Written by Crystal Ortiz. Published on 10, May 2021
Optimizing page titles and meta descriptions is a lot like making a first impression. It’s what you’ll use to stand out amongst the crowd of results in the SERPs. Oftentimes, writers, strategists, and SEO’s tend to overthink page titles and descriptions. But if you follow best practices and test what works best within your industry and on your website, you’ll see that optimizing titles and descriptions is fun and useful for both users and search engines.
Additionally, writing better page titles and meta descriptions can improve the overall experience users have with your website and can contribute to improvements in metrics like CTR (click-through rate). Relative to other SEO efforts like developing content and fixing technical issues, optimizing page titles and descriptions is a relatively painless (and cost-effective) way to increase visibility and gain more website traffic.
Page titles and meta descriptions appear in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) and can either be decided by you (the webmaster, site owner, SEO, developer, etc.) or by the search engine itself. They typically tell a user the name of the page and a brief description. Here’s a more detailed explanation.
Page titles are the HTML elements that tell search engines the name of a particular page. They are written in between the <title> and </title> tags, and appear in several places.
You can assign page titles in your CMS, such as WordPress, Drupal, or Squarespace since these normally have “Page Title” and “Meta Description” sections or plugins (like Yoast) that will help you define, and occasionally, optimize your page title tag to up to 70 characters.
Meta descriptions, like title tags, can be found in the source code and SERPs (but not in the browser). It defines the contents of a page and the page description or subject and is recommended not to exceed 170 characters. To quickly see your title tags and descriptions, you can use an SEO chrome extension like “Detailed SEO Extension” or “Mangools SEO Extension.”
The easiest way to write a title tag is to ask yourself, “what is this page about?” and then write a compelling, short description. You should describe the page in the simplest form, adding appropriate keywords, elements, or your brand name.For example, you might want to explain that this is the home page of a local craft beer business. Here, you can see the title tag for Cigar City Brewing contains the name of the business, location, and a product differentiator in the title.
Users immediately understand that when they click on the link, it will take them to the Cigar City Brewing website in Tampa, Florida.
An SEO title tag should contain elements that describe the page, either by asking a question, answering a question, adding in the page name, business or brand name, location, or another element that will indicate the subject of the page. As you start to become familiar with writing title tags and meta descriptions, you’ll notice similarities across pages and even more similarities across industries. In medical articles, for example, the page title might be the name of the post and the branded publication.
I always try to centre titles and descriptions on user-intent for a target query: making them unique, concise and authentic to the brand. They have to be descriptive and inspire confidence. It’s your opportunity to sell your content and stand out on SERPs, so research and monitor the competition, then take those learnings to ensure yours is more compelling. Also, because Google may not use these descriptions and instead show the first paragraph of content, make sure that paragraph is ready to do the job too! Keep on analysing, learning, tweaking and always have a close eye on your CTR.
One experiment you might want to try is adding special characters, such as [square brackets] to your titles and descriptions. These can make your titles stand out in the SERP results versus titles that don’t contain these elements. Other elements might include (parenthesis) and % percentage.
You can also try to test elements like emojis. Here’s a study by Sistrix on the effectiveness of special characters and emojis in the SERPS.
Ultimately, you’ll want to remember that a mix of clarity, brand, and psychology should guide your title tag decisions. And a fair amount of testing.
The general rule to follow for title tag length is between 55-65 characters, although you should test which titles work best across different page types within your industry and keyword targets.
When writing titles and descriptions, include your most important terms and compelling points as early as possible. Meta descriptions are first and foremost meant to benefit users, so make sure you pay close attention to length. Titles are also incredibly important to users of course, but you can be a LOT more flexible with title lengths — after all, even if a user sees that infamous ellipses, Google still reads the entire title and takes it all into consideration when ranking pages. Feel free to extend the length with additional information as long as it’s relevant to the page.
Regarding length, remember that quality is more important than quantity. You can choose to exceed the recommended length or keep it short-and-sweet. The more important questions are actually:
Search Engine Journal recently published an evaluation on this very question, citing Gary Illyes’s comment that Google does not have a title tag limit. However, it’s important to note that while there may be no actual limit for the tag itself, there is a SERP limit that will only show the recommended number of characters. Further, page title length is often a subject of conversation within the SEO community. Studies indicate title tag length has little effect, others disagree.
Ultimately, you’ll want to find a balance between writing title tags that are within the SERP character limits, while also accurately describing the page you’re optimizing. There are benefits to keeping within the character count, but when it comes to whether or not these rules affect ranking or CTR is something you’ll want to test on your website.
When writing title tags don’t worry too much about title length, Google can still read the title even if it is cut off on search results pages as long as it’s a single sentence. Focus your energy instead on a title tag that describes the page, reflects the user intent, attracts user attention and is strong enough to compete against other results in SERPS.
Page title tags can appear in the results pages, web browser, and within the source code of the page. You’ll also be able to see the page title in your CMS for quick edits and optimization. However, users will typically only see the page title in two places.
For this reason, you’ll want to optimize the page titles so users are compelled to click on the result. However, if you create a page title that does not accurately describe the page content, Google will either not show your page, or create a more accurate title for you. The same is true if you don’t assign a page description. Most likely, Google will either leave the description blank or create one based on the search query and the content on the page.
A meta description should describe or summarize the contents on a page and should anticipate query intent by addressing key points and including relevant keywords. Meta descriptions have an influence on whether or not users will click a page, so make sure you are considering who your page is for and why it’s the best result for the targeted query.
Where title tags describe the page’s name, meta descriptions summarize, preview, and clarify the content on a page. Typically, meta descriptions should be between 150-170 characters. However, like page titles, it’s important to consider how users might read your meta description. Take the time to test which formats work best for your keywords and industry. Here are some reasonable tests to make during your on-page optimization for meta descriptions.
While this is great to keep in mind, generally you don’t have to worry too much about the description length. Think of it more as a guide for creating succinct, helpful copy about the page more than an actual “rule.”
Like anything in SEO, “it depends” is a sensible answer. When working on a team, having “page title and meta description boundaries” doesn’t have to be a free-for-all just because Google says it can be any length. Limitations can also create consistency across multiple clients and pages. So while the length may not technically have limitations, there are other reasons for setting standards.
There’s an excellent chance that Google won’t use your suggested title and description. According to a study published by Ahrefs,
“Google rewrites meta descriptions 62.78% of the time.” – Michal Pecánek, Ahrefs.
This is because there are millions of searches each day. It’s nearly impossible to know what the best version of your meta description copy should be. Unless, of course, you’re Google and have billions (I’m rounding) data points to consider. Does that mean the process of writing titles and descriptions is useless? Not necessarily. As Portent’s Evan Hall mentions,
I’m somewhat disheartened about how infrequently our meta descriptions are actually displayed in the SERP, and how few characters we’re likely to utilize. But I don’t think that means we should give up on writing good meta descriptions. We just need to be more clever about the process.
You’ll also want to control your website’s positioning as many times as Google will allow. While you won’t be able to predict every scenario in which your site might appear, you can still anticipate some instances.
If you do not add a title and description in your CMS, Google will create one. The process of displaying search results is automated and takes into consideration the content of the page. If Google deems your assigned descriptions as useful, accurate, and relevant, they are more likely to appear as a result. This is why you’re better off publishing your pages with an assigned title and description rather than leaving them blank. Without those elements, you let Google decide what to show if your pages are shown at all.
While we can’t manually change titles or snippets for individual sites, we’re always working to make them as relevant as possible.
Once you understand that Google’s goal is to provide the best resource for its users, you’ll make your life a lot easier.
An obvious indication for rewriting a meta description is if you notice Google has rewritten one for you. John Mueller says there are three reasons why Google rewrites meta descriptions.
In summary, they boil down to query mismatch and poor page summarization. If you’re seeing inconsistencies in the description you’ve written compared to the one that is shown, see if you can improve the description by addressing the shown query.
It’s easier to use an SEO tool like these since they will tell you when you’ve reached a limit or if you’re missing your target keyword within the copy. Yoast, for example, will also tell you which pages could be improved within the “all pages” view in WordPress.
While you don’t need an SEO tool to optimize your titles and descriptions, it can’t hurt to try an industry-trusted tool to see if it works for you.
Now that we’ve reviewed what titles and descriptions are, we’ll want to explore what they should look like and include. The more you explore, test, and write descriptions, the more you’ll learn what “best practices” work for your website. Please note these examples are fabricated to respect the integrity of hardworking SEOs everywhere.
These examples show a few of the aforementioned errors. They are too long or too short, non-specific, stuffed with keywords or lacking keywords, too general, and overall an eyesore.
These examples are quite the opposite, they have a good mix of branded copy, value positioning, and are optimized for their targeted keywords. They fit within the recommended title length and use attractive, easy-to-read formatting.
When it comes to the title tag, if you’re optimizing for local searches it can help to put the location of your business in the title tag. It’s helpful for optimizing for your region, but also for users as they are looking at a SERP. For example, if you’re a garden supply company in Louisville, KY, it shows right in the SERP in the title tag your location (for example: Urban Garden Supply in Louisville, KY). For a user searching that query in that location it can help make it pop. Another thing I always try and do is include a call-to-action in the meta description that is applicable to the page the user would land on. So whether it’s “read more” or “get a demo” in can help encourage users to click-through. Also, don’t be afraid to include action verbs in your title like “Apply,” “Discover,” “Download,” etc. I’ve seen some nice increases in click-through-rates when words like that are included in the title tags.
Buzzumo recently published a study of over 100 million headlines to see what created the most engagement on social media. In reviewing these headlines, you’ll be able to see what language increases engagement (clicks) and adopt them into your SEO title tag tests. Keep in mind that “good” and “bad” are relative terms. Continue to study and test your titles to see what works for you.
An easy way to make sure your page titles and descriptions are working is to test them.