Updated for March 2021
With their busy jobs full of content pushing and optimizing, SEOs and content writers tend to overlook the small cherry-on-tops of the content creation process...
Like creating compelling title tags for their pages.
SEOs and content marketers usually make a mess of them. And for many reasons that we cover in this guide.
So, let’s look at how you can make your title tags more interesting, increase click-through rates, and finally, get more readers to your pages.
What are title tags?
The <title> tag is an HTML element that describes the content of a page or post but does not appear within the “page” content itself.</title>
It is the partner to the ‘meta description’ tag in helping search engines understand the content and context of a page.
You can preview your existing tags using free tools online or inside your Content Management System (CMS).
Title tags serve a different function to H1 tags—these are “Header” tags within your content.
Here’s what title tag code looks like in real life:
<title>Content and SEO Software for Marketers · Surfer</title>
The title tag itself is contained within the Head section of an HTML document.
So the full code snippet would look something like this:
<title> Content and SEO Software for Marketers · Surfer </title>
You can view this HTML code on pretty much any page of any website by hovering your mouse over the page, then right-click and “View page source:”
Relax, that’s about as technical as this guide will get.
Why are title tags important?
One word: Visibility
They are the first thing a user sees when they Google something—it’s the clickable line of text that appears below the URL of your site:
Note: Sometimes, Google may pick a different title tag and meta tag from your content from the one you set for your page. We explain why this happens a little later.
It is the information that helps a potential visitor decide if your result is worth a click or not.
They also appear in web browser tabs once searchers click through to your site:
The web browser tab feature is about user experience (UX) more than anything else. Basically, it allows users to find your website once it's bookmarked and when they have a few tabs opened at once… and who doesn’t?
Your page title is also relevant if you post content to social media. It’s visible when you or your audience share the page on platforms like Facebook or Twitter:
But—and this is the really important bit—your title tag is also the first thing a search engine sees when it crawls your site.
Search engine bots read HTML from top to bottom. So that means Google will base its initial assessment of where to rank your web pages based on what your title tags say.
Are title tags a ranking factor?
The short answer to this is “Yes.”
Does that mean creating incredible title tags will put you on page one of the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)?
But it is definitely a factor in getting there.
There’s a reason why title tags look similar for some keywords. Look at the “SEO copywriting” keyword. All top five results have the target keyword at the beginning of the title.
This is not a coincidence.
The added bonus is that a great title tag will also have a positive and lasting impact on your organic traffic levels and conversion rates.
For example, title tags that contain a question have a 14.1% higher CTR, according to Backlinko. The CTR can be even higher if you’re smart about your keyword usage, length, and other factors.
SEO title tags are a ranking factor according to the team at Moz:
And Google’s Jon Mueller:
How to write great title tags
Okay, so we’ve covered all the background information you’ll need. Now let’s get down to showing you best practices for creating a great title tag.
Before you even start thinking about keywords and optimizing your title tags, stop for a second and think about your target audience.
If you get into their heads and understand what keeps them awake at night, it will be much easier for you to stand out from the crowd.
Create a mini-profile of your ideal visitor by answering the following questions:
- Their age
- Their gender
- Their employment status/disposable income
- What they’re most afraid of
- What or who they love most
- What personal or business goal are they trying to resolve by searching Google?
You don’t need to go and survey a bunch of people, though. If you understand your niche, you should be able to do this without too much effort.
If not, then you might just have uncovered why your content hasn’t gotten the levels of engagement you expected.
Here’s an example using prepper food supplies as the subject matter:
title tag #1
<title>Emergency Food Supply</title>—Nutritious and Affordable
title tag #2
<title>Emergency Food Supply</title>—Stop Your Family From Starving
Which of the above titles do you think will get more clicks when people scan a page of search results?
The first example is the type of boilerplate title tags 90% of content marketers use. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but do you feel compelled to click it?
The second example is designed to trigger an emotional response i.e. not being able to feed your family.
Any title tag that can cause this type of response will get a lot of clicks, even in a competitive search landscape.
Understanding human psychology can give you a distinct advantage over your competitors.
Focus on a keyword
Google is a reasonably intelligent piece of software that’s getting much better at figuring out how humans use search engines. But it also needs your help in understanding what your page is about.
And you do that by placing the keyword that is most relevant to your search intent inside your title tag.
Our keyword research guide covers this topic in more detail.
So how do you select which keyword to use for your page title?
First, we need to look at the two different types of keywords—you’ll need to use a combination of both.
These are short, popular, very competitive, and exist at the top of the search demand curve. Hence the name “head” keywords.
These are also referred to as “broad” keywords. You can spot a Head keyword because it will only be one or two words long.
Here are a few examples:
- Men’s shirts
Obviously, ranking for a keyword like this is going to be impossible for the average blogger.
Those spots in the SERPs are dominated by name brands with huge advertising budgets and tons of domain authority, as you can see here:
So you need another option.
These are multi-word keyword phrases that are variations of the head keyword that live at the bottom of the search demand curve.
This is the part of the curve that flattens out and looks like a tail:
They get far fewer searches than head keywords, but there’s also far less competition around long-tail keywords as well as providing a much better match for search intent.
Here are some examples to highlight this:
- Men’s grandfather shirts
- Cheapest drone for kids
- Best laptop under $500
These are keywords people use when they are very close to actually purchasing something. They usually have much higher conversion rates as they are much more specific. Which means that low-volume, but highly specific, keywords are often a better target than a broad term.
So which do you choose for your title tag?
Here’s how we’d approach that for a site selling men’s shirts:
<title>Men's Shirts</title>—Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal—Plus sizes
This title tag features the head keyword “men’s shirts” but also the long-tail variations:
- Men’s casual shirts
- Men’s polo shirts
- Men’s tee shirts
- Men’s formal shirts
And these variations too:
- Men’s plus size shirts
- Men’s plus size casual shirts
- Men’s plus size tee shirts
- Men’s plus size formal shirts
That’s also just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential variations.
Long-tail keywords are easier and require far less time to rank for, and often don’t require link-building campaigns to make them stick in the SERPs.
We’ve already covered search intent, so now it’s time to cover SERP intent.
Pretty much every other blog post on the topic of writing title tags includes advice like, “Write for humans first and search engines second.”
That’s kind of true—a good title tag should appeal to humans first, but it would be silly to ignore what Google shows a preference for ranking:
Many marketers are busy trying to reinvent the wheel. Crafting what they consider to be the world’s best title tag…only for Google to completely ignore it.
Google literally shows you the kind of title tags it prefers.
So, look at the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for the keyword you want to rank for- look at how your competitors structure their title tags and keyword variations.
And then come up with a better version of that.
Title tag length
Once upon a time, you simply had to make sure your web page title tag was no more than 60 characters in length.
And while that advice is still valid today, you also need to factor in that your title has to stay within a 600-pixel width limit or the equivalent of 60 characters.
But it varies from one search engine to the next.
What happens if a page title tag is too long?
Google (and other search engines) will truncate them. This is a fancy way of saying they simply won’t show your full title tag:
The above is probably the most ironic screenshot you’ll ever see in relation to title tags.
While also looking weird and messy, a truncated title could negatively affect the clickthrough rate (CTR) of a given web page.
Use Title Case
Optimization is not just about keywords. Sure, they’re important and can help you rank higher in the SERPs, but you also need to focus on UX.
That’s why you should use title case when crafting title tags.
This simply means starting each word of your title tag with a capital letter:
<title>Men's Shirts</title>—Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal—Plus Sizes
This can help you increase visibility and gives the page title a cleaner look. What you should definitely avoid at all costs is capitalizing every letter:
<title>MEN'S SHIRTS</title>—CASUAL, POLO, TEE AND FORMAL—PLUS SIZES
Even all lowercase looks better in comparison:
<title>men's shirts</title>—casual, polo, tee and formal—plus sizes
But this is not a silver bullet solution for improving your rankings or traffic.
Don’t keyword stuff
This is where you try to cram as many keywords as possible into your title tag. Which usually looks highly unnatural for both your audience and search engines alike.
A keyword-stuffed title tag would look something like this:
This is a perfect example of what used to rank well in Google….in about 2004.
Don’t keyword stuff your title tags. It doesn’t work.
Front-load your keyword
This simply means to put your most important keyword at the start of your title tag.
We’ll use an example from earlier on to illustrate this:
<title>Men's Shirts</title>—Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal—Plus sizes
“Men’s shirts” sits right at the beginning of your title.
And not like this.
<title>Men's Casual, Polo, Tee, and Formal Shirts</title>—Plus sizes
The above title tag would probably still do well enough in the SERPs. But the front-loaded version is highly likely to outperform it.
Make titles unique
You should always create unique titles for each web page on your site. Google is pretty open about their guidance on creating duplicate title tags, “Avoid repeated or boilerplate titles.”
And that includes paginated content.
Now, if you run a small site this won’t take too long.
But this could take days of grinding manual work if you have a larger e-commerce website that contains thousands of product pages.
So the best way around this is to use dynamic data fields to help automate the process.
How you do this will depend on which of the various CMS (Content Management Systems) you use, and goes beyond the scope of this article.
Just avoid using default, boilerplate, or duplicate title tags at all costs.
Add your brand name…or not?
If you have a strong brand, then yes, you should include your company name in your page title tag.
But if you're a "Best Cordless Drill" style niche site, then the answer is "no," because you’re not a brand name. At least for now.
The goal of your page titles is to entice people to click on your page in the SERPs.
People will remember your brand if what you do is worth remembering. If not, then adding your brand to every page probably isn't going to change that.
Put your brand name at the end of the title tag on all of your pages if you have a brand or want to establish one.
People are creatures of habit. And if your business name sounds familiar to them, you give them yet another reason to click through to your page.
Optimizing your title tags for higher CTR
Now, let’s look at ways to take the basics of a great title and add some rocket fuel to your click-through rates.
There are a number of reasons for doing this.
The first is that CTR is quite possibly a ranking factor. So a clickable title tag can potentially give you a bump in the search rankings.
If the theories about RankBrain are true, that is.
Having a CTR also has a direct impact on how much traffic you get to a page.
Sometimes you don’t have to rank as number one to get a fair share of the traffic. While it’s been proven that the first three results in Google get over 70% of all clicks, it’s not true for all keywords.
For example, for branded terms, like “HubSpot,” the top-ranking page may get even 80—90% of all clicks.
For local keywords like “dentist New York,” pages ranking 6th or 7th may get a decent share of the clicks as the user is in the investigation stage.
That’s why it’s in your own best interests to make your title tag as clickable as possible in the SERPs.
Here’s how to do that.
Take the time to explain why your content is better than every other page in the search results.
You can do this by adding one of the following words to your title tag:
This is a tactic extensively used by copywriters to compel readers to take action.
So, here’s an entire list of these types of “power words” to experiment with.
Human beings are amazing pattern recognition and processing machines.
You can use this to your advantage by inserting something into your title tags that interrupts the flow of the SERPs.
You can do this by wrapping one of the above power words in parenthesis (brackets), within your title tag like so:
<title>Men's Shirts (Exclusive) Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal Styles</title>
Or you can add a date to your title tag:
<title>Men's Shirts</title>—Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal Styles—2021 range
But numbers can also work to capture attention.
<title>Top 25 Stylish Men’s Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal Shirts</title>
It will take some experimentation to find what works best for your audience.
But the results will be more than worth the effort.
This is another copywriting technique that SEOs really should pay more attention to because most title tags are just flat statements of what a given business does or sells.
So why not make your title tag a question instead - one related directly to the search intent of the keyword you’re targeting?
Here’s a standard title tag:
<title>Men's shirts</title>—Casual, Polo, Tee and Formal—Plus Sizes
Here’s one that makes the searcher curious about what kind of shirt could possibly be that good:
<title>Men’s Shirts That Make A Lasting First Impression? </title>
Just make sure you steer clear of writing clickbait titles—that’s almost never a good idea.
What if you get it wrong?
Look, it takes time and practice to get really good at creating title tags.
You will make mistakes.
Six months from now, you will look back and be embarrassed by your first attempts. It’s a learning experience with a steep curve and then a comfortable plateau as you move between skill levels.
But no matter how bad your title tag is—even if you choose a terrible keyword—it’s still going to outperform a title tag like this:
And, yes, experienced website developers still make the “homepage” mistake all the time.
P.S. This is a mockup of our homepage, don’t worry.
Why is Google changing my title tag?
Even if you follow all the rules a search engine can sometimes completely change your page’s title in the SERPs.
They might even shoehorn your brand name onto the end of it.
Because it (Google, etc.) can, and there are a number of reasons why this happens:
- You left your title tag blank
- You keyword stuffed your page title
- It’s a poor match for the search query/search intent
There’s not, however, a whole lot you can do about it.
This, more than anything else, is exactly why you shouldn’t obsess over these tags.
A search engine can just arbitrarily rewrite them.
Some SEOs theorize that building lots of incoming links with exact match keyword anchor text can change how Google displays your site in the SERPs.
But it is just that—theory.
Hey—you made it to the end of our guide on how to write title tags that will make you look and feel like an SEO god.
Right now, you know more about the right way to create title tags than 75% of the people who claim to understand SEO.
Title tags can have a hugely positive impact on your SEO (search engine optimization) efforts.
It’s just a case of following best practices… and not doing anything spammy.
Don’t overcomplicate the process.
Focus on mastering the basics.
And you’ll enjoy seeing nothing but positive results for your site by implementing this proven SEO strategy.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the ‘Comments’ section below.