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Good Title Tags for SEO

John Doherty —  July 9, 2011
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The good old title tag. The poor maligned title tag. The title tag has been taking a beating recently in the SEO world, and I feel bad for it.

I want to further explain the little-loved lines of text that receive so much hate, yet have such a large effect on your rankings AND click through rates (CTR). After all, the title tag is the first thing a user sees when they come across your site in a SERP, right?

I’ll admit right away that I’m writing this post for beginner SEOs. So if you’re advanced at SEO, you should probably go learn some ImportXML or something :-)

Where is my title tag?

To start from the very beginning, the title tag is the text that you see on your search browser tab or along the top of your page if you are using a tabless browser like IE6. The title is also what you will see when you see the page indexed in a search results page (SERP).

Title tag guidelines for SEO

Keywords
This one seems obvious, but your title tags should contain the main important keywords for your page that also describe the contents of the page. It seems obvious as well, but I can’t imagine that you could fool big G and rank for a page well for a page that has nothing to do with your content. SEO is about relevance in this case.
To learn basic keyword research, I recommend reading Rand’s recent post called SEO for Travel Blogging 101.
Uniqueness
Each and every page and article should have a unique title. On large sites, many webmasters will carefull plan out an actionable plan for how to structure their title tags, to ensure the uniqueness across even millions of pages.

Constructing a Title Tag

Usually, a well-constructed title tag will have the keywords first and will be in the structure of “Keyword | Category” or “Keyword | Brand”. We use the pipe ( | ) because testing has shown that this is the most search crawler accessible divider.
Brands will sometimes want to structure their title tags to include their brand name on some of their most important category pages, but maybe not their individual product pages.
For example, if I were to do SEO for The North Face (I don’t but would love to. TNF, if you’re reading and need SEO, please get in touch), I would structure their main pages to include “| The North Face”.
A category page like Men’s Clothing would receive something like “Men’s Outdoor Gear and Apparel | The North Face”. Deeper into the products, however, I might put something like “Men’s Denali Fleece Jacket | Men’s Outdoor Apparel”.

A Couple More Notes

Before I unleash you into the wild of the Interwebs, let me give you two pieces of advice:
1) Do not keyword stuff your title tags. Do your keyword research to find the main term you want to target and use that. If I see anyone writing a title tag like “Blue Orange Widgets Plugins Cheap Prices” I will personally come smack you. Consider yourself warned. More importantly than the threat of bodily harm, the search engines also do not like stuffed title tags or content, and have been known to penalize sites for doing so.
2) Just because you are writing title tags for rankings does not mean that your title tags has to be boring! You can do the keyword research AND be creative. After all, good writing is what really gets the links and subsequently rankings, so pay attention to keywords but do not kill your creativity.

Conclusion

I hope this brief intro to title tags has been useful to you. I’d love to hear comments if you have any.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

5 responses to Good Title Tags for SEO

  1. Great article (I think if I understood it as I think I did…) – my website was done by a “professional” and this person was mostly responsible for my titles on my pages. She did what I think you said shouldn’t be done and that is make long titles to include a lot of different key words. So this is a no no? What this means is I need to go back in and change about 500 product pages and then do redirects? We’re not doing well AT ALL in the search engines. I used to before I had my website “redone”. Thanks again!

    • Hey Ann -

      The way they seem to have done your site, with the Brand – Product isn’t necessarily bad, but usually best practice is to put the Product first, then the brand name if it makes sense to have the brand name in the page title (ie, it’s your product, not just one that you are selling).

      You should not have to do any redirects. You could simply change the page titles to better reflect what the page is about. From taking a quick look at your site though, I don’t see any keyword stuff page titles…

      If I were you, I would create a sitemap for your site to help with indexation, check for erroring pages, and make your page titles more unique. Then work on getting more links into your site.

  2. I like this site so far. However, the keywords placed in title tags should be relevant to the rest of the page. Obviously, if you want to be found for ‘candle supplier’ it’s no use placing ‘candle supplier’ in the title of each and every page as some pages may not contain the 2 keywords. And you should mix up the title for each page, duplication is bad and relevancy is important. I think you neglected to mention this though I’m sure you know.

    • Matt –
      Thanks for the comment. I thought I made this clear in the post, talking about unique page titles, but if I did not then this is a huge oversight on my part! You absolutely should have unique page titles with keywords that reflect what is on the page.
      Thanks!

  3. Hi John,

    Great post. Very useful. I am optimizing my online store and I wonder if I should add the reference number of the product on the product page title.

    The title would be: Model | reference number | my store

    The model includes the brand so maybe it’s better not to have the keyword duplicated.

    Thanks for your insights on twitter and here.