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Title Tags: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

tallen SEO Tips & News

Anyone in digital marketing has gotten used to how often Google changes their mind about things. Constant algorithm updates, the dreaded Mobilegeddon, whatever it might be, Google sure knows how to keep us on our toes.

But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in a long time, it’s the standards for title tags and meta descriptions. The basic format hasn’t been changed, and Google still places a high priority on them as a source of keyword relevance and user experience.

So why are so many title tags still so awful?

Even after setting consistent guidelines and keeping them unchanged for so long, there’s still an awful lot of title tags out there that don’t quite cut the digital mustard. Overuse of keywords, misplaced brand names, poor formatting - these are just some of the problems facing businesses that don’t quite know how to handle title tags.

To help prevent the further spread of terrible title tags and stop them from wreaking havoc on unsuspecting businesses, let’s take a look at one good title tag, one bad title tag, and one particularly ugly title tag so we can all tell the difference and (hopefully) reduce the amount of crappy metadata taking up space in your browser tabs:

THE GOOD: Guitar Center

Title Tag: “Used Musical Instruments & Gear | Guitar Center”

It might initially look like cheating to use the title tag from a pretty major national business like Guitar Center, but you’d be surprised how many major retailers can’t get something this simple right.

That said, Guitar Center’s title tags are decent-to-good all over their website, and this was one of the better examples. The big money keyword is right up front, where it’s supposed to be - keyword research would probably indicate “used musical instruments” is the highest-volume version of the keywords and audience they want to target with this page, they still included “gear” to try and broaden their relevance and avoid wasting whitespace, and at the end of it all is a nice clean pipe and brand name to tie it all together.

Not every business will have the luxury of being able to target this broad and obvious a keyword, depending on how niche and specific their products and services are, but even then there’s a lot of lessons in succinctness and format they could learn from Guitar Center. The keywords are front-loaded and unique (notice how they avoided the temptation to type “...& Used Gear” instead letting one use of the word “used” do the work) and they don’t write their brand name a million times. More retailers and big-box stores could learn a thing or two from Guitar Center.

Let’s move on to my next example before I stay on the Guitar Center site too long and get tempted to order something…

THE BAD: GRT Financial

Title Tag: Consumer Debt Mediation | Debt Management | Debt Settlement | Consumer Credit Management Services - GRT Financial

Whew! That’s a mouthful, and anyone with even a small understanding of title tags is going to know what the problem is here.
Let’s start by unpacking a few of the really obvious problems. Clocking in at a whopping 113 characters, this sits at just over twice the length that Google recommends as a title tag to avoid anything getting cut off (which is about 55 characters, maybe 60 if you’re feeling generous with the pixel count). No matter how good your title tag is, that’s just too dang long.

But there’s a lot more to cover. Out of those 113 characters, why does it look like the word “debt” takes up a ton of them on its own? Repetitive keywords such as this are generally a no-no in title tags; if you have multiple keywords that all include a similar phrase like “debt” this can usually be handled with something like “Debt Mediation, Management, & Settlement”. This also has the added bonus of removing the need for multiple pipes, which is generally frowned upon and looks really bad.
GRT means well, and we’re sure they feel like they have a lot of ground to cover to prevent consumer confusion (and get those sweet, sweet Google rankings), but this one can be pretty easily cut down and revised to keep it readable and properly indexed by Google, all without skipping out on the keywords they need to be going for with this landing page. Of course, it’s got nothing on our last example…

THE UGLY: Wachler & Associates

Title Tag: Stark Law / Anti-Kickback / Fraud & Abuse Lawyers :: Stark Law Attorney Wachler & Associates, P.C.

Oh boy. While at first glance it might not look as immediately terrible as the last one, this is actually much more damaging to this page and is pretty poor, appearance- and readability-wise.

Let’s start with what might be the most immediate problem - those slashes everywhere. Wachler is using them in the same way as the pipes in the GRT Financial example above, except this one is somehow worse because no serious metadata (and no real, honest optimizer/copywriter) has ever used slashes to replace pipes or em dashes. While in some fringe cases there may be a grammatical and/or keyword-related reason to use a slash, the slash has to be part of the actual keyword and not used as the title tag’s makeup.

This brings us to a second major issue - there isn’t actually a pipe or em dash. Instead, this little bundle of joy commits the massive faux pas of using two colons (??) where a pipe might go. And right after those two colons? A second use of the term “Stark Law”. Look, we get it, you do Stark Law. Not only do you not have to put it twice in a title tag, you sure as heck don’t have to put it right next to your friggin’ business name. If the title tag is written properly and you’ve done your job writing the page’s content, Google is smart enough to figure out this page is about Stark Law. By beating us all over the head with it you run the risk of being keyword stuffed and over-optimized, like those ever present “free adobe download free microsoft office itunes” links we all see on the torrent pages we totally don’t go to. Not only does it look bad and put off users, you actually run the risk of getting smacked down by Google for potentially spammy practices, and that really defeats the purpose of this whole thing.

Really, the nicest thing I can say is that it manages to be a little shorter than the last one, even if it still checks in at just under 100 characters. If it were up to me, and it clearly isn’t, this could easily be something like “Stark Law, Anti-Kickback, & Fraud & Abuse Lawyers | Wachler & Associates”. And even THAT can be shortened further, but it’s a lot more user- and Google-friendly than it is now.

But enough of my ranting. I hope you’ve learned something, and the next time you find yourself having to draft up some title tags, at the very least I hope you use these as a few examples of what to do, what not to do, and what you should never do. Unless you’re looking for a change of career and want to go down in spectacular flames.