December 3, 2008

HTML Title Optimisation

The HTML Title Tag is an important element within your on-page search engine optimisation programme; it has three significant roles:-

  1. It lets humans know what the page is about
  2. It displays in the search engine results pages (SERP) and affects click-through-rates (CTR)
  3. It influences the on-page parts of the search engines' relevancy algorithms.

1. Page Title - Browser Window Title Bar

The first function is fairly obvious; the HTML Title is designed to explain what the page is about. Generally this should be a succinct précis of the main topic discussed in the document and the title itself should be unique so it cannot be confused with another document.

Notice we have included a Website ID as a prefix to the title to help explain to the user which website they are currently viewing. We have also used a form of taxonomy in reverse to signal where in the information hierarchy this article sits.

2. Search Engine Results Page (SERP) Listing Title

The second function is about deriving qualified traffic from user searches. We want to entice and attract the right audience to our website, and we need to compete with the other websites in the search results listings. To do this our page title must fulfil a few basic functions.


Firstly, it must explain the offering / page contents accurately - we only want qualified traffic, so there is no point being ambiguous or worse deceitful - it does us no favours whatsoever. So clarity is vital.

Cheapest Widgets - this does not offer me much information and is likely to be unverifiable

Used Green Widgets for Sale - this tells me they are used and their colour so more detailed and useful


Secondly, we need to explain how the content is related to the broader offering - we need to give the title context through both the brand and category offering. This way when someone looks at the title they will be able to infer what is on offer and who we are.

Website ID - Used Green Widgets for Sale - Gizmos & Widgets - this tells me that what we are looking at is related to Gizmos and Widgets and is located on the Website ID website so I have a context and topic realtionship to help add clarity to my understanding of what the page is about.


As well as being both clear and contextual the title is also going to need to entice me to click on the link in the search engine results pages. Whilst the relevance of the title will play a large part in qualifying the title to the searcher's needs, we can also add some basic enticements - the hook. This is where usability meets commerciality.

Insight Hooks

Website ID - Top Ten Green Widget Secrets - Widget Guides - Insight enticements - this title offers me the promise of some insight or greater knowledge - I expect to find an article about ways to get more out of my green widgets - which is likely to make me curious and wonder if they know something I don't. I'm therefore likely to follow the link.

Price-Point Hooks

Website ID - ACME GreenWiz £9.99 - Used Green Widgets- Gizmos & Widgets - Price-point enticements - we can see the manufacturer and product names, its type (used green widget) and the price point. Obviously this type of hook is reliant on your prices being competitive for this product.

Exclusivity Hooks

Website ID - PoshWidget ZX123 (Exclusive Availability) - New Green Widgets - Exclusive enticements - we can see the manufacturer and product names, its type (new green widget) and the fact it is exclusively available on Website ID. If you have exclusive stock let people know. Firstly it means they know they can only get the product they want from you, secondly they will associate your website as having exclusive access to certain manufacturers' lines and products - making them more likely to visit your website to see what other exclusives you have.

Differentiation Hooks

Website ID - Used Green Widgets (4290 Product Lines) - Gizmos & Widgets - Differentiation enticements - we have added a dynamic product line figure to the title to help advertise the sheer size of our inventory within the used green widget category as a unique selling point.

Website ID - Used Green Widgets (Guaranteed Next Day Delivery) - Gizmos & Widgets - Differentiation enticements - we have added the guaranteed next day delivery information to make users aware of this unique selling point.

SERP Title Display Limitations

When constructing your HTML title for the SERP you need to be mindful of some basic limitations. The first is to do with the character field length of the HTML title that will be displayed in the SERPs. The key numbers to remember are Google will only display a maximum 68 characters, MSN Live 68 characters, and Yahoo! 72 characters. Also note the WC3 recommend 64 characters.

  • Google 68 characters
  • MSN / Live 68 characters
  • Yahoo! 72 characters
  • WC3 64 characters.

When the maximum character limit is met the search engines insert an ellipsis (...). Any word that falls across these limits will be omitted and the preceding word will be followed with the ellipsis (...).

Therefore, we would recommend getting the most important keywords and your clarity, context and hook tied up in the first 66 characters where possible to ensure human readers are able to see your title largely as you intend it to be seen.

Some basic HTML entities can be used in the HTML Title tag and will be displayed in the SERPs - these include ©, ™ and ®. Also many common accented-characters can be displayed; however, this is about it. Most other non-alphanumeric characters in the ISO 8879 set are restricted.

3. HTML Title & the Search Algorithms

Although, on-page factors carry much less weight than off-page factors in the search engines' algorithms, the HTML title is still a vital element within search engine optimisation (SEO) as it allows website publishers to let a search engine know what a web document is about. For search engines, the same logic that applies for human readers also applies for their algorithms. So search engines are looking for clarity and context in the choice of the keywords used to describe the web page.

The most common issues and considerations with search engines and the HTML title are:


If you call a web page the same thing as another web page you are hardly making life easy for the search engine. HTML titles should be unique and explain the content of that precise page. A common error seen again and again across the web is a single site ID used across multiple pages - likewise a category name and site ID used across all pages within a category. This should be avoided by either writing bespoke titles for each page by hand or using a systemic database driven solution from your content management system following a format such as:-

[Site ID] - [Page Name] - [Subcategory Name] - [Category Name]

As long as the page author ensures the [Page Name] elements is specific to the content, then the combination of this plus the other variables (Site ID, Subcategory and Category) should ensure you produce unique page titles that logically only reference one document.


Another common issue are page titles such as "Contact us" - who? Be specific - who are you? Use the Site ID to give the very minimum of context:-

[Site ID] - Contact Us

Just because you know who you are and what you do, both humans and search engines will need a bit more detail. Why not use your company tag-line on generic page types such as contact us and privacy statements to explain not only who you are, but what you do.

[Site ID] - Contact Us - New & Used Widget & Gizmos Specialists

This allows both the human and search engine to understand who you are, what you do, and what this specific page is about.


Placing too many keywords, especially comma separated lists in a HTML title is known as keyword stuffing - and it is counter-productive.

  • It makes it difficult for humans to read
  • It pushes up your spam profile.

If you simply list a series of keywords in your title you are wasting an opportunity to actually market the individual web page and your brand - and it will generate a worse score in algorithmic relevance - so it is pretty pointless. So avoid structures such as:-

Green Widgets, Red Widgets, Blue Widgets, Yellow Widgets, Pink Widgets, Black Widgets


Although we would not wish to be too prescriptive about the order of your keyword placement in the title there are some common-sense approaches we would recommend.

Site ID

Including a site ID as a prefix ensures branding and user comprehension of where a web page resource is located when looking at its listing in the SERPs. Remember a Site ID is just the name of your website/business, it does not include any tag-lines. Tag-lines can be used as a suffix on pages such as the home page where more context might be needed. Your Site ID should be as succinct as possible. So rather than why not use

Unique Page Name Element

Ensure where possible the unique page name element is near the front of the text to ensure it is fully displayed in the SERPs. Only the first 66 characters are guaranteed to be displayed before the search engine insert an ellipsis (...) to indicate truncation - and any word that breaks this limited will be lost as well. As the unique page name element is the bit where you explain what is on this specific page it helps to have it near the front.

Phrase Order

Do a little keyword research to see how most people search for specific concepts - i.e. do more people search for "shoes women's" or "women's shoes"? Common-sense tells us it is likely to be the latter, and keyword research will confirm this. However, phrase order precedence is not always obvious, so we would recommend you look-up search demand.

Category / Topic indication

Category name keywords make ideal suffix attributes as they add context and understanding whilst not detracting from the unique properties of the page.


Although currently the search engines do not use the click-through-rate (CTR) metric as part of their algorithmic calculations, it is clear that user-behaviour metrics are something they have been considering for quite some time. If CTRs do become a measure of relevance then having well formed and enticing HTML title tags will become even more important to ensure continued success in organic search marketing. So we would recommend getting your house in order now as it can only benefit you, and may well prove critical in the near future.


Remember that the HTML Title tag is a crucial element within your SEO strategy and programme of optimisation - and that it is relatively low hanging fruit - i.e. it is easy to rectify and optimise.

As long as you follow the three basic tenets, your HTML title tags will help improve your visibility and drive qualified traffic to your website:-

  1. Clarity
  2. Context
  3. Hook

Happy title writing!


  • HTML Title
  • SERP Listings
  • Title Tag
  • Web Page Title


Nice article on the different ways the title tag can be utilised.

A slight correction, though - titles up to 68 characters can be displayed fully in Google. Any more, and the title will be cut down to the nearest word.

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