comes to search though most people don’t use numbers or digits. On the other hand your click through rate (CTR) might still depend on the numbers contained in your title tag. Would you prefer 10, 30 or 101 ways to do something? It depends on the context but in many cases you will go for the higher number as a searcher.
- Hyphens – While in English people don’t use as many hyphens as for instance in German using a hyphen is a good way to rank for different keyphrases while only adding it once. For instance sports-car in your title tag would be both recognized as [sports car] and [sportscar] in search results. While this works sometimes without the hyphen workaround in many cases you need to assist Google to rank for both versions of a keyphrase.
- Commas – Commas are not a good way to separate your keywords in the title tag. Google basically discounts title tags with commas as a useless list of keywords. A comma is not only a waste of space in your title tag it raises a red flag: Your title tag appears to be a victim of keyword stuffing, a search engine spam “technique” from a decade ago.
- Pipes – Many people prefer to use pipes as separators these days, that is using this character here “|” as in “SEO|PPC”. A pipe has no particular meaning beyond just “separator”. This is both a pro as a con. Some SEO practitioners advise not to use them at all because otherwise you look like an SEO and get down-ranked for that. This may be a “conspiracy theory” but the pipe is usually not used in written language so that it looks a bit artificial. While I sometimes use it I prefer hyphens and slashes in many cases.
- Slashes – Everybody uses slashes “/” in URLs. You can use them in title tags as well and even be grammatically correct. A slash basically means “and” or “or”. I often use a slash for synonyms or for lists of phrases.
- Other Separators – There are others separators you van use in your title tag. A plus “+”, a dot “.”, a number sign “#”, an ampersand or angle quotes “<”, “>” that can be used, especially when combined. Something like Search Marketing > SEO > Onsite Optimization can make sense in a title tag. This example also looks similar to a breadcrumbs menu so that people can recognize it’s meaning as a hierarchy. This item has also been suggested by @rishil
- Misc. Special Characters – There are special characters out there that can lead to trouble though, either by not being displayed correctly by browsers itself or by confusing the search engines. Thus using very exotic special characters may have a negative impact. They can stick out as well and get the searcher’s attention on the other hand.
- Blanks/Spaces – Most people use blanks or spaces as separators by default. As long as the title tag reflects a sentence structure it works quite well as in “the sky is blue”. Some people tend to list keywords using spaces though. The outcome is something like this: “SEO Services SEO Company India Search Engine Optimization (SEO) India”. While such a title may rank well, it’s #1 for [seo india] right now, the very poor readability and spammy appearance will result in a lower CTR.
- Keyword Proximity – Not only keyword order is important also keyword proximity. A title tag like “SEO blog” will rank better for the keyphrase [seo blog] than “SEO, PPC and social media marketing blog” not only due to the number of keywords contained and thus lack of focus but also because the words “SEO” and “blog” are very wide apart.
- Keyword Repetition – A few years ago it was a best practice to repeat your keyword twice in your title tag once varying it slightly. In recent years Google recognizes more and more variations. Thus you don’t have to repeat as many of them anymore. Keyword repetition can have both a positive or a negative impact on your ranking. Especially repeating a keyword more than twice can lead to a penalty for keyword stuffing, unless it really makes sense semantically.
- Title Tag Repetition – By title tag repetition I mean repeating the same title tag on the same page. Many people accidentally use the same title tags on two or more pages. This is in most cases bad for your SEO when it comes to Google. Google will display just two results from the same site so having more than two pages with the same title tag does not make sense. It’s just duplicate content. You can assign the same title tag to the print version of your document but even there you can change it slightly by adding the obvious “print version” modifier. Each title tag should be unique.
- Singular, plural – The most accepted method of repetition in one and the same title tag is the singular/plural variation. Example: iPhone/iPhones. It’s been widely used in recent years but Google does a better job by now of finding both the singular and plural versions independently from the query unless it really matters. Someone searching for [paris hotels] e.g. is looking for a list of them while a searcher typing [paris hotel] just searches for the best or most renowned one. This item has also been suggested by @jaamit
- Synonyms – Synonyms are another legitimate way to add repetition to the title tag. Cars/Autos or Bikes/Bicycles are good examples here. Some SEO practicioners use multiple of them. I am by now not as fond of this technique anymore as Google recognizes more and more synonyms by now. This item has also been suggested by @rishil
- Acronyms – Acronyms or abbreviations get treated almost like synonyms. Just search for [search engine optimization] and you’ll notice that some snippets in the SERPS only contain the acronym “SEO”. Depending on your priorities you can add both, the complete term and the abbreviations or just the acronym. In case you want to save space you can rank for the whole keyphrase just by using the acronym. Otherwise you can repeat your keyphrase once using the whole term, once only the short version.
- Brand Names – In recent months Google has actually more than once changed the way it treats brand names in search results. The trend is to focus more on brands than solely on generic keywords and phrases. A brand can actually boost your organic ranking when many people already search for it. Don’t rely solely on generic terms in your title tag. Try to use a brand, be it a personal brand or a corporate one.
- Domain Matching – Exact match domains have a strong advantage in search results on Google and elsewhere. A domain like SEO.com greatly improves your ranking for a generic term like [seo] as long as you don’t make some big mistakes elsewhere in your SEO campaign.
- Domain Mentioning – Does the domain mention the keyword? It doesn’t have to match it completely. A combination like brandseo.com or seo-brand.com is good enough to be mentioned in the title tag along the actual keyphrase. A title tag like “SEO Services by Cool-SEO.com” can give you an additional boost on Google.
- URI Matching – Some people will disagree but IMHO title tags matching the actual URL structure are better than those that don’t match it. This may look a bit automated and get down-ranked on large scale websites but on small business sites it’s the way to go. So when your URL is domain.com/seo-services add “SEO Services” to your title tag as well.
- h1/2 etc. Matching – Again, this here is my own opinion. Matching h1 or h2 tags on your page will support your title tag as a ranking factor. On the other hand when they don’t match you lose out a bit of relevancy.
- Text Matching – Content should always reflect the title tag. In pages where there is not a single mention of the keyphrase found in the title tag, the title tag itself won’t have as much of an impact.
- Relevancy – Google may select the display title tag from three different places – The website, DMOZ, or it may be auto generated by Google depending on which Google deems most relevant. This item has been suggested by @GuavaUK
Advanced SEO for title tags
- Use click-through rate data from AdWords to help find the perfect call to action, and work it into the title . This item has been suggested by @SharkSEO
- Load two different titles for Google News and organic search by modifying the title after 12 hours. This item has been suggested by @GuavaUK
- Use snippet tools to see how it all looks to improve CTR. This item has been suggested by @SEO_Doctor
- Big brands should not put their name in the homepage title – let Google use the DMOZ title to get better CTR. This item has been suggested by @patrickaltoft
- The same as above but use both to target both generic keyword and brand name. This item has been suggested by @rishil
Additional title tag optimization resources from elsewhere in the SEO industry:
Do you have something to add about title tags and SEO? Do it in the comments please! I may add it to the post itself.