The HTML title tag is one of the most basic building blocks of an HTML webpage. Despite that, it is also one of the most crucial for search engine optimization (SEO). A webpage’s title is one of the first and most visible elements of a search engine result page (SERP). Understanding how they work and how to optimize them significantly impacts how high your page will rank in the search results.
What is a Title Tag, and How Do They Work?
The title tag is a type of HTML tag, represented on a webpage’s source code with the following format:
The title tag is not technically a part of the page’s content; instead, it is considered part of a webpage’s metadata elements (also known as meta elements) and may sometimes be referred to as a meta title or meta title tag.
Instead, the text written inside the title tag is displayed in three prominent locations:
On the browser’s title bar or page tab, as the display name of an embedded link on social media and chat platforms, and most critically, in the search engine result page (SERP), as the clickable element.
Title tags are typically paired with a description tag, providing a short block of descriptive text under the page’s title, informing the reader of the page’s content. Meta tags use the following format:
Together, title and meta descriptions must accurately describe what your webpage is about and what the reader can expect, compelling them to click and visit your site. Behind the page content itself, the title is the second most essential factor for search engine optimization.
Why Building Good Title Tags is Critical
Title tags can appear in three critical contexts: SERP results, web browsers, and social media links. Each is important for different reasons:
SERP Title Tags
The primary purpose of a title tag is to give a name to the clickable element corresponding to your webpage on a SERP. For most users, this title tag will be their first impression of your website, even before clicking and visiting your site.
Even if your page ranks highly on the search results, if the title fails to persuade users to click on your link, they will not see your content and not visit your website.
This phenomenon is one of the reasons why keyword stuffing is discouraged; if your title seems more focused on gaining visibility through keywords than showcasing good content, it will hurt user experience and turn them away. In extreme cases, search engines may even penalize the practice by lowering your rank or introducing search penalties (outright removal from search results).
Example of compelling SEO title tag (i.e. keyword friendly with a call to action to help increase CTA).
In this case, “cheap vacations” is targeted early on in the title tag as “cheap tropical vacations,” and what makes this title tag compelling or worthy of a click, is “50” and “This Year.” As a user, when you see that, you identify your keyword search and your interest is heightened when you read there are 50 cheap vacation options to look at for this year!.. Wait, what year?
So, it is critical to ensure that your title tags are concise yet descriptive for two main reasons:
- To incite users to click and see your content, transforming this first impression into a wish to know more.
- To stay within the search engine rules and avoid penalties or demotions
Browser Title Tags
Since the early 2000s, most web browsers have used the tab system, eschewing the traditional windows and dialog box appearance used by 1990s-era software in favor of a content-focused approach, organizing content in tabs instead of separate windows.
Each tab represents one active website, and users switch between tabs to display content. Although accurate statistics on tab usage are difficult to obtain, most users keep several browser tabs open at once during a typical browsing session.
When a user visits your website, your webpage’s title tag is displayed on that user’s corresponding browser tab, whether they are using a desktop computer or a mobile device.
As most users keep a significant number of tabs open, a clear, short, descriptive title that remains readable and recognizable is critical to help them organize their tabs. Good title tags help users keep track of the content they want to access and instantly recognize (or remember) what your page is about or what type of content to expect.
Tabs that are too long or too full of keywords may result in users clicking your link, keeping the tab open for later review, then later dismissing it or closing it without ever browsing your content.
Social Networks and Chat Programs
Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and social network-like chat programs like Slack and Discord, support a function called embedded content. When a user posts a link to another website, these platforms typically display a small snippet of another website, allowing users to preview the content before clicking.
This snippet uses the webpage’s title tag, description, and in most cases, the first or most prominent picture (if any is available) to form the embed, giving users an idea of what to expect before clicking.
For example, posting a link to a news website on Facebook typically creates an embedded window under the post itself, which displays the article’s title and description, the website of origin, and on occasion, the author or writer’s name.
Good title tags are equally as important on social networks and chat platforms, as they perform the same role as in SERPs but without needing users to first search for keywords. Many internet users rarely directly use search engines, relying on social networks to search content instead and leveraging their networks and contacts to share links manually.
So, creating good title tags helps visibility on social media and similar platforms, which is the bedrock of digital marketing campaigns. Embeds essentially serve as windows to your content in environments where users interact daily and intensely, and a well-made title tag is the virtual equivalent of a well-crafted storefront, making it more likely to attract potential visitors.
What Makes a Good Title Tag?
Writing a good title tag is a relatively low-effort process with a very high potential impact on SEO and search engine ranking. Putting some thought in your titles will significantly enhance your SEO performance. Follow these guidelines to get started.
Title Length: It’s About Pixels, Not Characters
Search engines impose a maximum length limit on search titles to keep them all approximately the same size on the result page, causing them to cut off longer titles with ellipses and making the search result less attractive.
For example, Google caps the length of search result titles at 600 pixels. The corresponding maximum character limit varies (as each character has a different length), but the standard estimation is 50 to 60. The actual number of characters that can fit into a 600-pixel space depends on the characters used.
Letters such as lowercase i, l, most punctuation, and symbols such as dashes (-) and pipes (|) take up less space than any uppercase letters or wide lowercase characters, such as w or m.
As a result, avoiding all-caps words is one of the first steps to building a title that fits into the maximum length limit.
On occasion, search engine results may rewrite or modify the format of your title, affixing your site name or brand name to the end, cutting your title off with an ellipsis.
For example, suppose you run a webpage called Apples Database, and you have an article titled “What is the difference between Red Delicious and Gala apples?” Under normal conditions, this title fits into the recommended maximum limits (60 characters, 554 pixels). However, the search engine may append your site’s name towards the end, truncating your title, such as in the following example:
- What is the difference between Red Delicious… – Apples Database
If possible, plan your title tags around this possibility. Sometimes, long titles are inevitable, but shortening as much as possible without changing the meaning can help maintain your title’s integrity.
Make Each Title Unique
Over several years or after writing thousands of articles, crafting a unique title for each may seem like a daunting task. However, there are tips and tricks to achieve distinctive titles without falling victim to common title traps.
First, ensure that no page has a default title tag, such as “Untitled,” “New Page,” or “Home.” Title tags containing only your site or brand name should be reserved for the homepage only.
If your site’s purpose is to sell or catalog products, you should create titles procedurally instead of writing one manually. Use the product name, brand, shop categories, and other keywords and information as elements to fit into a page title. Common formats include:
- Product Name – Product Brand
- Product Name – Product Brand – Product Category
- Product Year – Product Brand – Product Name
- Primary Keyword – Secondary Keyword | Brand Name
- 8-foot Green Widgets – Widgets & Tools | Widget World
Leverage Keywords Without Overusing Them
Successful title tags are typically descriptive and concise out of necessity. In the past, inserting two keywords (a primary and a secondary) in each title tag was considered the standard approach for helping title tags rank higher in the SERP.
However, this approach (known as keyword stuffing) is now discouraged. The objective of a title tag is to be short and descriptive. Today, a good practice is to include a single keyword and a product name and only add the site’s name when necessary.
Studies have shown that users base their decision to click on whether they understand the first 11 characters (less than two words).
Unless you operate a well-known or instantly recognizable brand name (in which case, you may benefit by putting the brand name first), use a single keyword as the first element of your title tag, or work a keyword into an otherwise natural-language title.
Example formats include:
- Product name – Primary keyword
- Primary keyword – Site name
The SEO Title Tag Takeaway
One of the best ways to ensure that your title tags look good is to consider the title from the perspective of a search engine user and adopt the mindset of a regular visitor to your site. Think critically and gauge whether your title as it currently appears is sufficiently informative, feels natural to read, and is easy to keep track of even with many other active browser tabs.