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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