In brief: A title tag is what shows as the text in your browser tab, and often in your page headings in search results (though sometimes Google rewrite them). The current maximum that will display fully on search results is around 65 characters, or 568 pixels.
So, title tags are a pretty big deal. Every page on a site should have a title specified with the title tag.
In Google’s own words:
Titles are critical to giving users a quick insight into the content of a result and why it’s relevant to their query. It’s often the primary piece of information used to decide which result to click on, so it’s important to use high-quality titles on your web pages.
Pages with missing title tags fail to let search engines know exactly what a page is about.
When you don’t have them on a page, Google essentially has to “make up” the title tag when showing the page in search results.
Table of Contents
The Ideal Title Tag Length
How long should a title tag be? Well Google simply offers us this advice:
Page titles should be descriptive and concise.
This doesn’t offer a huge amount of insight as descriptive can often mean long, and concise, short.
We would suggest that title tags aren’t too long. The maximum width that Google currently shows is around 65 characters, though in reality this width is actually determined by pixels (568 wide, to be exact).
It’s worth pointing out that most websites on the internet have this issue in place on various pages, but it is something to be conscious of.
With regards to particularly long title tags, Google suggests:
Also avoid unnecessarily long or verbose titles, which are likely to get truncated when they show up in the search results… Long titles that vary by only a single piece of information (“boilerplate” titles) are also bad
It’s also advised not to include keywords too often within a title tag, known as ‘keyword stuffing’:
Avoid keyword stuffing. It’s sometimes helpful to have a few descriptive terms in the title, but there’s no reason to have the same words or phrases appear multiple times. A title like “Foobar, foo bar, foobars, foo bars” doesn’t help the user, and this kind of keyword stuffing can make your results look spammy to Google and to users.
The image below is a perfect example of a site with not only a particularly long title tag, but also one that is stuffing it’s keywords:
Note that we’ve removed some of the wording and the telephone number from the screenshot, but as you can see the four occasions that have been covered all featured the exact same term.
We have also found that when title tags are particularly short, Google tends to “add” to them in search results and include your branding even when it’s not currently present.
A short title tag can also mean you’re missing the opportunity to include other terms that help bring in more long-tail traffic to the page.
This doesn’t have to be the case on every page, especially those that aren’t well positioned to get search engine traffic (e.g. contact / about pages).
Even then, you should still avoid to include generic title tags, and once again Google does offer some advice on this:
Avoid vague descriptors like “Home” for your home page, or “Profile” for a specific person’s profile… Avoid repeated or boilerplate titles. It’s important to have distinct, descriptive titles for each page on your site. Titling every page on a commerce site “Cheap products for sale”, for example, makes it impossible for users to distinguish one page differs another.
Therefore, having a title tag that is unique and informative, without being too long to be displayed, is ideal.
Where Possible, Avoid Duplicate Title Tags
In some places across various websites we see pages which are different, yet have identical title tags in place.
In some cases this isn’t a huge deal and is perhaps not worth worrying about but it can also mean that different pages on a site are essentially competing with each other.
As title tags tell search engines what a page is about, having multiple pages compete for the same rankings might mean that none of them rank. So having unique title tags where possible, especially on key pages, is advisable.
Branding in Title Tags
According to Google, you should include branding within your title tags, but it should perhaps be more concise in some places:
Brand your titles, but concisely. The title of your site’s home page is a reasonable place to include some additional information about your site—for instance, “ExampleSocialSite, a place for people to meet and mingle.” But displaying that text in the title of every single page on your site hurts readability and will look particularly repetitive if several pages from your site are returned for the same query. In this case, consider including just your site name at the beginning or end of each page title, separated from the rest of the title with a delimiter such as a hyphen, colon, or pipe, like this:
Do bear in mind though, that Google is open to actually changing the way it displays the title tag that you have on a page. We’ve seen in hundreds of cases that Google has an affinity for adding branding to the title tag of a website.
We’ll not highlight examples on other websites, so instead we’ll show one example from Detailed.com.
The title tag for detailed.com/blog/, is currently set as:
Detailed.com | SEO Blog by Full-time Search Analysts
Notice that the branding is included at the beginning of this title tag, yet here’s how it’s displayed in Google:
As you can see, Google has added the branding to the end of the title tag. That specific branding literally does not exist, but Google added it in an attempt to help make their search results look better (as they confirmed to us in a Google hangout).
Title Tags May ‘Change’ in Search Results
It is not only the branding in your title tag which may differ in search results from how it is written.
One reason the title tag of a page may differ to how it is displayed in search results due to how it appears on your actual page, is due to incorrect use of robots.txt protocol.
In Google’s own words:
Be careful about disallowing search engines from crawling your pages. Using the robots.txt protocol on your site can stop Google from crawling your pages, but it may not always prevent them from being indexed. For example, Google may index your page if we discover it by following a link from someone else’s site. To display it in search results, Google will need to display a title of some kind and because we won’t have access to any of your page content, we will rely on off-page content such as anchor text from other sites. (To truly block a URL from being indexed, you can use the “noindex” directive.)
In some cases though, the title tags are changed because the search engine feels they can generate an “improved” version of your title tag.
Google states that even if these title tags are created well, they can still be changed to “better indicate their relevance” to the search query:
If we’ve detected that a particular result has one of the above issues with its title, we may try to generate an improved title from anchors, on-page text, or other sources. However, sometimes even pages with well-formulated, concise, descriptive titles will end up with different titles in our search results to better indicate their relevance to the query. There’s a simple reason for this: the title tag as specified by a webmaster is limited to being static, fixed regardless of the query.
When we know the user’s query, we can often find alternative text from a page that better explains why that result is relevant. Using this alternative text as a title helps the user, and it also can help your site. Users are scanning for their query terms or other signs of relevance in the results, and a title that is tailored for the query can increase the chances that they will click through.
If you’re seeing your pages appear in the search results with modified titles, check whether your titles have one of the problems described above. If not, consider whether the alternate title is a better fit for the query. If you still think the original title would be better, let us know in our Webmaster Help Forum.
Therefore, if a title tag on your page is displayed incorrectly in search results, that doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong with the set-up of the title tag in the first place. Google may simply feel they can improve upon that.
One Additional Consideration When it Comes to Implementing Title Tag Changes
If you’re considering making any changes to a title tag, do bear in mind that this could have a negative impact on search results.
If a page is ranking well in search engines, we tend to advise not to make any amendments to the title tag, as this could result in losing some of that search traffic. However, if you feel a page has the ability to rank higher, or you wish to try and ‘nudge’ that forward — then updating the title tags can be one way of looking to improve that.