Why Your Page Titles Are Terrible (and How to Fix Them)
by Geoff Hineman
One of the first areas an SEO Manager will look at for optimization opportunities is your page titles (sometimes also referred to as meta titles). There are several good reasons for this.
The first reason is that your page titles are often the very first interaction a potential customer has with your brand. When they do a search, your page title is the text that forms the link from search engines to your page.
The next reason is that, from an optimization perspective, optimizing a page title carries more ranking benefit than many other parts of a page.
You don't have to look far to find janky page titles on a SERP. In this post, we are going to look at some of the reasons why your page titles might be terrible and what you can do to fix them.
Reasons Why Your Page Titles Are Terrible
There can be any number of reasons why your page titles are terrible. In my experience, however, it usually comes down to three main reasons:
- Manufacturer Speak
- CMS Speak
- Too Simple
Manufacturer speak comes from product names that were designed to make it easier for the folks handling order fulfillment. They are often structured in a way that makes perfect sense if you are navigating a warehouse but bear no resemblance to the ways people would search for (or even talk about) your products.
Your Content Management System (CMS) also has a way of organizing your products. This is usually based on the categories and subcategories under which you list them on your website. Further, if your CMS uses filters for size, color, gender, etc., these can also come into play. That's because many CMSs will let you default to categorization to autogenerate page titles for you. Will this save you time? Sure. Will it win you customers? Probably not.
The third main reason that your page titles could be terrible is because they are simply too basic and don't offer enough information about the product. They don't give search engines enough information to return their related pages for relevant search queries. They don't give enough information to entice a searcher to click through from SERPs if they even they do show up.
Examples of Terrible Page Titles and a Strategy for Fixing Them
Now that we know how terrible page titles come into being, let's look at an example of each using the same product. After we see how that plays out, we can look at the steps to get them optimized and looking much better.
Example of a Manufacturer Speak Page Title
You'll know a Manufacturer Speak page title when you see it because it looks like a roadmap for a warehouse worker. It goes something like this:
Mens – 49ers – Retro T-shirt – Red/Gold – X-Large
Is it intuitive? Yes.
Can you understand what this product is? Yes.
Would you ever search for it this way or talk to your friends about it this way? No way!
The essential components are there, but they are arranged terribly.
Example of a CMS Speak Page Title
A key giveaway for a CMS Speak page title is that is contains redundant information that adds no value to the page title itself. In fact, these types of page titles can often look very spammy. You don't want that. Here's an example using the same product:
49ers Retro T-Shirt (Red/Gold) – 49ers Mens T-shirts – 49ers Mens – 49ers
All this page title does is walk you up the site's taxonomy from the product page, step by step, to its main category page. It's WAY too much unnecessary information. It looks terrible. And, really, this is so spammy that you would need to worry about it sending up red flags for keyword stuffing.
Example of a Too-Simple Page Title
If the two previous examples provide clunky and spammy page titles, the Too-Simple page title goes in the complete opposite direction. These page titles are often accurate, but extremely vague. Check out a too-simple page title for the same product:
49ers Retro T-Shirt
Is it accurate? Yes.
Would you click on that if you saw it in the SERPs? Probably not.
There is so much more information about this product that can be shared in a way that reads well and adds relevancy. That added relevancy is going to increase the likelihood of your product matching a search query and increase the odds that users will click on the result when they see it.
Strategies for Writing Good Page Titles
Now that we have seen what terrible page titles look like, let's get down to the business of writing good titles.
What Do Your Competitors Page Titles Look Like?
The first thing you can do when determining your strategy is to execute a few searches related to your products and see what the results look like.
- Are they e-commerce sites?
- Are they blogs?
- Are they review sites?
- Are the page titles short?
- Do some page titles get truncated?
- Are they "list" posts?
- Are they forums?
In short, you want to find consistencies so that you can leverage them into your page titles. For instance, if most of the results are e-commerce sites with page titles that get truncated, you know that Google is determining that these types of searches are being seen as shopping-related searches—as opposed to information-gathering searches—and it's okay to run a little long on the page title as long as it contains necessary information.
Once you know what high-ranking page titles look like, you know how you can structure your page titles.
Note: There are many factors that go into ranking well. Page titles are just one of them. Since this post is about page titles, though, we will only be looking at that component in this post.
We have seen how people don't search for products. How they do search for products, however, might be a little different than you think they would. That's why you need to do some keyword research first.
There are quite a few free and pay-based tools out there that pull information from different sources and present them a little differently from each other. Still, if you use one of them—for most people, Google Keyword Planner is the first step—and use it consistently, you can be sure the data you are getting is apple-to-apples within the tool.
You'll want to look for a few things when choosing keywords:
- How much search traffic is associated with each keyword term?
- How much would it cost to bid on each keyword term in Google Ads?
- How stiff is the competition at the top of the SERPs for each keyword term?
Ideally, you'll want keyword terms that sound natural, get good search traffic, but have room on the front page for your brand. To that last point, if the first page of the SERPs are packed with brands like Amazon, Walmart, Kohls, Fanatics, and the NFL, you'll need to assume that it could take you a long time to break into that first page. It really depends on your brand.
For our example, we'll say that we want to focus on the term "49ers T-shirt." It's relevant, concise, and sounds natural. So, you'll want to try to use that term (or get as close as you can to it) in your page title. Since this T-shirt has some other qualifying information, let's try to get that in there, too.
Men's XL Retro 49ers T-Shirt in Red/Gold
That's just 40 characters and in it we have covered:
Since we still have room, we could consider adding to this with items like a price or availability.
Men's XL Retro 49ers T-Shirt in Red/Gold Just $19.99!
Men's XL Retro 49ers T-Shirt in Red/Gold – In Stock!
Men's XL Retro 49ers T-Shirt in Red/Gold Just $19.99 – In Stock!
These three options weigh in at 53, 52, and 64 characters respectively and are packed with information about that 49ers T-shirt.
Pro Tip: If you carry products with part numbers or serial numbers that people use when searching your products, feel free to include them in your page title. The best location is after the product name and in parentheses.
Page Title Length
One of the "best practices" regarding optimized page titles is to keep them between 55-60 characters. This is to ensure that the page title is not truncated with it shows up on the SERPs as a link to your site.
There are two reasons why you need to take this advice with a grain of salt.
First, it is not uncommon for some page titles up to 80 characters to be fully displayed and not truncated in search results. Google tests page title lengths in SERPS regularly, so it is not uncommon to see truncation limits fluctuate.
Second, if you are limiting relevant information in your page title to avoid it being truncated in the search results, you are also limiting the odds that it will even show up in the results in the first place! It is better to have the necessary information present so it can be used when determining matches to search queries, even if that means it gets truncated.
That said, you should still pay close attention to tighten those page titles up so that you can pack the most relevant information into the fewest characters.
In search, your page titles are often the first thing a potential customer sees about your brand. And, as the adage goes, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression." For this reason, you should take care to ensure that those page titles are optimized and an accurate reflection of the product/information and your brand. Don't let the manufacturer, the CRM, or the most boring person in the organization to do the heavy lifting on them. By looking at your competition, doing some keyword research, and keeping readability in mind, you can have some great looking page titles that win those clicks in the search results.
For more optimization tips, check out our post on image optimization: Image Alt Text Optimization for SEO Success.