Should You Rewrite Your Title Tags to be Shorter?

Posted in Search & Social — Nov 07, 2014

Much has been written this past year about how Google has changed the character display limit of title tags, but it's taken two recent events to compel me to personally comment on this lil' SEO controversy:

  1. I had a client ask me if we should reduce their title tag lengths to ~55 characters, resulting in my immediate meltdown. <wink>

  2. An Authority Labs blog post about how "Google Doesn't Think Your Titles Are Good Enough Anymore".

title-tags-not-good-enough

Taking a step back, it's definitely true that Google has changed how they display title tags in SERPs. Well-researched articles from both Authority Labs and Moz (which I encourage you to read) have presented some excellent documentation all about this, with the following conclusions:

  • Google is truncating more title tags than ever before.
  • Google may either partially or completely rewrite a title.
  • Google may still display anywhere between 40-70 characters.
  • The average display is about 58.
  • Titles over 60 characters have a pretty good chance of being rewritten.
  • Titles over 70 have an even better chance.
  • There is no magic number for "how long" your title tags should be.
  • However, 55 characters seems to be the sweet spot for avoiding revisions.

It's an irrefutable fact that Google has changed how they handle title tag display.

** BUT DOES THIS MEAN YOU SHOULD REWRITE YOUR TITLE TAGS?**

I would proceed with caution. There's a chance that if you rewrite your title tags to avoid truncation or revision, you could also inadvertently be causing them to move DOWN in Google SERPs. *Keep in mind that you potentially won't only be reducing length: you could also be reducing keyword relevance. *

Just because Google revises a title tag does not mean they are not indexing your title tag. *Display is not the same thing as indexation. *

The main argument for revising title tags is that unwanted Google rewrites could be affecting your click-through-rate. If you can prevent Google from rewriting your titles, then once again, you have total control over how your website looks. *(Don't you just hate losing control?) * And yes: click-through rate is important, so please don't take this article as any sort of statement that the only thing that matters is position, not CTR.

I would instead argue that BOTH are important, and that neither should necessarily be sacrificed for the other. *The real question here might be which is more powerful - CTR, or position? *

That's kind of a trick question. If you've already taken the time to hand-write title tags, then my advice is that you won't want to mess with these very much if they're already substantially contributing to higher organic visibility. Removing an important keyword from a title tag could cause the result to drop, practically negating any perceived benefit of improving CTR.

That being said, if you have a higher position with a title tag that looks like crap... well, you may want to rewrite that. My argument is that your title tags should be well-written enough in the first place that even if they are truncated, they still should read okay.

How can you tell if CTR is actually being affected when Google rewrites a Title Tag? This is hard. If anything, Google rewrites titles because they want SERPs to be as user-friendly as possible. Instead of seeing research of whether or not Google is rewriting title tags, what I'd really like to see is research about how this is affecting click-through-rate.

Yes, it's true we can see "info" in Google Webmaster Tools about CTR. The problem is that it's incredibly difficult to extract meaningful, actionable analyses from any of it because it reports on so many rando keywords. As we all well know, the intel Google provides on the organic side pales vastly in comparison to the intel they provide for the paid side. Especially since not provided.

Anyway - let me close by offering some advanced advice about how I personally like to approach titles.

how to build a title tag

  • Did I Mention Just How Powerful Title Tags Are?
    Done correctly, they can make all the difference between showing a client good results, or great results.
  • Keywords Must Be Reflected in Onpage Text
    Seriously, if you're spending a bunch of time putting keywords in title tags without also paying attention to onpage text.... what are you doing? In my 10+ years of writing SEO content, I can say without a doubt that your keywords in a title tag are only as relevant as your keywords in the actual onpage text of that same URL.
  • Obsess. Document.
    Warning: I am opening the kimono here. I am majorly methodical with my title tag authoring. I map out every single page in a spreadsheet. I document which particular keywords are in which title tags. Down to whether the keyword is in exact word order or partial word order. I also make every attempt to ensure that keywords in the title are also reflected in onpage text. *Plus other stuff that would probably scare you. *
  • Use Characters & Abbreviations
    With the goal to keep titles short, use "&" instead of writing out "and", "vs" instead of "versus", and other obvious substitutions and abbreviations.
  • Delineate with Pipes, Dashes, Commas, and Colons
    Title tags don't have to be complete sentences. Use | pipes, - dashes, or : colons to frame ideas and concepts. Pipes tend to look the sleekest, but these can also carry an extra "space" character with them. The title tag is also the only place where I can be caught not always using an Oxford comma.
  • Make a Decision About Branding
    You may not always need to include your brand / company name in the title tag. Not only can this take up valuable space, but if your brand is obviously stated in the URL or in the meta description tag, then consider whether or not you need it in the title tag too. If you do decide to include the brand, try placing it toward the middle or end of the title. Considerations will vary from page to page, depending on individual subject matter, branding goals, and organic visibility goals.
  • Make a Decision About Length
    When it comes down to how long a title tag should be, it depends on the individual page. If you can keep your tag to about 55-60 characters without sacrificing any important potential for keyword integration, great. If not, it's seriously not the end of the world if your title tag goes a bit longer - especially considering you might be saving SERP visibility. Say the important stuff up front, and fit in other relevant factors toward the end.
  • Focus on the Front
    Just to reiterate: if your title ends up being longer than 55 characters, make sure the front end of the tag reads nicely so as to differentiate and encourage click-through. If possible, also place important keywords toward the front of the tag, as usability and page subject matter allows. For example: if the page is a profile of a person, obviously, you want the title tag to begin with their name, even though it's the rare individual whose name will even register a number in most keyword research tools. (Just one example of where usability and CTR concerns can come before keyword ones.)
  • Differentiate
    Oooh, here's where CTR comes in. Use evocative verbs and action words to help make your title tags stand out in the SERPs. I'm also a big fan of using questions ("how do I", "how does", "what is", etc.).
  • Leverage Your Description Tag
    If we're really gonna talk CTR, then I'd be remiss not to mention the meta description tag. This is where you can truly wax eloquent, including all sorts of intriguing USPs to encourage users to click through to your website. Although the description tag isn't a formal ranking factor like the title tag is, this is however prime real estate for improving CTR.

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