If you use search engines, you've seen title tags at work every time. Title tags are the titles of the results displayed in the search engine result page (SERP). It may seem simple enough, but these titles play a pivotal role in determining whether or not the result will actually get clicked on.
The title tag has to be intriguing enough that the reader is compelled to click on the result and find out what lies beneath. This is more difficult than it sounds, as the vast majority of titles are rather bland, don't perform as intended, or are too long and get cut off prematurely.
The Problems with Titles
To add to the challenge, recent updates to Google have changed the font in which results are displayed, resulting in a shortening of available characters for title tags. What's the big deal? Can't we adjust old titles and make sure new titles fit within the maximum number of characters? No, not quite.
You see, there isn't a set maximum number of characters for each result, and the display results are unique to each tag line, depending on which characters are used. Some other factors that play a role in how titles display are the use of capitals letters and the exact keywords initially searched.
As a rough guideline, if the majority of your title tag is in lowercase, you can expect a title of around 55 characters to fit most of the time. If you have any concerns as to whether your title will fit, MOZ have released a handy title tag preview tool for checking which is based more on pixel width than character count.
Best Practice for Title Tags
Besides making sure your character count is short enough to be displayed properly, what other practices make for effective titles?
Make sure you have a whopper of a title that captures user interest, and that it includes the keywords you're targeting, preferably at the start of the title if possible.
Be conscious of branding. If there is a well-known brand that is likely to get lots of click-throughs, try to place the brand name at the front of the title so it doesn't get buried and lost.
Finally, be sure that when the web visitor clicks through, that the page doesn't disappoint. Search engines pay attention to a page's bounce rate. If a page doesn't deliver the promise of the title tag and the bounce rate jumps, search engines may conclude that the page is not as relevant as assumed. Their whole goal is to provide relevant results to searchers, so a high bounce rate could cause your site and pages to drop in the results.
In the good ol' days, many people thought that you could just load-up your meta keywords with whatever key phrases you wanted to be found for, and ‘viola!'—your site was optimized. Yeah, not so much.
Many SEO plugins (like Yoast SEO for Wordpress sites) lead people to believe that keywords are the most important piece of the puzzle, but there's a bit more to it. In general, this 'formula' hold true:
Quality content + Relevant title + Relevant meta description = Optimized post, good for SEO
SEO plugins, though, can't just look at those elements to see that a post is optimized. The plugin needs you to tell it the keyword you're hoping to optimize around so that it can scan your post title, url, page title, content, and meta description for it. Once it knows that, it can give you the thumbs up on the post. Without it, it's in the dark.;
The keyword isn't important to Google—it's going to read your post and make it's own decision based on many more criteria—but it's a helpful piece to push users who use these plugins towards relevant, clear copy.
Simply put, meta keywords are no longer an important piece of the on-page SEO puzzle. Google no longer utilizes meta keyword tags in their algorithm for search rankings, and Matt Cutts (former head of Google's Webspam team) has testified to this point.
Meta descriptions tell the search engines what is contained within a web page. When the results of a search query are displayed, the meta description often accompanies the title tag and URL to give a brief explanation of the page content to the searcher as well.
Best Practice for Meta Description
Relevancy is key when it comes to meta descriptions. Make sure that the description matches the content of the article or page, so visitors who click through know what to expect. Just as with the title tag, if a meta description is misleading or is disconnected from the actual content on that page, the user is likely to leave the page, which will again increase your website's bounce rate.
Keep meta descriptions short. Stick to the 150–160 character limit so that the full description is displayed on the SERP. A powerful piece of ad copy that engages a reader's interest is most likely the best use for the limited amount of characters.
Meta descriptions aren't hugely important for search engine rankings (although they should contain keywords), but they do present an opportunity for compelling, well-written advertising copy to increase the number of click-throughs from the SERPs.
You may also consider including things like phone numbers and contact information in the meta description, providing quick and convenient access to your organization without requiring a user to actually click on your listing.
Think about it—if there are five listings displayed on a search engine result page and yours has a convincing meta description AND a phone number, you've eliminated an entire step for the user, increasing the likelihood for a call. Furthermore, by using a unique phone number with call-tracking, you can separate it from the rest of your contact points and track its effectiveness. (You know that the number only appears on SERPs, so anyone that calls it did so from there!)
When a user skims a SERP, they quickly review the meta descriptions for each result. If your copy is convincing, intriguing, and holds the information they're looking for, the user is more likely to choose your result over the competition. Optimize and test your meta descriptions for increased traffic to your primary landing pages.
We get it—SEO can be confusing and overwhelming. By picking apart and dissecting the various elements of a well-optimized website and digesting them on a smaller scale, you'll appreciate how each of these aspects affect one another. Following SEO best practices around meta information will lead to a well-optimized website that can be properly crawled and indexed by search engines, and perhaps more importantly, found and read by users.