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Monday, 30 March 2009

Getting The Title Right

Part three in a new guide to search engine optimisation

For those who don't know, the title of a web page is hidden in the page "head" and it should be present in every page you create. It doesn't appear on the page as part of the layout, but users will see it in the title bar, which is the bit across the top of their browser.

There are a few rigid rules to follow when coming up with a title for your page. The ideal length of a page title is 60 to 65 characters, including spaces. Any more than that and...
  • it may not fit in the title bar of the web browser and more importantly

  • it may be truncated in Google's search results with an ellipsis...
Include your chosen keywords where appropriate. Don't repeat keywords gratuitously, but don't be afraid to reuse variations on a word where you think it's legitimate. For instance: "Divorcing your partner: Divorce and separation advice for women".

The most important thing to consider when writing titles isn't to get the perfect number of characters, nor is it to shoe-horn your top keywords into every one. And for heaven's sake don't make your company name the first word of every title unless your company name is your top priority keyword. No, the most important thing is much harder and more time-consuming: good copywriting. Your page title should be snappy, factually specific and intriguing. It must be brief and where appropriate it should be witty, smart, clever and original. Why? Because the people who you want to get noticed by are just like you: discerning and sceptical experienced Googlers.

We are All Google Experts...

Yes, it's true. We're experts at Googling. We do it all the time. I use Google so often every day that I take it completely for granted. It's near impossible to recall a time when I had to go to the library to look things up in a book. The very idea has become anathema for all but the most studious academic research. And as a result of using Google so often, I know a good search result when I see it.
Search results usually divide into three categories:
1. Perfect match: exactly what I wanted. Thank you Google, you came up trumps again.
2. Worth a look: this page quite possibly won't answer my question, but I'll chance my arm
3. Way off: I'm only going to click on this if I'm really desperate
So what we're trying to achieve with search engine optimisation is not so much putting your site at the top of the list, but putting your website into that first category. Or is it?

...But We're Not Experts in Everything Else

Sometimes when we're searching for information, we don't quite know where to begin. Looking in my recent search history, the queries range from the very specific ("download vista widget measure IP traffic" or "Enfocus Instant PDF 08") to the desperately hopeful ("what do I do when Outlook tells me there is insufficient space to store my rules?"). The latter type of query can introduce a sort of randomness into your search results which it may be possible for us to capitalise on. If your search results contain nothing but category-three pages, then despite the lack of apparently useful links, you'll probably still click on one or two of them, starting with the one that comes closest to what you wanted. And so the page title will be vitally important to your decision - you'll be looking for something that's brief and to the point and promises a page that is useful and informative.

So, one might argue that the best page title is not necessarily one that puts your site at the top of the search results for your chosen keywords. Obviously that's an important factor, but surely it's equally important that your page title stands out from the listings when someone searches for other keywords - ones you haven't prioritised, but which may be equally likely to lead to a sale.

Part One: Google Is Your Friend
Part Two: The Cream Will Always Rise to the Top
Part Three: Getting The Title Right

The Cream Will Always Rise to the Top

Part two in a new guide to search engine optimisation

In part one I concluded by remarking that Google rewards the more prolific and up-to-date webmaster.Which leads me to my second point and the most important factor in search engine optimisation: content is king. So if you've got 150,000 pages of detailed information about Lambretta parts, you shouldn't need to worry too much about a rival upstart with a six-page website, no matter how well optimised it might be.

Which is not to say there aren't tricks to improving what you've already got. Of course there are. But Google will be most impressed by a wealth of relevant information - that's how it recognises true quality.

LycosLycos RIP: a Note On Other Search Engines

Incidentally, before I go any further, and as they like to glibly say on the BBC, other search engines are available. There's Yahoo! But Yahoo! never strictly speaking had its own search engine anyway. And there's Microsoft's Live Search. It's not a complete monopoly. But the plain truth is that search engine optimisation is all about getting the highest possible ranking on Google, isn't it? That's how your customers are going to find you, so let's not beat around the bush.

If you've been in this business a while, you'll remember when the names Infospace, Altavista, Excite, Hotbot and Webcrawler were all movers and shakers in the internet portal industry. Back in 1998 I paid a visit to Excite's massive headquarters in Silicon vallery, not far from San Francisco, and at that time they were second only to Yahoo! in the internet biz. Little did they know that just up the road a little company called Google Inc would ultimately witness Excite being bankrupted, broken up and largely forgotten (although the brand still persists to this day in both the USA and Europe). - which not so long ago was being advertised on prime-time television such was the investment in its branding - closed down its UK portal operation in February 2009 and its website now offers nothing more than pointlessly rebranded Google search results. One day Google itself just might end up the same way. Nothing lasts forever. But for the sake of argument, let's just say that when I talk about Google I'm talking about search engines everywhere and you can draw your own conclusions about how important those supporting roles might be compared to the protagonist in this story.

Part One: Google Is Your Friend
Part Two: The Cream Will Always Rise to the Top
Part Three: Getting The Title Right

Google Is Your Friend

Part one in a new guide to search engine optimisation

Slideshow of some of Google's more interesting Commemorative Logos

The first thing I usually say to people who want to improve their Google ranking is that Google is not your enemy.

What I mean is, Google wants you to get the ranking you deserve. It's in their interest.

Unfortunately, search engines have learned over the years to treat your claim to higher ranking with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Years ago, it was easy to cheat the system. For instance, webmasters who were either unscrupulous or enterprising, depending on your point of view, discovered that if you put a block of white text on a white background at the bottom of your homepage, you could fill it with hundreds of key words that would be ignored by visitors but indexed by search engines.

That's where the battle began and why perhaps you, in common with many web publishers, might have the attitude that Google is not on your side. Search engines began to penalise tricksters. Which naturally has led those tricksters to start new websites in which they would devise more devious measures to hoodwink the search engines, causing the search engines to penalise them further still - and so it goes on.

But let's look at it another way. Let's assume you are a legitimate company. You have a substantial web presence that is at the core of your business, either as a method of communicating with or selling to your customers, or both.

Let's say your website is the world's best source of information on the topic of vintage Lambretta spares. The brains behind Google don't want it to be on page five when someone searches for the words "vintage Lambretta spares". Of course they don't. It belongs at the top of the list and they didn't get where they are today by allowing jumped-up amateurs to muscle in on your business.

So, Google is the friend of the web publisher - so long as he's hard-working, up-to-date and prolific, that is.

Part One: Google Is Your Friend
Part Two: The Cream Will Always Rise to the Top
Part Three: Getting The Title Right