Bad title tag joke. For years, we’ve been telling people, the length of your title tag should be 70 characters or less. That this is best practices. But what does this really mean? Is it absolutely true? What happens if your title tags are longer than 70 characters?For example, the title of today’s post within the meta description is 77 characters. Not this title, but the actual HTML title tag, if you look at the source code, you’ll find that the title tag of today’s Whiteboard Friday is 77 characters. We’re actually over the 70 character title tag limit. Is that bad? Are we going to go to SEO hell for that? What does that mean?
Well, recently people have been doing some experiments to see just how many characters Google will index within a title tag. For years, we thought it was 70s. It’s fluctuated. But recent experiments have shown that Google will index anywhere between 150, one person even showed that they will index over 1,000 characters, and I will link to these experiments in the post. But does this mean that you should use all of those characters to your advantage? Can you use them to your advantage? Well, I got really curious about this. So I decided to perform some experiments here on the SEOmoz blog with super long title tags. We’re talking extreme title tags, like 200 characters long, 250 characters long, just blew them out of the water just to see what would happen.
On the first experiment, I took 10 posts that did not get a lot of traffic, but they were pretty consistent traffic from week to week. I kept the old title tags and I just extended them with relevant keywords up to about 250 characters long. The results blew me away. In that first experiment, my traffic, over about a 12-week period, rose 136%. You can see, I’ll try to include a screen shot in the comments below of the Google Analytics. It exploded. I got really excited. So, I tried a second experiment. (Correction, the experiment took place over a 6 week period, not 12 like I stated in the video.)
The second experiment I tried with existing successful pages, pages that were already getting a fairly high volume of traffic, that were getting a consistent level of traffic every week. On that experiment, over about the same 12-week period, traffic rose 8%. Cool, but overall site traffic rose 9%. So it was actually 1% below the site average.
For a third experiment, I tried again on a completely different site, a personal site. I changed a few pages, title tags. Traffic actually went down over a 12-week period 11%. On that site overall site traffic went down 15%.
So, in one of these experiments, the long title tag seemed to work really well. In the other two, it just seemed to be a wash. Why did this happen, but not here? I am going to get to that in a minute.
Title Tags less than 70 Characters
Now, what are the arguments for short title tags? The best practices that you always hear about, keep it less than 70 characters. There are reasons why this is best practices and why we recommend it time and time again.
The first reason is that Google will only display the first 70 characters, in general, in their SERPs. After that, they’re truncated. Users aren’t going to see them. So, if you are writing title tags longer than 70 characters, you’re basically writing it for the search engines, and time and time again we’ve found that if you’re doing something specifically for search engines and not for users, there is probably not a lot of search engine value in it. There might be some, but probably not much.
The second reason is our Correlated Ranking Factors, a survey that we perform every couple of years. Our highest on page correlation value for keyword specific usage was if it is found, if the keyword is found in the first word of the title tag, that was a 0.09 positive correlation. It is not a huge correlation, but it was our largest on page keyword factor. Year after year after year when we perform these correlation studies, we see a direct correlation between the position of the keyword in the title tag and how important it is in the query. So, the closer the keyword is to the beginning of the title tag, the more likely it is to be important in the query. You’re going to see this time and time again. It’s very consistent. Hundreds of webmasters know this from personal experience. You want your keywords at the beginning of the title tag to rank for those keywords. The further out you do it, at 220 characters, those keywords aren’t going to count for very much.
Now the third reason is kind of new in today’s world, and that is the rise of social media. Twitter limits characters to 140 characters. So, if you have a 220 character title tag and you’re trying to share it on Twitter through automatic tweets or Facebook or whatever, they look spammy, they’re not shareable, people don’t want to share them. Shorter title tags, snappy, work really well.
For all these reasons, and for most of the time we found that longer title tags don’t help you, we say that less than 70 is best practices. Now, people get confused by when we say best practices what that means. Does it mean an absolute rule? No. It just means best practices works most of the time. It’s going to be your best bet. All other things being equal, it’s going to be what you want to implement, what you want to teach people to do, and generally how you want to practice.
So, what happened here? Why did this experiment rise 136%? Well, if you remember, these were low volume pages, pages that weren’t getting a lot of traffic anyway. The reason it rose, we suspect, is because those title tags were poorly optimized in the first place. They didn’t match the content. When we added a few keywords to the end, Google interpreted that as, hey, these match a little bit better to the content, and that’s why it rose. It was a fluke. If we would have wrote the title tags better in the first place, we could have seen this traffic all along.
So, with this in mind, I have some suggestions for your future title tag use, and best practices is going to continue to be less than 70 characters.