Look at the top of your browser, above the address bar and the line of links labeled File, Edit, etc. Next to the symbol for the browser itself you’ll find a title. That is the page title. It should not be confused with the actual title of this article, even though the two read nearly the same.
In HTML, you specify a web page’s title in its title element. You use title tags, like so:
<title>This is a web page title</title>
With some content management or blogging systems, you can specify a title tag that is different from the title you give to the post or article on that page. You might find that very desirable for SEO purposes. Other CMS platforms might not have that functionality built in, but boast plug-ins that extend their native capabilities. For example, the popular blogging platform WordPress isn’t optimized for SEO, but Stephan Spencer has created the SEO Title Plugin for it. This lets you do exactly what I’m talking about here – use a different title for your post and your web page.
You may want to optimize both your page title and your article/post title. Since the two have different purposes, you may even want to have two significantly different titles. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as both of them are relevant. You may also choose to make your page title and your article/post title the same (or nearly so), as you’ll find we do on many of our pages. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.
But maybe you’re wondering why you should optimize your page title at all. Or perhaps you’ve put a few keywords into your title and you figure you’re done. Or maybe you came up with a page title that you believe is good enough to use on every page of your site. I’ll explain why you want to optimize your page titles as soon as I stop cringing.
Page titles get seen by the search engines first and the searchers second. Write a relevant page title and you have a much better chance of showing up for the right keywords in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Think of it as receiving a reward for helping the search engines figure out how to classify your page.
The searchers will see your page title after the search engines – but it’s often the first thing they will see about your site. They will probably choose whether or not to follow the link to your site based on your page title. So you have to please both a bot and a real human being. That’s reason enough to spend extra time on your title.
Searchers will bookmark your site if they like what they see. What’s the default text used for a bookmark? You guessed it: the page title. I admit, when I bookmark a page, I’ll change the text; I usually shorten it or make it more descriptive (or both). If you don’t force your visitors to take this extra step, you’ll put a smile on their faces. And consider this: if a visitor doesn’t change the bookmark and it’s not descriptive enough, he may forget why he bookmarked your site in the first place. That makes the bookmark kind of useless to both of you.
When someone is trying to find a site that they visited and liked but didn’t bookmark, they’re likely to check their browser history. Guess how web pages show up in a browser’s history? Give yourself a gold star if you said page titles. Guess what happens if your page title isn’t descriptive? It won’t stand out in a browser history list, and you’ll lose a return visit.
Does your site feature an RSS generator? If so, it probably turns your page titles into headlines. Those headlines entice subscribers to your feed to come visit your site and read the entire article. In other words, as I’ve been saying for the past three paragraphs, good page titles not only encourage first-time visitors to check you out; they also help you get repeat visits.
Finally, there’s the matter of links. Here I am talking about an on-page optimization factor, and now I’m dragging in links?! But that’s an off-page optimization issue, right? Well, not exactly. Sometimes on-page and off-page factors feed each other, and this is one example of that. As you saw when I mentioned bookmarks and browser history lists, when there’s a link involving a web page, the browser defaults to the page title.
So do a lot of people who link to your page. So when Jazzy Judy writes her blog entry about your music store and its incredible selection of jazz recordings going all the way back to George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong, her anchor text will be your page title. Anchor text is widely believed to play a prominent role in how Google decides whether a page is relevant for particular keywords.
Michael Nguyen, writing for Social Patterns, lists eleven rules for writing page titles. Aaron Wall also lists eleven, but they’re a slightly different set. Matt McGee, writing for Gooruze, lists six. Still, there are certain things that all three of them agree upon. Here they are, in no particular order.
First, keep it short. Search engines will show no more than 60 or 70 characters (including spaces) when they list your page in the SERPs. If you get any longer than that, they’ll cut it off.
Second, be accurate, relevant, and descriptive. Give both the search bot and the human searcher a good idea of what to expect of your page’s content. If possible, front-load your most important keyword, and avoid keyword stuffing.
Third, have a unique title for every page on your site. If you don’t, the search engines might think you’re displaying duplicate content, and that brings its own headaches. Your human visitors will also have a hard time telling the difference between your pages.
Fourth, write in plain English (or whatever language you’re using for your site’s content). Yes, it’s hard not to want to get fancy. As Graywolf pointed out in his SEO blog recently, “Spring Sunglass Trends in New York City” is simply not as entertaining a title as “Specs in the City.” And in that case, the title might work. But it’s too easy to get so clever that the meaning slips past your target audience. Remember, searchers aren’t reading page titles so much as skimming them, so you need to write a title that makes it clear from the get-go what the page is all about.
Fifth, don’t stuff your title with keywords. One at the beginning is fine. Likewise, don’t add unneeded words to your title. You might be surprised by how much you can cut. Nguyen used the following example: “Click here to go to my page” could be cut to simply “my page.”
Sixth, here’s a direct quote from Aaron Wall to give you a good idea of what a page title should do: “Good titles evoke an emotional response, ask a question, or promise something (that the landing page fulfills).”
You can follow the same guidelines for your article titles. Or if you choose you can spice things up a little bit. Michael Gray wrote a very nice article on optimizing WordPress page titles that talks about creating a page title and a post title at the same time, and explains why you might want to make the two different. He focuses strongly on keywords. Indeed, one of the reasons that you might want to make your article/post title different from your page title is that you can optimize for different keywords.
But there are other reasons you might want to make your article title different. In another article, Gray talks about “title bait.” He also includes several examples. I believe he intended them to work as both page titles and article titles. He wants searchers to see the title and feel almost compelled to click through to the article. Depending on the approach you take to page titles, however, you might prefer to limit these techniques to your article titles.
You can play on titillation to spice up an otherwise-bland topic. For example, when Gray wanted to point out that one prominent blogger was just two clicks away from adult content, what title did he use? “Six Degrees of a Lesbian Porn Scraper.” You have to admit, that gets attention.
You can also be controversial or, if it’s relevant, clearly show your readers that they’re about to encounter an entertaining rant. That’s the approach Gray took when he titled one article “Yahoo: Yeah We Suck and We Don’t Give a Damn!”
And you can always play the list card. Had I structured this article a little differently, I could have called it something like “Ten Ways to Optimize Your Page Titles.” Somehow, we just can’t resist something that offers to sum up a complicated subject with just a few tips. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a few steps. And it doesn’t have to be a website either; there are books based on this idea. I was delighted to see, for example, that Amazon is currently selling a book titled “The 100 Greatest Inventions of All Time.” Why not take advantage of a marketing approach that’s as old as Moses?
For something a little more up-to-date, you can always mix some pop culture references into your title. Famous quotes or concepts work as well. How about “The Silly String Theory of the Universe” for an article on more technical uses for the toy (our military uses it to detect tripwires)? I admit I’m a little rusty at this; you can probably come up with much better ideas. Of course, you’ll have to rise to the challenge of being professional, informative, and humorous all at the same time, as Gray himself notes – but it can be done. Good luck!