Crafting good titles for SEO

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Writing good page titles is an essential skill for anyone doing SEO. The title tag is the first thing a user sees in the search results. It’s also one of the most important factors for Google to decide what the topic of a page is. The combination of these two factors makes it so essential. This article covers both the why and the how of creating a good page title.

HTML title tag or main heading?

First, let’s get some confusion out of the way: we’re talking about the HTML title tag. If you would look at the source of a page, this would be found in the head section and it would look like this:

This is an example page title - Example.com

In tabbed browsers, this title is usually shown in the page tab, as shown in the image below. It’s not to be confused with the main heading of the page, which the user sees on the page itself. That main heading is important too! In fact, we have an entire article about headings and SEO, but it’s not the topic of this article.

Page title in a tab

What’s the (SEO) purpose of a page title?

There are two goals that a good title must achieve:

  1. it must help you rank for a keyword;
  2. it must make the user want to click to your page.

These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes have competing interests. If you’re ranking but nobody is clicking on your result, the ranking doesn’t do you much good. Be aware that if you’re ranking but never getting clicks, over time, your rankings might deteriorate.

Titles and click-through rates (CTR)

Google uses the CTR (click-through rate) as a determinant for how relevant you are for a specific keyword. If your CTR is too low, relative to what Google expects you would get at a certain position, your rankings will drop. The opposite is also true, so a title that gets people to click will also help you rank better.

Your page title & focus keyword

If you’ve chosen a good focus keyword for your post, you should make sure to include that focus keyword in your page title. The page title is one of the most important ways for Google to determine your page’s topic. Not having the focus keyword in the title severely decreases your chance of ranking.

Because people are scanning the search results it’s important that the title immediately “catches their eye”. To do that well, having the focus keyword in the beginning of your page title is very beneficial as Google will highlight it when they search for it. Sometimes, when you’re optimizing for a keyword that has a lot of competition, everyone will have the keyword at the beginning of the page title. If that’s the case, having one or two words in front of your focus keyword, thereby slightly “indenting” your result and breaking the flow of other results, can be a good idea.

Optimal title length for SEO

The optimal length for a title is determined by how much Google can show in their search results. There are currently three “modes” in which Google can show a title. These modes are: wide screen, smaller screen and mobile. On a wide screen and on mobile, Google shows a longer page title than it does on the smaller screen. Let me show you what that looks like:

A wide result:

Page title showing completely in a wide result

A smaller screen result for the same URL:

page title not showing completely on a smaller screen

A mobile result for the same URL:

The page title showing completely on a mobile result

The snippet preview in Yoast SEO currently works for the smaller screen result, as that used to be the default up until early May 2016. From then on, Google changed the maximum width and now shows longer titles when the screen has the space for it. This means the optimal title length for SEO differs per type of result. We would suggest getting your most important keyword in the first half of the title, but if your title is slightly longer than the small result because of branding: let it be!

If you’re asking “how many characters does Google show?”, the answer is: “it depends”. Google doesn’t count a particular number of characters but has a fixed width in which it can show the title. This means it could show many more i’s than it could show w’s. The snippet preview in Yoast SEO accounts for this and shows you the same thing Google would show.

Page titles & branding

For quite a while it was a fashion amongst some SEOs to leave the site name out of the page title. The thought was that the “density” of the title mattered and the site name wouldn’t help with that. Don’t do this. Your page title needs to have your brand in it, preferably in a recognizable way. If people search for a topic and see your brand several times, even when they don’t click on it, they might click when they see you again in their next results page.

If you don’t include your site name in your title tag, you’ll also run the risk of Google just changing the title for you. As explained in our article on why isn’t Google showing my page title, Google thinks it needs to be there too. If you want to read more about branding, be sure to read this post by Marieke: 5 tips on branding.

Optimizing page titles after publication

A few weeks ago I was looking at our Google Search Analytics data for yoast.com and noticed that while we ranked for [wordpress security], we weren’t getting a lot of traffic for it. I optimized the page title and meta description for our WordPress security article and this increased traffic by over 30%. My changes to the title were done around the same time as the update which has a line in the graph below:

Effect of improving the title for the wordpress security article

The change was fairly simple. Instead of the title being:

WordPress Security • Yoast

I changed it to:

WordPress Security in a few easy steps! • Yoast

As you can see this doesn’t necessarily improve the rankings of this page at all. From a keyword perspective, the title isn’t much better. It is more enticing though and it did lead to much more clicks, which, of course, was the desired result.

Titles for social media

What might be a good title tag for SEO doesn’t necessarily have to be a good title for social media. In social media, keyword optimization isn’t always that important, while enticing for the click is all the more important.

In a lot of cases, you also don’t need to include the brand name in the title. Especially for Facebook and Twitter this is very true if you include some form of branding in your post image. Our social previews in Yoast SEO Premium can be a good help for that.

If you’re wondering: yes, you can have a separate Facebook, Twitter and Google title. If you’re using Yoast SEO, you just enter the Google title in the Yoast SEO snippet editor. The Facebook and Twitter title can be entered on the social tab in their respective fields. If you don’t enter a specific Twitter title, Twitter will use the Facebook title.

Conclusion: page titles, craft them well!

The conclusion of this article might very well be: invest a bit more time in writing a good page title. It really is well worth it. Going back in and optimizing some page titles after publication also might well be worth it. This is especially true when you’re already ranking well, but aren’t getting that many clicks.

Read on: ‘SEO copywriting: the ultimate guide’ »

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