Most commercial websites rely heavily on traffic coming in from search engines. For some, organic search traffic accounts for 30% of all visitors; for others, it’s more like 70%.
The exact percentage of organic traffic your website attracts will depend on several factors, including your sector, your reputation, your marketing strategy, and more.
But whatever you deal in, and however big or small you are, there is something you can do to make your website immediately more attractive to searchers: optimise your title tags and meta descriptions.
This article explains why the wording of your title tags and meta descriptions is so important, then shows you how to optimise your own.
What is the title tag’s purpose?
It’s the clickable blue text that heads your search result.
The title tag’s job is to attract the user’s attention and to tell them what the page offers.
The title tag is a confirmed Google ranking factor, so it’s important to incorporate relevant keywords in yours – but naturally so. Don’t stuff it full of semi-relevant keywords.
In the HMV example above, all of the keywords are relevant (because it’s the main music page), and they all mean different things.
What is the meta description’s purpose?
It’s the grey text below your title tag and your page URL.
The meta description’s job is to summarise the page and to encourage the user to click through.
It’s not a Google ranking factor, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect it. Think of it this way: it’s your chance to tell the user why your page is the one they should click on. The HMV meta description does a good job of this, using active language that urges the user to take action (“Discover ...”), and also by making a big deal out of the free-delivery policy.
How the title tag and the meta description work together
A page’s title tag and meta description should complement each other, not echo each other. The former should attract and the latter should seduce.
You have 600 pixels for each title tag, and up to 320 characters for each meta description. Don’t waste any of that space by repeating phrases verbatim.
For example, don’t do this:
As well as wasting space, this verbatim repetition across the meta title and the meta description makes Terry look lazy, as though he couldn’t be bothered to spend 20 seconds rephrasing a simple sentiment. (Terry is hypothetical, of course, but a lot of websites are guilty of this.)
Here’s how we could correct it:
It says the same thing as the first one, just without the noticeable repetition.
How to Write Good Title Tags
The title tag is half art and half science. It needs to be clear in its message and tidy in its presentation in order to impress users, but it also needs to contain specific elements that will help it rank highly within search engine results pages (SERPs).
1. Front-load your primary keyword phrase
This will make your result stand out on the SERP, which means it will be more likely to catch the user’s eye.
Think about it this way: the user wants to see the keyword phrase they typed in, so it makes sense to push this to the front. It’s your product or service that’s important to the user – not your brand.
2. Put your brand-name at the end, after a pipe symbol
Displaying your brand-name is important, but it probably isn’t going to be what convinces a new visitor to click through. Only the big websites enjoy that privilege.
Prioritise your keywords over your brand-name. (The only exception is your homepage, where you should front-load your brand-name.)
3. Don’t stuff it full of keywords
Choose one primary keyword and just use that one – don’t try to cram all variations of that keyword into your title tag. It reads badly, which makes it user-unfriendly, and it’s also a Google no-no.
For example, “Kids’ Football Footy Soccer Courses” would be unacceptable, because “football”, “footy”, and “soccer” mean the same thing. You’d have to choose just one of the three (“Kids’ Football Courses”).
4. Keep its width below 600 pixels
If your title tag is any wider than 600 pixels, Google will cut it off towards the end (using “...”). This looks sloppy and, by extension, will make your website look sloppy.
Use Moz’s Title Tag Checker tool if you’re ever unsure.
5. Don’t use block capitals unnecessarily
Although needless block-capitalisation would probably make your result stand out visually on the SERP, it would also make your site look unprofessional and thereby untrustworthy.
Example of a strong, well-structured title tag
Let’s say I own an online record shop and I have a page for David Bowie’s Blackstar album. Here’s how I’d write the title tag for it:
Why is it good?
✓ I front-loaded my primary keyword phrase (“david bowie blackstar”).
✓ I also used secondary keywords like “vinyl” and “CD” (and “record”, given my brand-name).
✓ I broke up the text visually using a hyphen and brackets, thereby making the words more digestible.
✓ I used an ampersand instead of the word “and”, which saved a little bit of space.
✓ I put a pipe symbol plus my brand-name at the end.
✓ I stayed within the 600-pixel limit.
This methodical composition and neat formatting puts the page into clear context for the user.
How not to write a title tag
Why is it bad?
Just look at it…
✗ It reads breathlessly and awkwardly, because I’ve jammed as many words in as possible, without any punctuation to break them up.
✗ The “best price online” claim makes the site instantly look spammy (or at the very least amateurish).
✗ It cuts off before the brand-name finishes, because I’ve ignored the 600-pixel limit, and this makes it look like I don’t have control over my website’s presentation – or, worse still, that I don’t care.
How to Write Good Meta Descriptions
The meta description is your chance to hook the searcher and convince them that your page is the one search result they should click through to.
The aim is to craft a concise and persuasive CTA here, otherwise the user will have no reason to choose your result over all the others.
1. Use active language to address the reader
If you want to convince readers to take action, you need to use the active voice.
“Take a look at our services.”
“Buy our products online.”
“Browse our listings.”
They give direct instructions; they tell the reader to do something.
Let’s change them into the passive voice and see how they read…
“Our services can be looked at...”
“Our products can be bought online...”
“Our listings can be browsed...”
Who speaks like that in real life?
As well as being clunky, these three don’t instruct the reader – which is an enormous misstep.
2. Stay within the 320-character limit
It’s best if your meta descriptions read as full sentences within SERPs, because it looks neat.
Just like the title tag has a 600-pixel cut-off point, the meta description has a 320-character limit. If it’s any longer than 320 characters, it will trail off towards the end. Before November 2017, the cut-off point was roughly 160 characters. So, in other words, we now have double the amount of characters to play with in our meta descriptions. But that doesn't mean that we absolutely have to use 320 characters or anywhere near that: if the page only needs a short meta description, that's all you need to give it (more about that in point 5).
It’s worth noting that Google occasionally overrules your custom meta description and presents its own – supposedly one it thinks is more suitable. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s not. There’s nothing you can do about it.
3. Refer to your brand in the first person plural
Try to avoid referring to your brand in the third person – especially if it’s a long name. Just say “we” and “our”; it saves characters and it’s more welcoming.
Consider this as a meta description opener: “Dan’s Records has David Bowie’s Blackstar in stock on vinyl and CD...”
By referring to my own brand in the third person there, it sounds like somebody else talking about my shop. If you walked into an HMV on the high street and asked an employee if they had a certain album in stock, would their reply refer to HMV in the third person? No – of course not.
Also, “Dan’s Records has” takes up 17 characters, whereas “We have” only takes up seven…
4. Incorporate keywords if they fit
Using keywords in a meta description will not affect how highly your page ranks, but it could make your result more enticing to searchers, because Google will bold any keywords the searcher used in their query.
Here’s an example for the search query “david bowie blackstar”:
Despite this convenience, don’t go out of your way to drop keywords into your meta descriptions – and definitely don’t compose your meta descriptions around keywords. Remember: the only goal here is to invite the searcher in with persuasive language.
5. Don’t worry about it being too short
There’s no lower limit on the amount of characters you can use in a meta description.
Opinion seems divided on this one. Some SEO companies recommend making the most of the allotted number of characters, but in practice it makes no sense to elongate a meta description just for the sake of it.
If you don’t have 320 characters’ worth to say for a specific page, don’t worry about it. As long as you’ve summarised the page and called the user to action, you’ve used enough characters.
When you come to write your title tags and meta descriptions, just think about what your target audience will want to read – what they’ll respond to. Which words will pique their interest or excite them? What sorts of instructions are most likely to persuade them to click through?
It’s not all over once you’ve got them on your site, though. Your website needs to provide a smooth and enjoyable user experience in order to convert visitors into customers. Informative and well-written onsite content will help you achieve that goal, so you must also invest time in writing conversion-focused copy.