The humble title tag. Probably the single most important 50-60 characters of that piece of content you’ve written.
Perhaps you’ve found this post because you’ve spent hours pouring your soul into a piece of writing and now you’ve realised people will only read it if you write a good 50-60 characters. Or maybe it’s just that your boss told you that he needs quick wins for your product pages and so you’re turning in desperation to the ol’ title tag. Writing a good title tag is part art, part science. How do you do it?
We’ll start with some quick basics for beginners. If you’re looking for the split test results, fun processes & all the more advanced things, scroll down two sections. Nothing to see here.
The title tag of a page is the HTML tag which is used to summarise the content of your webpage. It’ll be used by search engines as the title in search:
Yes, I’m using my own post as an example...
In your browser tab:
And even as a fallback in social sharing posts:
It isn’t the same thing as the on-page title! An on-page title could be written as a variation of your title tag, or something completely different. If we take a look at the article I’m using as an example we can see that the brand isn’t on the on-page title.
- Title tag: A Complete Guide to Log Analysis with Big Query | Distilled
- On-page title: A Complete Guide to Log Analysis with Big Query
If you want a more severe example take a look at this Redbull article.
A title tag should typically be 50-60 characters. Technically Google's maximum size is 600px. This usually works out at about 50-60 characters.
Welcome back, experienced people. What do we want our title tags to do?
- Summarise our page: Our title should summarise the general thrust of our page. Google is going to use it to understand what our page is about.
- Get people to click: It’s what users are going to see in the SERP. We need to convince people to pick us.
And if we just do one, you usually don’t get the best results. For example, using the title from the blog post above:
- Totally factual: A Guide on Log Analysis.
- All click: 6 Easy Steps to Log Analysis They Don’t Want You To Know.
We want to maximise how clicky our titles are without… you know… lying, mentioning that one trick dentists hate and crucially without compromising on summarising the page.
The title is primarily for people arriving on your site from Google. We’re not trying to pull people in who are idling. Those people are on Facebook, TikTok, Youtube, Instagram etc. (I know we did mention above that the title can sometimes be for social, but you can overwrite that if you’d like!)
The audience for your title is someone searching with an intent & that always comes first.
The process is quite different now depending on if you’re writing for a single article, or a template.
Step 1 - Write the article
Write the article. It’s far easier to write a title when you know what you’ve written about. (This is assuming you know what you’re writing about, otherwise, sometimes headline writing can be a good way to generate ideas.)
Step 2 - Summarise the primary purpose/point of the article
Pull out the primary purpose/point of the article. No clickiness yet, just the factual summary.
- Example post 1- A guide to log analysis
- Example post 2: There is an industry backlash against Flybe’s government bailout
Try to summarise what someone might search to find your article. Aim for the simplest most basic version of it. Search that term, take the top 5-10 articles which rank for it, plug them into a tool like Ahrefs, SEMRush, Searchmetrics, Brightedge etc. and download all the keywords those articles rank for.
If the top 5-10 articles look nothing like yours either:
- You’re first to a topic (unlikely, but possible)
- Or your phrase is wrong, try again.
Once you’re happy with the phrase, take that big list of keywords and look for any other commonly occurring phrases you’re missing and take note.
We’re going to continue using my old article on log analysis as an example. Because it doesn’t have a great title...
First search phrase pick: “log analysis”
If we look up this keyword these are the top articles (only 3 shown below). Clearly we can see here that none of these articles are about search log analysis, I probably need to change my keyword:
Second search phrase pick: “seo log analysis”
Yep, that search result looks far better. We’ve still got a short phrase, but now the articles are now on topic with my own:
- Let’s take all the URLs that rank in the top 5-10.
- Download the keywords they rank for. (Ahrefs, SEMRush, Sistrix etc.)
And then get the most common keywords from that list. This ngrams tool is a nice way to do it. We get:
If we pull out the big generic words which would also apply to my article we get:
And possibly also:
Step 4 - Writing lots of titles
Now we’ve got all the factual words we’ll want in our title and brand.
What inspiration can we get for the clicky part? Lets quickly blast through a couple:
- Writing an emotional headline:
- Adding numbers:
- Number of items in a list
- Shameless clickbait inspiration:
- Adding in mindblowing adverbs
- The word “actually”
- Being unreasonably specific
Then we try to write as many headlines as we can, but without trading away our relevance and factual keywords.
When I started I worked with Hannah Smith on several projects. I remember her beating into us - “Write 20 titles. 20 is really hard.” Most of them will suck, but you’ll force yourself to be creative and somewhere there might be gold.
Back to our previous example.
We’ve got our important factual words. We also know we want SEO as without that the intent of results shown wasn’t correct. Together those 4 words (without server) take up 18 characters. Which gives us roughly 32 characters left to play with. Let's also look at our current title and see what we’re working with:
- A Complete Guide to Log Analysis with BigQuery | Distilled
- Making it clicky
- Factual description
We can see I’ve used “Complete Guide” to try and make it clicky and that I’ve also put the method of analysis “BigQuery” into the title. Both of these we could definitely play around with. Now we just try to write as many titles as we can.
- “A Guide to SEO Log File Analysis | Distilled”
- “What is a log file and why is it helpful for SEO? | Distilled”
- “6 Stage SEO Log File Analysis - A Complete Guide | Distilled”
- “How to do an SEO log file analysis | Distilled”
- “SEO Log File Analysis - The most important technical analysis | Distilled”
- “5 Ways to Analyse Log Files for SEO You Didn’t Know | Distilled”
- “Logging in the SEO jungles of the internet | Distilled”
- “Log analysis is the technical audit you should be doing | Distilled”
- “Stop wasting your time crawling and look at the logs | Distilled”
- “Log analysis for SEO in 2020 | Distilled”
- “Server Log Analysis Guide - SEO For Large Websites | Distilled”
I started with the restrictions and gradually just ignored them in my attempt to get to 20 titles. I didn’t get there. Sorry Hannah.
Step 5 - Picking one
How do we decide which is best?
Honestly, it’s savagely hard to pick the right title by yourself. Of all the title tag tests we’ve run at Distilled, only one in five is typically positive. When I first started in search, I thought titles were the easy win. About a year and a half of running endless title tag split tests and I’m no longer convinced.
If you can test it. The two easiest ways for a single article are:
- Paying for it: If you’ve got the budget, you could run paid social media campaigns and see which title performs best.
- Friends & Colleagues: Make a poll for your friends & colleagues and get them to vote.
The above process works great if all you need to write is a single title.
But if you’ve got a template with hundreds of thousands of pages, then you can’t really do that. Well, you could, but it would be exhausting. Instead, we’re going to need a format for a title that we can apply to all our pages, to make our template shine. That previous process won’t cut it.
Step 1 - Summarise the primary purpose/point of the page
We’re going to start by trying to summarise the attributes of the page in as much detail as possible. This will give us an idea of what pieces of detail we can pull into our titles across our template.
I’ve pulled two page templates from rightmove.co.uk (this isn’t every page template but we’re keeping it simple):
- Properties for sale - Page:
- URL: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/Manchester.html
- Location: Manchester
- Properties types: Houses & flats
- Number of properties: 3,940
- Price range: £190,000 - £3.5 million
- Numbers of property types:
- 269 detached
- 851 semi detached
- 690 terraced
- Properties to rent - Page:
- URL: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/Manchester.html
- Location: Manchester
- Properties types: Flats
- Number of properties: 7,155
- Price range: £75 - £34,667 per month
- Numbers of property types:
- 238 detached
- 864 semi detached
- 1,770 terraced
Step 2 - Figure out what searches should return our template
Our templated page matches a specific intent. We need to figure out how to represent that in a title tag.
Two things make this hard:
- We might have multiple templates with similar intents.
- The pages in our template may be similar.
We need to try and make a title which:
- Differentiates our template from other templates.
- Differentiates pages in our template from each other.
If we’re really struggling perhaps these pages shouldn’t even exist. But that’s a conversation for another day.
We have two templates:
- For sale
- To rent
In this case, it’s pretty simple. For sale & to rent are clearly the important keywords we need to keep each template different. We can see that by looking at the SERPs. Changing those keywords, changes the results from for sale to rent.
Within our template, we have lots of different locations.
- Properties for sale in Manchester
- Properties for sale in Ipswich
In order to keep the pages in our template different, we’re going to need the location in the title.
Step 3 - Accept that it’s messy
But anytime you work with titles it’s going to get messy.
Take our previous example. Rightmove actually has pages for Manchester & Greater Manchester. One ranks for properties and the other for flats. Something is clearly going on there. Uh oh.
Should that change what we do?
When we’re working at scale, patterns are going to breakdown. There hopefully is an underlying pattern, but look long enough and you’ll find exceptions. All we can do is do our best. Make a reasonable guess at what is going on and spoiler for stage 6. Test.
Step 4 - Are there any common phrases we’re missing?
This is exactly the same as step 3 for articles.
- Take your phrase which summarises the page.
- Search for it. Download all the keywords the top 5-10 results rank for.
- Find the most common words.
To keep it brief, we’re going to just stick with the properties for sale template for the rest of these steps! Running this example with the top phrases for “properties for sale in manchester” we get:
Words to note here are all fairly self-explanatory:
Step 5 - What can we add to make it more attractive?
We know what we need to include to make the intent of our page clear.
- For sale/To rent
Now let's use that as a base and write as many titles as possible.
We want to:
- Make them as clicky as possible.
- Use extra attributes.
- Get creative.
- Avoid using words which might change search intent.
A general difference between this and individual articles: If you end up with an entirely factual template title that is far more acceptable here than with an individual article.
Generic ideas for things you can put in titles
- Adding prices into the title.
- Adding some sort of quantity into the title.
- Adding year into the title.
- Put in the obvious e.g. “online” in an online shop.
Words to watch out for that can change an intent
- Comparison style words - best, compare etc.
- Deal seeking words: cheapest, cheap, deal, affordable
Let’s have a go at writing titles for our category pages
Our base is:
- Properties for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
Let’s make variants:
- Properties & Houses for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- Buy Properties & Houses for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- Buy Houses & Properties for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- 3,940 Houses & Properties for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- 3,000+ Houses & Properties for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- Properties for Sale - Houses for Sale in Manchester | Rightmove
- 3,940 Houses & Properties for Sale Across Manchester | Rightmove
- 3,940 Houses for Sale in Manchester - Get there first | Rightmove
- 3,940 Properties for Sale in Manchester - Find your Happy | Rightmove
That’s a lot of variations. We even managed to fit in their tag line at the end.
Step 5 - Pick a title
Just like with articles we’re going to end up with a list of titles and unsure which one will be best. Far more than with individual title tags, it’s really really important to split test.
- Template level title tags are messy. We’ve already seen that in our example. You can make educated guesses from performing some large scale analysis, but there are going to be effects you miss.
- What works on one site won’t work on another & we’ve found only 1 in 5 title tags ends up being positive.
- The stakes are often higher. We’re not changing one page, we’re changing a group of pages which is often a non-trivial amount of your search traffic.
If you can test at all I’d highly recommend it. We’ve got plenty of resources to help you get started. The two most useful should be:
If you can’t test, you can at least lean on our tests, I’ve got results from those in the next section.
Important context for our title tag split tests
We’re lucky enough at Distilled to have access to SEO split testing software we built. It lets us test different titles & accurately measure the impact on organic traffic. We’re about to talk about the different results we’ve learned, so it’s important to briefly talk about the assumptions implicit in these results.
You can only run SEO split tests on large groups of similar pages (e.g. all category pages, all listing pages etc.) and that means our results are from certain types of websites:
- The websites are mostly large and authoritative.
- They tend to be in competitive SERPs.
- The companies usually have SEO teams who have done the basics. There usually isn’t anything glaringly awful like product pages without titles that we can fix.
- They are more typically tests applied to template pages like category, product & listing pages rather than blog pages. (Although that’s not everything, we run split tests on the Moz blog for example!)
I think you can learn a huge amount from these tests, but it’s still important to bear those assumptions in mind.
Writing titles is really hard. We mentioned this above, but let's look at our numbers in slightly more detail. We’ve run many title tag tests across different industries. Our results break down as follows:
- Successes: 22%
- Null: 38%
- Failures: 40%
Oof. 78% of the time title tag tests fall flat or actually harm the website. That makes testing super important. It’s not impossible you could work on a website where you never have a positive title tag test. Nothing you try will ever work. Without testing, you’d probably still roll out those titles. Just spotting the failures and not rolling them out will save you a huge amount of traffic.
With a single article, this isn’t so worrying, you’ve got a far larger creative space to play in and if it does go wrong, it’s a far smaller proportion of your traffic.
If you’re changing titles on big page templates, please make sure you test them!
Broadly most title tag tests have an impact between 4-15% in either direction.
You can see a distribution of our title tag tests below.
Most title tag changes are unique to a website, changing words and phrases which don't generalise well from website to website. However, there are some more common patterns we’ve been able to test.
Putting in prices
50% of our title tag tests involving adding the price into the title have been positive. Not only do we get to put a number into the title, but it also provides more information.
Why was it null or negative the rest of the time?
Our consultant Emily Potter thinks this is down to whether or not Google can find the price you put in the title on the rest of your page - i.e. are you being honest about price. We also think it may make a difference depending on how competitive you are on price.
Putting in year numbers
We haven’t had the chance to test this a huge number of times, but so far this change has been positive in the niches where we’ve done it. The shameless putting 2019, 2020 in the title has helped.
Shortening title tags hasn’t actually been that helpful
When you have lots of automatically generated titles, it’s common to end up with titles that are too long.
We’ve run a number of tests about shortening these titles and nearly all of them have been null (~80%). They’ve also never been positive. Our best current theory is that the templates which often end up with long title tags are typically attracting long tail traffic. When they are truncated, they’re still the only relevant result and so continue to rank, perhaps for long tail queries, keyword stuffing isn’t a problem.
Having said that I’d still say it’s worth trying to shorten your titles. If you manage to cut 4-5 characters from your title with no effect, you could use that space to add price or something else which may have an effect.
Emojis didn’t work
We’ve run several tests to put emojis into title tags and so far it hasn’t helped. Sorry folks :(
I mean c’mon. Marketers can barely be trusted with FAQ schema, can you imagine what we’d do to Emojis.
Eye-grabbing on category/listing pages
We’ve tried some title tags for category/listing pages which were very different, actively calling out to the user in the SERPs.
- Standard: Ford for Sale | CarShop
- Example of our type of test: You there! Fords for Sale at the CarShop
These did not work.
We tested using localised versions of phrases. This wasn’t single letter changes (like s for z in UK vs US), but entire words e.g. pants instead of trousers.
This was notably positive (~20-25%).
Removing implied words from the title
We’ve seen mixed results from this. We ran a split test & found removing “online” from title tags had no effect on one particular client. Outside of our split-testing platform for a different client, we removed the word “online” from the title of an online store.
Our rankings for the terms including "online", dropped and we quickly put it back in.
More detail on the split tests
If you want to hear more detail about some of these tests, or just love video and you’re signed up to DistilledU, you can see Emily Potter's video on split testing from last year. If you’re not subscribed, you can see my slightly older talk here.
We usually see the impact of a title tag in 3-5 days. We’ve had a couple which has taken longer, but this is the majority. The previous caveats are of course important here, we typically work on larger websites, which are heavily crawled.
I genuinely thought when I started I’d be able to get this post done in 1000 words. Even now, I can see all the little bits of context & other things that go into writing a good title, which I just couldn’t fit into this post. We didn’t even start talking about internal politics :)
But hopefully, this has got you on your way. Now let's hear some stories.
What title tag tests have you found effective? What’s the worst title tag you’ve ever tried?