Let’s say you have a small business and you want to get more traffic to your website from Google. You know that search engine optimization (SEO) is important, but you don’t have time to learn it and you don’t have budget to hire an SEO consultant. Are you doomed to appear on page 14 on the keyword searches that matter to your business?

Not necessarily. In this article I share a pretty easy SEO technique called title tag optimization that should move you above of many of your competitors who aren’t doing SEO. With some luck, it might even get you on page 1 of Google on a few relevant keywords.

Optimizing title tags is not the most glamorous part of SEO, but it works.

What’s a Title Tag?

Before I walk you through the process, let’s get clear on what a title tag is. Each page on your site has, or can have, a title tag. It’s not a meta tag but is often considered part of the extended meta tag family — HTML code that is readable by search engines but generally invisible to people when they’re on your site. In the case of title tags, the only place they appear when you’re on a site is at the very top of the browser (see below).

title tag example in browser

There are lots of myths surrounding meta tags and people waste countless hours trying to optimize tags that Google pays no attention to when ranking sites. But search engines do pay a lot of attention to title tags — so much so that changing a page’s title tag can often cause it to go from invisible to page 1 on Google, and vice versa. And people visiting search engines pay attention to title tags, because they are what appear as the clickable headlines in search results pages (see below).

title tag example in SERP

Title tags are also what show up in your web browser’s bookmarks. And if you find it annoying when bookmarks don’t just say the name of the company and leave it at that that, you can blame SEO and the process I’m about to teach you. That’s because for title tags to work their magic on Google, they have to be keyword-rich — i.e. full of the search phrases you want to rank well on.

Title tags that just say the name of the company (“Bob’s Hardware”) are generally a waste. Title tags that just say the navigational name of a page (“Home” or “About Us”) are a bigger waste. If your site does either or both, don’t feel bad; there are Fortune 100 firms with multi-million dollar marketing budgets doing the same thing, amazingly.

bad title tag example

Ready to have better SEO than these guys? Here’s a 5-step process for creating a search-friendly homepage title tag in under an hour. As a real-world example throughout the process, I use the site for my friend Randi, who has a small nutrition and diet counseling practice in Bethesda, MD. She’s interested in getting more business from Google, but until recently her title tags just contained her name.

1. Brainstorm Keywords (10 min)

Open up a Word or text doc and ask yourself this question: When people are looking for your type of business, what do they enter into Google? List 3-5 phrases and rank them in order of relevance to your business. Only list phrases where over 50% of the people doing that search would be very interested in your site/company, and be humble. If you’re a local business, include your city or neighorhood in your phrases.

Example: For Randi’s site, I listed “bethesda nutritionist”, “nutritionist in washington dc”, “bethesda, md dietician”, and “dc dietician”.

2. Check Google Search Volume (15 min)

Go to Google’s free keyword research tool and paste your list of phrases into the search box, all at once, and hit the Search button. Google will return 1) monthly search volumes for the phrases you entered and 2) suggestions for similar phrases. If the global search volumes are below 100 for your phrases, consider broadening them just for this step — for instance, by removing the geo-words. You’re just trying to get a relative sense keyword popularity on Google.

Scan through the results and add to or edit your original list of phrases based on what you see. Then put a star next to the highest volume phrases.

Example: Doing this exercise for Randi’s site was a great illustration of the value of Google’s keyword tool. I removed the geo-words and just entered “nutritionist” and “dietician”. I’d had no idea that “dietitian” with two “t”s was an equally correct spelling of “dietician”. The results showed me that it’s also about twice as popular (though not as popular as “nutritionist”). So I replaced “dietician” with “dietitian” in my list of phrases. I later noticed that “registered dietitian” (which Randi is) has strong search volume so I added that.

Google Keyword Tool

3. Pick Your Top 2 (2 min)

Take your list of phrases and circle the one that you think is the #1 match for your business, balancing relevance and search volume. Then pick a #2 phrase, ideally one that doesn’t overlap too much with your first phrase in terms of the actual words.

Example: For Randi’s site, I chose “nutritionist in washington dc” and “bethesda, md registered dietitian”.

4. Write Your Home Page Title Tag (5 min)

Write your title tag as follows, using initial caps:

[Phrase #1] | [Name of Your Company or Brand] | [Phrase #2]

There’s no character limit to title tags, but generally I like to have the full company name appear within the first 70 characters for home page title tags. Hopefully a lot of people will be Googling your company or brand name, and this allows them to see it in the search results listings while still focusing the title tag on keywords.

If your phrase #1 is long and your company is long, you can drop phrase #2 (especially if your company name is already keyword-rich, e.g. Bob’s Plumbing and Heating). There are plenty of other ways to write a keyword-rich title tag, but this convention is a good one to start with.

Example: For Randi’s home page, after a little tweaking, here’s what we get for the title tag: Washington DC Nutritionist | Randi Weissberger | Registered Dietitian in Bethesda, MD

5. Make it Live (10 min … or a lot longer)

Now you have to get your new title tag up on your site. Depending on how you manage your site, this step can be a piece of cake or a nightmare or somewhere in between. In theory, updating title tags should be no different from updating any other content on your site, since it’s just HTML. In practice, that’s increasingly not the case, given the rise of content management systems (CMS) that automate title tag creation. Here are the common scenarios and instructions for each:

  • If you have a webmaster, send him/her your existing homepage title tag and your newly written one, and request a swap out.
  • If you use WordPress, go to “pages” in the sidebar, select your homepage, and change its title. It will append the site title to the end of the page titles, and this can be changed in “settings.”
  • If you use another CMS, try to find the setting that contains your existing title tag and change it out. Often it will be called “browser title” or “page title.”
  • If you use raw HTML, chances are you know what to do. Just find the <title> tag in the <head> section of your home page HTML, and swap the titles out.

Once the new title tag is live, you’re done. Google will usually find it within a couple weeks and your new title will start appearing in search results. I can’t promise that it will boost your rankings, but if you’ve changed from a keyword-empty title tag to a keyword-rich one, you should see more traffic that’s a strong match for your business.

Randi's title tag

Learn More

If you can spend more than an hour on your title tags, you’ll see better results. I offer some additional steps you can take on our blog, where you can also ask questions or add your title tag suggestions.

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