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SEO Basics – The Title & Meta Description Tags

SEO Basics - Title Tag and Meta Description Tags

One of the really basic fundamentals of creating a website that has at least some chance of ranking in search engines is getting the page title tag and the meta description tags right. This is no-where near the whole job SEO wise, but it’s really a foundational building block that’s easy to do when you know how. It’s also something that I notice being done wrong on at least 50% of new websites – from both “Do It Yourself” designers and professionals who should know better.

Before I start, note that while this post is designed for beginners, even the more experienced may get something from it. But I’m not interested in semantic arguments over if it’s a “Title Tag” or “Title Element” or the like, as in the end it doesn’t really matter.

The Title Tag

Most important SEO element on the page is the tag. No to be confused with a heading, it does not appear on the page itself. Rather, it appears in the (usually blue) bar at the top of the window, usually with – Internet Explorer or – Mozilla Firefox etc after it. It also appears as your page title in search engine (eg Google) results.

Rules for your Title Tag

I’m a big believer in “some rules are meant to be broken, but you have to understand the rules before you have the right to break them”. So following the below rules is the best bet.

  • - Use a different title tag on every page.
  • - Keep it to 65 characters including spaces. Otherwise you are at risk of having the last word cut off and replaced with “…”. Note that in a lot of cases Google will now support up to 70 characters, but 65 is safest. Using the Word Count function in MS Word is one way to check this easily, noting “characters including spaces”.
  • - Don’t make it too short. You have 65-70 characters to play with, don’t sell yourself short by only using a few of them!
  • - Include Keywords in your title. Search engines including Google take a lot of notice of the title in working out what the page is about. So putting just your company name is bad, and just the word Home even worse!
  • - Include your Site/Business Name. Some may argue this, but in most cases it’s best to include. There are arguments for at the start or at the end, I tend to use both depending on a number of factors, but be consistent!
  • - Make the title tag what the page is about, not what the site is about – except for the home page of course.
  • - Use a separator. When you are splitting the page subject from your brand, or splitting parts of the title, use a separator. I often use a | (called a pipe), others use a  >  (greater than arrow) or a – (dash).
  • - Be consistent. There may be times you need to include your brand at the start in some cases, and at the end in other cases, but don’t mix up lots of different methods. Once you have worked out a good system that works for you, stick with it.
  • - Make sure your page matches the title. If you ensure the page content accurately reflects the title and is what the searcher is looking for, then people will stay longer and be more satisfied with your site. If they have to search for another page on the site to find what the title promised, they will give up and leave.

A title tag example:

The homepage of this site at time of writing is: 
Brand Police | Marketing, SEO, Website Design & Brand Building Blog

Brand Police is at the start, as I felt starting with the topics would make it too generic looking (although I reverse this on internal pages).  Total characters are 67 and outside the 65 characters but within the 70 character upper limit and I’ve confirmed Google displays it correctly. I use a | separator between my brand and the rest, and also get all my main page keywords in the title while still keeping it readable. Remember though – this is just for the home page. Every page needs to be different.

_______________________________________

The Meta Description Tag.

There are a lot of “meta” tags out there, however the only one with any relevance these days to search engines is the “meta description” tag.

The meta description tag doesn’t appear on the page at all, and is purely for search engine benefit. Google for example uses it as the description below your listing in most (but not all) cases. I also believe it’s taken into account in terms of boosting your ranking for keywords it contains, although this is debated by some. However, the main reason you want to get this right is for the benefit of searchers.

A well written meta description tag

A well written meta description tag


Some points to consider:

  • - Think of it as a mini advertisement for the page. If your page comes up in a search result, this text is the best chance of convincing them to visit your page.
  • - Keep them unique. Describing the page, not the site as a whole helps visitors know what to expect. Plus – Google penalises sites with duplicate meta tags.
  • - Write in sentence form. This is a not a spot for a list of words separated by commas. The benefits of clear and readable are obvious; they encourage click-through..
  • - But still use keywords. Google highlights words in your description that match the search term, also encouraging visitors to click. Plus there may be some search ranking benefit in this (a topic of debate, but it can’t hurt).
  • - Keep it under 160 characters (including spaces). Google will generally only display the first 160, Yahoo displays 165 and Bing even more. Sticking to 160 characters max will also challenge you to write succinctly.
  • - Don’t make it too short. Your have 160 characters of advertising copy space. Don’t waste the opportunity and only use half!
  • - Remember – it’s an art more than a science. Writing good meta description tags can be challenging, and a subtle change can greatly improve your click throughs and conversions. If these are bad compared to your rankings, test different options here and see how it goes for you.

_______________________________________

The Meta Keywords Tag

Finally, a word about the Keyword Tag. And that word is… “Useless”. Maybe that’s a bit harsh but it’s as close to Useless as you can get. Yet it’s the one thing I see most people actually using when they build a page. Maybe it’s because the concept seems so simple … “I write the words I want the site to rank for in here”.

The meta keywords tags is almost completely useless, yet is the one tag amateur designers seem obsessed with.

This used to work well – up until about 5 years ago. Now Google ignores it (read it here from the horse’s mouth if you don’t believe me). Yahoo and Bing etc don’t completely ignore it, but they have devalued it greatly. So my rule for this is – put something in there if you can be bothered, but don’t obsess over it. But make sure not to include any words not on the page itself as this has the potential to be seen as keyword stuffing.

Hopefully this will help someone, I would love to see any comments on this or just let me know if it was of use!

About the author

Matthew has written 10 articles for Brand Police

Matthew Cummins is the owner of Marketing Web, a marketing, website design and SEO consultancy business. Matthew has degrees in both IT and Management/ Marketing as well as practical experience in B2B and B2C sales, marketing and marketing management, SEO and website development. Matt built his first website in 1995, and has been passionate about the web ever since.

9 Responses to "SEO Basics – The Title & Meta Description Tags"

  • Melissa Kemna 12:56 AM 31/8/2010

    Hi Matt, Thanks for sharing this. Really helpful! Regards, Melissa.

  • Virtual Assistant Network 09:52 PM 01/9/2010

    < P>[... ] This blog about Tag’s really helped me. So maybe it will help you with optimising your site. http://www.brandpolice.com.au/2010/0…cription-tags/ Enjoy your day! [... ]

  • Victor 09:05 PM 16/9/2010

    As an SEO newbie (and dunce) this stuff is incredibly useful. More, more please!

  • Tim 01:08 AM 28/9/2010

    Great post – well done Matt.

  • Theo Koudias 04:48 AM 02/10/2010

    Very useful actually, , . Now if i just findout where I can change the meta heading and tag descriptions are on my site!

  • Cheryl 12:33 AM 12/11/2010

    I have changed the Meta Description Tag and it displays correctly but the old description still shows in a google search. How long does it take for that to change? Is it a problem with the cached pages in Google? I don’t understand much about all this and hope you can explain.
    Many thanks,

    • Matthew 02:05 AM 12/11/2010

      Hi Cheryl, thanks for your question.
      The time it takes to update will depend on how often Google crawls your site, and how often it updates the cache of your site. There is no set time for this unfortunately. For sites Google thinks are very important they may do it within minutes or hours, but for most small business sites I’ve noticed wait times of up to 2 weeks or even more! I’ve also noticed that Google is very quick to index new content since it’s “Caffeine” update, but slow to update changes to existing content. One thing you can do is let Google know thing have changed by “pinging” your site – use the service ww. Pingler. Com for this. This may make Google go back to your site quicker as it’s basically telling Google that something has been changed, but there are no guarantees.

  • Jeff 04:38 PM 17/11/2010

    I am having trouble understanding terminology. Title tag… Is the the name of the page in wordpress? I am using a custom menu to keep the name short but made the name of my pages longer (per your suggestions above).
    I do understand meta tags I believe.

    I did a site map using Google XML Sitemaps and google updated my site within a couple hrs! yahoo and bing still have not almost 24 hrs later.

    • Matthew 09:25 AM 18/11/2010

      Hi Jeff, thanks for stopping by.
      In code, the title tag is what’s between the title and /title code elements (with <> around – couldn’t make it show properly in the comments section! ) This results in a couple things – the title being in the “Blue Bar” at the top of the window (ie not on the page itself – on the blue bar (or gray etc bar) above all your toolbars. It will also usually be what is displayed as your page title in Google search results.
      For those not working in code, if you are using a WYSIWYG editor such as Dreamweaver or Expression Web, you would set this by right clicking on the page and selecting Page Settings or something like that – it will be in there.
      In WordPress, you can set it for the homepage using the “Settings: General” page. To change on an individual page level, check out my other post on WordPress SEO basics – has some instructions there. Hope this helps.
      Matt.

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