As part of the continued series "Getting Back To Search Engine Optimization Basics", Andy Beal turns his attention to the much talked about Title and Meta Tags (while a Title Tag isn't really a Meta tag the two are commonly discussed as such). This week he takes a closer look at the Title tag.

When I decided a few weeks ago to write a series of articles for those new to search engine marketing (SEM), I considered whether there truly was a need to discuss the topic of Meta Tags. After all, this topic has been so heavily discussed that anyone remotely interested in search engine marketing would already have grasped this basic of techniques. My decision was justified just a few days ago when I was asked by the American Marketing Association to provide a workshop on how to create Meta Tags and discuss their benefits. It was at this point that I recalled starting out on my own quest for search engine marketing knowledge many years ago and researching the basic topics that today seem so fundamental. So for the next few parts of this series, I hope to enlighten those of you who are discovering SEM for the first time and maybe refresh the knowledge of those more seasoned marketers.

Meta Tags - an analogy

I don't recall ever reading the following description of Meta Tags anywhere else (although have been using it for years) so hopefully the following analogy will be new to you. When considering the function of Meta Tags, it helps to compare a website to an old fashion book (remember those paper things that we all used to read before the Internet). The first part of any Meta Tag is the "Title" tag. The Title tag is very similar to the title of a book, it gives a visitor the first hint as to the theme of the website. The next section of any Meta Tag is the "Description" tag. The Description tag is comparable to the summary found on the back of a book, providing a brief guide to the content of your website. The last part of any Meta Tag is the "Keywords" tag. The Keywords are similar to the index of a book, allowing anyone to clearly see if the website contains the information they are seeking. If you compare a search engine to a bricks-and-mortar library, with millions of books you'll hopefully have a good understanding as to relevance of Meta Tags for your website.

In this guide, I wish to focus on what many believe is the most important part of any Meta Tag, the Title tag. Now before we continue and discuss suggestions for the best format for your Title tag, lets stop and consider exactly how it looks in your website's HTML code.

<title>Title of Your Webpage Here</title> (bolded for emphasis)
<meta name="description" content="Brief description of the contents of the page">
<meta name="keywords" content="keyword phrases that describe your webpage">

As you can see, the format is pretty straightforward. You will also notice that your Meta tags should be placed within the "head" area of your website as opposed to the "body" area.

Ok, now we have the basic idea of what Title tags are and we've taken a look at the standard structure, lets turn our attention to ideas for optimizing the content to ensure a successful search engine marketing campaign.

The Best Use of a Title Tag

While many people have differing opinions as to the benefits of the Description and Keywords tag, most all are in agreement that the Title tag is extremely important for any SEM campaign. The Title tag is used by pretty much every search engine that uses spiders to crawl your website. That list includes Google, AOL, Yahoo, AlltheWeb, AltaVista, and more. The Title tag is pretty much the most effective Meta Tag and is used for conveying the theme of your Webpage to the search engines. Not only is the structure and content of the Title tag used by the search engines when calculating your webpage's relevance, but it is also displayed in most search engine results pages (SERP). It therefore needs to be carefully constructed in such a way that it influences your website's position in the SERP, but is also attractive enough to encourage a surfer to click on your link.

Long gone are the days when cramming dozens of words into a Title tag would result in better search engine positioning. These days the search engines, Google in particular, prefer to see shorter Title tags that are succinct in describing the content on the page. In fact, it appears that stuffing more words into your Title tag will do more harm than good, especially when targeting very competitive search phrases.

So how should a good Title tag look? That, my friend, is one of the many questions that us marketers strive to answer. Each of us have our own ideas of what constitutes a good Title tag and the format for one page, might be totally inappropriate for another. However, I understand that to not provide an example would be a complete omission, so here goes:

<title>Desktop computers and computer supplies</title> or;

<title>Desktop computers and computer supplies at 123Computers</title>

As you can see, there are really only two identifiable phrases that make up the above Title tag, but they provide for many different keyword combinations such as "desktop computer supplies" or "desktop computer". Equally important is the fact that they focus on just one theme. Many times, I'll see websites that will try and target two or more very competitive keywords that do not follow the same theme e.g. "desktop computers and digital cameras".

You'll also notice two different formats depending on whether you wish to include your company name or not. In an ideal world of search engine marketing, webpages would not include the company name at all. Unless you're Dell or IBM, the name of your company really doesn't make much difference to the user at this stage. They are more interested in knowing the theme of your page and whether it is relevant to the search query they entered. Likewise, the Title tag is a valuable thing and adding the name of your company might reduce the relevancy of your page in the eyes of the search engines and reduce valuable space that could be used by an extra keyword. That being said, more than 80% of website owners prefer to see their company name listed somewhere in the Title tag. If that is the case for you, it is my advice to place the company name at the end of the Title tag, allowing the search engine spiders and surfers to read the keywords first and determine the relevance to the search query before seeing the name of the company.

In most cases, less is definitely more when constructing optimized Title tags for your website. Keeping to fewer keywords will help to demonstrate to the search engines and their users that the webpage is both highly relevant and solely focused on a particular product or service. In the same way, ensuring that each page has its own unique Title tag will ensure a greater chance your site will be positioned higher on the SERP.

In Summary

In finishing, I'll leave you with three things you should never do when constructing your Title tag.

  1. Leave "Untitled" as your Title tag (don't get me started).

  2. Use "Homepage" as your Title tag (only slightly better than "untitled").

  3. Use only your company name as your Title tag. Unless your company name is searched thousands of times each month, add keywords.

The above advice should keep you busy for the next few days. The next topic in the series will cover the ideas and formats to use for your Description tag. We'll go through, step-by-step the purpose of the Description tag which search engines use it, as well as techniques for getting better positioning.
March 19, 2003

Internet marketing consultant Andy Beal has provided online marketing advice to thousands of companies including, Motorola, NBC, Lowes and Quicken Loans and is a trusted resource for The Washington Post, LA Times, Dow Jones, NPR and CNBC. Andy provides consulting services on search engine optimization, business blogging and online reputation management. Read his blog and request a free consultation at Marketing Pilgrim.

Search Engine Guide > Andy Beal > Search Engine Optimization Basics Part 2 - Title Tags