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SEO Tips For 2011: Writing Optimized Title Tags

I’m a sucker for SEO talk. It’s pretty much my favorite thing. And I love it when I hear other SEOs make sweeping generalizations about SEO strategies and methods. For example, I recently overheard someone talking about title tags. Apparently, they should always contain the brand *and* be less than or equal to 70 characters. Sure. Okay. That is the general rule of thumb for title tags. But is it right for every website in every industry all of the time? I say “NO WAY!” Let me tell you why.

Google displays 70 characters, but it will index more than 70 characters.

In theory, I could write a title tag that is 500 characters. Google may only display the first 70 characters, but the other 430 characters will still be read/indexed by Googlebot and factored into the ranking algorithm. Now, I would never write a 500-character title tag, so this is a ridiculous example. Furthermore, the first keywords in the title tag have more weight than those at the end. It is fully reasonable to expect that by the time Google gets to the 120th character in a title tag, the majority of any ranking weight has been used up. However, I do write some title tags that are greater than 120 characters at times. In some cases, it has been because the title tags warranted having that many characters in order to fully describe the product details or destination information. This happens quite often for products with long names. You’ve just got to make sure that you are not stuffing keywords for the hell of it. Keep it honest, people.

Different strokes for different folks.

What works in one industry may not work in another. For some sites, it might make complete sense to observe the 70 character guideline. For other industries, it might be necessary to write title tags longer than 70 characters. In fact, it is wise to do some testing in order to determine the best character limit for your site. Also, take a look at your top ranking competitors. It is likely that top ranking sites – in pretty much any vertical – have done some competitive research and testing. You can learn from your competitors…especially when it comes to title tags.

To Brand or Not To Brand

In the old days of SEO, many websites would lead with the brand in their title tags. For example:

  • Brand | Category : Sub-Category : Product Name

Back then, this was one of the best ways to make sure you ranked in position #1 for any search terms that contained your brand. Yep. That used to be a concern for a lot of big companies. Nowadays, Google is pretty good at getting this right, even if your title tags are terrible.

Over the years, the Google algorithm changed to heavily favor the first words in the title tags. The empirical evidence for “front-loading” title tags with the most relevant keywords became so overwhelming that most websites have shifted to title tags that place the brand at the end of the tag:

  • Product Name : Sub-Category : Category | Brand

In fact, nowadays it’s tough to find tags that are built with brand first. For the most part, everyone is putting the brand at the end.

If you can keep your title tags less than or equal to 70 characters, your full title tag will be seen in the SERPs. And this means that your brand will be seen when your title tags display in the SERPs. The basic logic of keeping your brand visible is two fold:

  1. It’s more free brand exposure, baby!
  2. If you have a solid brand name, and somebody sees your brand name in the title tag in the search results, you are more likely to get clicks. (I can see this being a HUGE factor for some websites in certain verticals.)

Now, if you decide to keep your title tags less than 70 characters for the purpose of displaying your brand in the search results, you must be aware of the opportunity cost. And that is that you will have to cut out some potentially-valuable keywords from your title tags. A visible brand name could increase your clickthrough rate. However, it could result in lower rankings for certain keywords. If you have a really strong brand name, that may be a good decision. Otherwise, it might be more advantageous for you to include the keywords. You can still have your brand name at the end of the title tags, but your brand name might get truncated. Again, this is up to you. Do some testing. Choose wisely.

In the end, there really is no “right” way to do it. There are so many factors to consider, and you must also consider the opportunity costs of various strategies. Spend some time testing. Spend some time analyzing your competitors’ strategies. Arm yourself with data, and you’ll make the right moves for your SEO strategy.

So…What are your thoughts on title tag optimization in 2011?

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