We have previously talked about the basics of search engine optimization. Now it's time get down to the meat! In this column we'll drill into one of the most important factors in achieving high search engine rankings, the title tag.
What Is a Title Tag?
A title tag is essentially an HTML code snippet that creates the words that appear in the top bar of your Web browser -- for example, "XYZ Company Home Page." These words were entered into the title tag of the site's HTML code. They don't appear anywhere on the actual Web page. The HTML code for a title tag looks like this:
< TITLE> XYZ Company Home Page< /TITLE>
The title tag is usually the first element in the < HEAD> section, followed by meta description and meta keyword tags. (You can get more information on metatags in the glossary.)
Some Web site creation tools automatically generate the title tag from information you provide. You may have noticed Web pages that are labeled "Page 1," "Page 2," or "Home Page" in the browser bar. Labels like these are used by beginning Web site designers who simply don't know how to use title tags for maximum benefit.
Search Engines and Title Tags
All search engines use title tags to gather information about your Web site. The word(s) in the title tag will appear in the hyperlink listings on the search engine results page; people click the hyperlink to go to your site. Arguably, your title tag is second in importance only to the actual text on the page in determining your site's ranking with the search engines.
So far as placement of your title tags is concerned, most search engine experts agree that it probably doesn't matter if the title tag is the first element in the < HEAD> section. However, I believe that good coding practice argues for placing it first.
What Not to Put in Your Title Tag
More important than the placement of the title tag are the words you put in the tag and the order in which those words appear. Many site owners mistakenly believe they should put their company names in this tag. This is only a good idea if you are a well-known company that people will be searching for by name, such as Coca-Cola or McDonalds. Otherwise, you should assume that most potential customers will be searching for specific products or services, not a particular company name. For example, if your company is named "Johnson and Smith Inc." and you are a tax accountant in Texas, putting only "Johnson and Smith Inc." in your title tag will probably be fruitless. If you absolutely insist on including your company name in the title tag, put it at the end of the tag, after the more important keyword information. (A number of search engine gurus believe that some search engines give more weight to words that appear first in the title tag.)
Title Tags Should Be Specific Keywords and Phrases
As the tax accountant in Texas, you would want your company's site to appear in the search engine results for searches on keywords such as "Texas tax accountants" and "CPAs in Texas." You would need to be even more specific if you prefer to work for people only in the Dallas area. In that case, use keywords such as "Dallas tax accountants" in your site's title tags. This is a key point: If you're seeking customers or clients only in a specific geographical region, your keywords need to reflect that geographical specificity. People looking for a tax accountant in Dallas may begin their search by simply entering "tax accountant" in the search engine. However, once they see that their search is returning accountants from all over the world, they'll narrow the search by adding "Dallas" to their search terms. When they do, you want your site to be right there on the first page of new results.
In our Dallas accountants example, you could create a title tag that says < TITLE> Dallas tax accountants< /TITLE> or you could say < TITLE> Dallas CPAs< /TITLE> . However, there's more than enough space in the title tag to include both of these important keyword phrases. (In fact, search engines will display 60 to 115 characters of your title tag.) Here's an example of a better approach:
< TITLE> DALLAS tax accountants dallas CPAs< /TITLE>
You'll notice that I used the word "Dallas" twice and also placed it in ALL CAPS once. Most search engines are not case sensitive, but AltaVista and HotBot are. This means that your site may well rank higher on those search engines in response to a query that is entered in ALL CAPS. (Studies have shown that most people use all lowercase letters when they type their search engine queries; however, enough use ALL CAPS to make this worth the effort.)
An interesting note: Several years ago I noticed that in some engines, pages with keywords in ALL CAPS sometimes ranked higher than pages with all lowercase keywords. This occurred even with the noncase-specific engines. Although this was not a scientific study, I'd love to hear from any readers who may have observed the same phenomenon.
As for placing the word "Dallas" twice in the title tag, I have found this approach to be both permissible and effective. Just make sure that you don't put the same words right next to each other. For example, a tag that reads "Accountants in Dallas - Dallas CPAs" is very likely to trigger a red flag with the search engines, so that the word could get ignored entirely. It's also not a good idea to use a word more than twice or to repeat more than one or two words total in the title tag. However, if you keep these caveats in mind, I strongly urge you to repeat one or two keywords in your title tags. In fact, I think it's a must!
Use Only Keywords and Phrases that Are in the Text on Your Page
If you're not sure what to put in your title tag, take a look at the text within the page itself. If you've done a good job with your writing, you should find all the keywords you need right there on your page. Simply choose the most relevant ones for the title tag. If you can't find any good keywords on your page, it's time for a rewrite.
The optimal approach when creating a Web site is to think of all the keywords that best reflect your business, and then compose text around those words. When you go to write your title tag, you simply revisit the keyword list, make sure the keywords are being used on the page, and poof, you have a good, keyword-rich title tag.
But remember: If the words don't appear somewhere in the text of your page, they shouldn't be in your title tag.
Using our tax accounting firm example, suppose you look at the text on your page and notice that the phrase "Texas tax accountant" doesn't appear anywhere on the page. Does this mean you shouldn't use this phrase in the title tag? Well, yes and no. If you're not willing to change the text on your page, then no, you shouldn't put those words in your title tag. However, you can also forget about ranking high for those words! The smart thing to do is to rewrite the text on your page so that it uses the keywords that are important to you. This doesn't mean to just stick the words at the top or bottom of the page. It doesn't mean to hide them in the background. Nor does it mean to put them in a tiny font so that no one will notice them. And it doesn't mean to simply put them in your meta keyword tag. If keywords are important enough that you want your site to be found under them in the search engines, they are important enough to be elegantly incorporated into the body text of your page.
Once you have incorporated important keywords into the text of your site, all you have to do is take these same phrases and put them in your title tag. It really is that simple.
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