SEO 101: What’s a Title Tag?

Ian Lurie

I’m spending today trying not to spontaneously combust. Assuming I don’t vanish with a puff of smoke and a FOOMP, this will be a quick primer on title tags.

In case you don’t know: In web terms, the ‘title tag’ is a hidden bit of code on your page. It’s typically visible to the public in two places.
First, in the title bar of your web browser:
And second, as the headline of most search snippets on search results pages:
As the headline of a search snippet, the title tag is the ultimate arbiter of clickability. A good title tag will get your search ranking clicked. A bad one will likely drive away potential visitors.
But the title tag is also the #1 onpage search ranking factor. More on that, after I do a quick HTML dissection (ew):

The Bones and Guts and Stuff

If you click ‘View’ and then ‘Page Source’ in Firefox, or View >> Source in Internet Explorer, you’ll see what the title tag looks like when the skin’s off the skeleton:
That’s it – what all the fuss is about. See how the text matches the search snippet and title bar text, above?
Edit the stuff between ‘<title>’ and ‘</title>’ and you change what appears in the search engines, as well as the title bar.

Why You Should Care

Search engines rank pages, not web sites. At the top of the hierarchy that they use to do that ranking sits the title tag.
The title tag is the single most powerful ranking factor over which you have control. If you don’t optimize your title tags, don’t bother optimizing your site.
OK, that’s a little extreme, but launching an SEO campaign without title tag optimization is a bit like launching a sailboat without sails. You’re not going to get very far.

What You Should Do

Armed with this knowledge, you can now march down the hall to your web dude (or dudette) and request that:

  1. The target phrase go first in the title tag. If I’m optimizing for “Buckets”, then “Buckets: All shapes and colors at bucketorama” is good. “Bucketorama: All kinds of buckets” is bad.
  2. By default, your shopping cart software put the product name first in all title tags, then the category name, then the brand.
  3. Your content management system (CMS) and/or shopping cart software let you customize title tags product by product, as desired. The title tag must be independent of the page’s visible headline:
  4. Editing title tags on your site take less than 10 minutes per page (please lord).
  5. There’s a regular weekly time (minimum) scheduled for those edits.

That last item is really important: As your pages rise and fall in the rankings for different phrases, you’ll likely want to tweak your titles a bit, adding and removing words for better clickability or rankings. Don’t let someone tell you you can edit those tags ‘just this once’.

That’s it! Amazing how that one little tag can have such an impact…

Opinions Please

If this was too elementary, let me know and I won’t write this kind of stuff. If it was helpful, let me know, too.

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  1. Pretty elementary yes, but at the same time – a good “the basics” post to share with the organization.
    As long as you mix it up with the juicy stuff I think it’ll be all right 😉

  2. Good post. There are also some ways to ‘test’ possible titles for the best CTR by:
    1. Using parts of the title tag in your AdWords creative by ensuring that ‘Rotate: Show ads more evenly’ is switched on in the AdWords account. Once you’ve got some learnings, apply them to the page title tag (taking into account keywords of course).
    2. For products, using variations of the product title (which as you noted will be used for the title tag by the shopping cart) in Google Base. Google Base has a performance tab which will demonstrate any uplift in traffic hence in CTR (unless you’ve added more products), and in addition you’ll notice that Google Base traffic in Google Analytics referral URL has ‘google.[tld]/products?’ in the URL making the option to set a filter very easy.
    3. In a recent comment on my Blog a user noted that CTR can be tested via Google Local as well, though I haven’t tested it myself yet.

  3. This is perfect. I know of the importance of title tags and have seen a lot of opinions on the subject. To me it seemed obvious to always put the key phrase first, but I have seen the brand/company name put first. I guess it all depends on how you want to show up in the rankings and for what keywords.
    Ian, what tools do you for keyword analysis? Google? Wordtracker? What in your opinion is the best tool?

  4. @Steve All of the above, actually. You have to use multiple tools because many draw data from different sources. WordTracker and Trellian, for example, don’t have any Google data.

  5. Passed this along to my web dude and dudette – not too basic, you’re validating what we “think” we know – thanks so much!

  6. I’m hoping to teach myself web design in the near future. I appreciate articles like this that are not too techie for me to grasp. I do lots of searching and get very irritated with bad tags. This was good food for thought.
    I’m not sure how I came upon your site (chronic surfer), but found your article “22 things you dont know about your customers” and stuck around on your site for a bit. I checked a few more articles and am now a subscriber. Thank you!

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