January 2009
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Title Treatment: Writing Effective Page Titles
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Dear Robyn,

I often get questions from clients that go like this: "If there's one thing I should 'fix' or spot-check on my website, what should it be?"

My answer? After content (you must have good, compelling content), you should review the title tags.

Title tags control the page titles on your website. To see what I mean, do this: open your browser. Go to HubSpot.com. Look at what appears at the top of your monitor (in IE, it's a blue bar; in Firefox and Safari, it's a silvery-gray bar). You should see these words: Internet Marketing | HubSpot. That's the page title. If you view HubSpot's source code, you'll see this about 20 lines down from the top:

<title> Internet Marketing | HubSpot </title>

That's the title tag, and it controls what appears in your page title. Page titles are valuable real estate. Why are they so important? Well, search engines, like Google, rely on page titles to tell them what the page is about. In the HubSpot example above, Google will expect, based on the page title, that the page is going to be about Internet marketing. Of course, the search engines are smarter than that--they check to see that those words actually appear in the content, like in headlines. But they start with the page titles, which is why they're so important. An effective page title can help that page show up higher in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS). (And yes, showing up high in the SERPs is not the be-all end-all of SEO, but it can help.) They're also important to users. When people view the SERPs, they can scan the results and get a sense of what each web page is about based on the page title and meta description (which we'll talk about in a future issue).

I'm amazed at that number of websites that don't effectively use page titles. As you browse different websites, notice them. Often, the home page will say "Welcome - Name of Company." That's a waste of valuable real estate!

When figuring out what words to use in your page titles, you'll want to do some keyword phrase research. Each page of your website should have a unique page title and should focus on 1-2 keyword phrases (oh, there's debate on how many words, how many phrases, how many characters, but 1-2 phrases is a good rule of thumb). Then, of course, you'll want to make sure the content on that page speaks appropriately and compellingly about those keyword phrases (yes, content is still king). It's a simple, yet important, thing to fix. Here are the steps to take:

1. Do keyword research in Wordtracker, Keyword Discovery, or Google's free keyword tool (or hire an SEO or use this keyword research vendor that I recommend: SEO Research Labs).

2. Choose the keywords you want to focus on.

3. If you have a small site, go through your site page-by-page and designate 1-2 keyword phrases per page.

4. Spot-check your copy. Do you use these keyword phrases in a compelling way in headlines, body copy, bullet points? Is the copy itself interesting and relevant? Revise and tweak as necessary. Better yet, use an SEO copywriter to do it for you. 

5. Once you do that, write the title tags for each page (more on this below). (Or have the SEO copywriter do it.)

6. Give the page tweaks and fresh title tags to your web developer to load onto the site. Or if you have a content management system, make the changes yourself.

If you have a large site, do chunks at a time. Obviously, the home page is important, but consider other "top priority" pages, and focus on those first.

Below, I'm going to go into a key strategy for creating the most effective page titles for your website. As always, I welcome your comments and questions.


Title Treatment

In the world of book publishing, a title can make or break a book. Think about it. When you visit a bookstore, what gets you to pick up a particular book? No doubt the cover art and the title.

Page titles are important to websites as well, as you now know. But what do you know about page title competition?

Understanding Page Title Competition
Last May, I took an SEO seminar with Jill Whalen of High Rankings. Jill is one of the premier SEOs in the business (and she's a really nice person to boot). One of the best tips I learned from her seminar was this: focus on page title competition rather than web page competition. Since search engines, like Google, put such a heavy emphasis in their algorithms on page titles, it makes sense to see how well your keyword phrases compete with other existing page titles. 

Why? Well, if your keyword phrase doesn't have "a lot" of page title competition (more on the definition of "a lot" below), using it in the page title may help the page show up higher in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS)--even if there's a healthy amount of web page competition.

Checking Page Title Competition
So how do you check title competition? Search on this:

allintitle:your keyword phrase here

Let's look at an example. Pretend you operate a pest control company and you specialize in termite removal. You do research in Google's free keyword tool, and you discover an interesting keyword phrase: termite eradication.

Google's tool shows that this phrase receives approximately 390 searches per month, and termites eradication (termites is plural here) receives 46 searches a month. But you figure there's a ton of competition in Google for this phrase. So you search on termite eradication in Google. Sure enough, there are 72,000 competing web pages. For termites eradication, there are 190,000 competing pages.

"So," you say, "It's unlikely the page I'm working on will show up high in the SERPs for this phrase." Well, wait a minute. Let's consider the title competition.

allintitle:termite eradication

All in title search result on "termite eradication" 

allintitle:termites eradication 

All in title search on "termites eradication"

Turns out only 201 page titles use the phrase termite eradication, and only 65 page titles use termites eradication. While nothing is guaranteed in the world of search engine optimization, your page on termite eradication stands a good chance of eventually showing up well in the SERPs for both terms if you use the phrases (more on this below) in the title and, of course, the page copy, including headlines.

Writing Effective Page Titles, With Title Competition in Mind

Writing page titles can be a lot of fun because, as Jill Whalen says, it's like putting together a puzzle. How well can you put together 5-8 words (approximately)? Let's consider our termite example. Google's keyword tool also shows the phrase how to kill termites receives a monthly average of 1600 searches. When I plug in "how to kill termites" into Google, it shows approx 85,000 competing web pages that use this phrase. But let's check page title competition:

allintitle:how to kill termites

All in title search on "how to kill termites"

As you can see, there are only 275 competing page titles that use that phrase. As for how many page titles is "too many" in terms of competition, that's a judgment call. I'd say if you have a highly competitive phrase in terms of web page competition, but the phrase has fewer than 1000 competing page titles, consider optimizing for that phrase, with a focus on the page title.

But back to our example. Watch how I use these three phrases without repeating the word termites:

<title> How to Kill - Termites Eradication </title>

Search engines ignore the dash, so it will see how to kill termites and also termites eradication. The engines are likely to see termite eradication as well. Plus, I have more room for another keyword phrase and/or the name of my company.

Of course, as search engine algorithms evolve, page titles may have less importance someday. But for now, the page title competition check is another cool tool in your SEO toolbox.

**Parts of this article appeared on a post I wrote for Blue Acorn's blog. Blue Acorn is an eCommerce development firm based out of South Carolina.
Hard to believe January is almost over. See you next month!

Robyn Bradley
E.T. Robbins Productions
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