Title Tags: Not Just for Keywords Anymore

I very nearly titled this article “The Truth About Keywords in Title Tags.” I didn’t because I’m no longer sure that anyone has all of it. If you’re ready to rethink one of the most basic things you’ve ever learned about SEO, and stop simply reacting to Google, keep reading.

First, let me give credit where it’s due. I just finished reading a post by Michael Martinez in which he digs more deeply into this so-called basic topic than anyone I’ve seen. Martinez’s contrarian views, eloquently expressed and supported, can make any reader rethink a cherished position. If he’s right, then the way most of us do our page titles or title tags is – well, not wrong, exactly, but a little misguided.

We all know how you’re supposed to write title tags, right? Start by doing some keyword research for your topic, build a title using those keywords, then lather, rinse, repeat. Make sure you repeat those keywords at appropriate intervals throughout your article. Voila! Your keyword magic will get you a spot in the SERPs, right where searchers can find you.

Martinez questions this approach – even as he blatantly uses it in the very same post. He titled his entry “How to Write Title Tags for SEO” and uses that phrase periodically throughout the piece. Clearly, this classic technique delivers traffic and rankings. Martinez does not say that it doesn’t work; rather, he maintains that it’s too basic.

“Real search engine optimization doesn’t care about a SINGLE keyword,” Martinez explains. Your page of content should rank first for far more keywords than you can fit in the title tag. If you can only get to the first page of Google for one to three expressions, according to Martinez, your SEO sucks.

Martinez wants us, as SEOs, to use our imaginations a lot more than we do when we’re simply trying to optimize page titles and links. “If you’re sitting there bored to tears because all your boss wants you to do is put his favorite keywords in your page titles, you can slip one past him by optimizing those same pages for other keywords AT THE SAME TIME,” he all but whispers conspiratorially.

He then invites us to join in on the conspiracy by writing posts on our blogs with titles that start with “What I Think About…” or even “If I May Intrude On Your Thoughts For a Moment…” and then add the topic at the end. If you’re hardcore enough to actually try this, he also wants you to not check your keyword tools before adding that topic. Some will see no reason to try this scary, seemingly pointless exercise. Why not stick with winning titles like “How To…” and “Ten Ways to…” and so on? Come on, Martinez does that right in the article in which he preaches rebellion! Why should we do it if he doesn’t?

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Before SEO got pushed on journalists, readers saw some of the most creative article titles. With the death of newspapers, that changed. Readers search for information by using keywords, so SEOs all but forced writers to pack their headlines with keywords.

As Martinez pointed out, however, “people get their ideas for those keywords from some published source.” If my friends are talking about some article they just read, they’ll mention the title – and if it stands out, I’ll remember it the next time I bring Google up on my screen. Cracked serves up some lovely oddball titles; so does Martinez, of course, and our own Matt Goffrey.

Somehow, by following a formula to get titles ranked in Google, we’ve forgotten that the whole point of a good title is that it should be memorable. That’s particularly ironic, considering that many title tag articles recommend you follow a formula because more people will remember your piece! If everyone is doing it, though, you don’t stand out anymore.

“If you want to play in the big leagues of SEO you have to stop CHASING keywords and start MAKING them,” Martinez explained. If journalists “publish articles with memorable headlines, or which say especially witty things, people will search for THOSE ARTICLES. If you want to own the rankings then just build the query spaces for yourself…Anyone can compete for a ‘How to…’ page title but to create value in a truly unique title no one else thinks is worth using – THAT is powerful SEO. It’s more powerful than all the link anchor text in the world.”

So if you’re not going to write a formulaic title tag full of keywords, what should you write? How should you go about it? You might start by writing your article BEFORE you come up with the title. Once you’re done, create a title that sets up the reader to expect what you’ve just written. If you can’t do that, don’t be afraid to put in a placeholder of a title and change it when you get to the end. I’ve changed the title of this article a couple of times already – not because my writing didn’t go where I intended it to, but because my TITLE didn’t convey the right message.

Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy and deliver a title that’s a bit out in left field. To use Martinez’s example, you could write an article on “10 Great SEOs Blogs You Should Read Today,” grab the links, and do a quick summary of each. But if you want to play in the big leagues, try titling it “My Favorite SEO Blogs Have Never Used Keywords in Article Titles Because They Glow in the Dark,” and give it your best prose: “each paragraph you write about a blog has to sing itself off the page and into the SERPs for a year,” Martinez writes.

Where does that leave us? Ironically, Martinez blows up one old SEO saw of sorts just to leave us with another: great content will win out. He’s based his blog around that premise for years. This approach can take a while to pay off, as I’ve written elsewhere. But truly memorable titles can help attract visitors who will keep coming back – as long as you keep giving them the great content that they enjoyed so much on that first visit. Good luck!

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