SEO practitioners have come to understand that search engine optimization best practices are a moving target. What is recommended today could most certainly change a year from now.

With that in mind, we’ve talked in the past about how to ensure that your title tags, or title elements, are search engine optimized to help you gain domain authority and higher search engine rankings. We decided it would be a great time to go back and update one of our readers’ favorite articles and share some of the things we’ve learned since.

Quite honestly, title tags are one of the easiest SEO elements you can optimize on your own. It’s one of the most important critical factors determining search engine rankings. Almost every web platform available provides easy and quick access to edit the title tags of your pages. Before we dive into best practices for writing title tags, let’s cover the basics with a brief look at the anatomy of a web page.

What is a Title Tag?

Similar to how a title of an article tells you what you will be reading, a title tag is used to tell end users and search engines what the subject or purpose of your web page is. Google and other search engines scan your title tag to know what to return on the search engine results pages when someone is browsing for something related.

guid on where title tags appear

In the image above, we’re using our Acumium website as an example. The title tag for our homepage is Website Development, Ecommerce, Digital Marketing – Acumium.
Let’s look at what the Acumium title tag looks like on a search engine results page.

A screen grab of what SERP's are in search results

Some of you eagle-eyed readers probably noticed that the title tag is slightly different than what was in our first example. In this second image, our brand name is in front of the tag instead of at the end. Well, that’s because Google does as Google does. We may have written the tag with our company named at the tail end, but Google is known to “customize” how they display your title tag in SERPs.

That’s ok. It’s going to happen, and there’s not much you can do to avoid other than play by the rules.

Title Tag Tip: Use the least amount of characters for your brand name in the title tag. A way to cut back on characters is to abbreviate where you can. For example, don’t write out “Company” but instead use the abbreviation “Co.”

Title Tag Character Count

Now that you know more about what a title tag is and what it’s good for, let’s look at how it should be written.

Title tags are meant to be short. Ideally they are going to include at least two keyword phrases that you’re targeting in your SEO. In the past, title tags were recommended to be 70 characters or less. But not long ago, Google updated the fonts and font styling that SERPs are displayed in. This reduced the amount of characters that you can use before your title tag is cut off (like in our above example).

Because of this change, the new standard to shoot for is 55 characters. Optimally, this will allow most of your title tag to be displayed on SERPs.

Title Tag Tip: Your website should have one unique title tag per page. You wouldn’t place the same content on each page and you shouldn’t use the same title tags for every page.

Keyword Phrases

Search engines prioritize your keywords from right to left, much like how you read a sentence. This means that Google is going to designate the keyword phrase you start off with as the most important. Everything that follows will be of decreasing value.

With that in mind, you should begin your title tag with your primary keyword phrase. The best way to determine your primary keyword phrase is by asking what the main subject of your page is. If you’re working on the tag for your homepage, this would most likely be the broadest description of what you do or what you want to be found for. For Acumium, this was Website Development. For you, it could be Gourmet Coffee or Car Rentals.

Title Tag Tip: if want to improve your local SEO you may want to include a location modifier to your keyword phrase such as Gourmet Coffee Madison or Car Rentals Milwaukee.

Internal pages should be more focused on your individual services. For example, let’s say you have an ecommerce site that sells shoes and your landing page is for women’s sandals. A logical primary keyword phrase would be “women’s sandals.”

After you’ve selected your primary keyword or phrase, you should select secondary keyword phrases that support the primary but are more focused on long tail keywords. For example, if the primary phrase was “women’s sandals,” the secondary keyword phrase might be “high-heel wedge sandals.” But remember to avoid keyword stuffing, you shouldn’t repeat a word more than three times in a title tag!

Title Tag Tip: When choosing keyword phrases, utilize keyword research and competitor analysis to support your decision making process.

How to Separate Keyword Phrases in the Title Tag

Title tags should not be written in complete sentences. With only 55 characters to use, space is a premium. This means that you’re going to have to decide how to separate each keyword phrase in your tag. You can do this by using pipes (|), colons (:), commas (,) or hyphens/dashes (-). Each one signifies something different to search engines.

  • Pipes tell the search engine that the phrases on either side of the pipe are of EQUAL value.
  • Colons tell search engines that a more specific keyword phrase is coming.
  • Commas are used in many title tags. Words following a comma are considered to be of decreasing importance. Word of warning though, avoid overuse of commas because search engines are beginning to see this as a red flag for keyword stuffing.
  • Hyphens allow you to be found for word variations. Example: web-design would trigger web-design, web design and webdesign.
  • Dashes are connectors and show a relationship between two elements.

Title Tag Tip: Although you should aim to write for humans, stop words do not provide much SEO value and should be avoided when possible. Stop words are short function words such as; “the”, “an”, “but”, “which”, “and”, “of”, “a”, etc.

Don’t Forget About Click-through Rates

As mentioned earlier, writing title tags for homepages and internal pages are very similar practices. Just remember to write your tag for the content of the page using that page’s targeted keyword phrases.

But there is an alternative strategy for your homepage title tag that focuses less on keywords and more on click-through rates.

Why wouldn’t you want to use keywords in your title tag? Aren’t keywords the most important part of SEO? Good questions, astute reader! Keywords are important for SEO. But what matters most at the end of the day is someone actually clicking on your link.

A little known fact is that click-through rates play a huge factor in your SEO. The goal of search engines is to show relevant content to what someone searched for. So if your link is never clicked on when people search, despite being shown, you’re going to slowly lose rankings.

With all that in mind, a good recommendation is to focus your homepage title tag on your brand followed by a short, strong value statement or incentive. Keywords are still important, but you’re trying to encourage someone to click. Here are some examples of companies that are already practicing this strategy.

Screen shot of what your title tags look like in in the Google search results

As you can see, each of these companies is still using targeted keywords, but they’re writing the title tag with a focus on the end user. They are also much nicer to read than just a string of random words, and thus will encourage more people to click through to their website, and higher click-through rates equal better SEO.

In the end, title tags are extremely important to your overall SEO. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Take these tips into account and change the wording a little on your title tag and watch your analytics for a few weeks. Correctly utilizing title tags can help you reach the top of page one in organic search results.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2012 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.