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Thursday, August 14, 2003

Optimizing Titles

Microdoc’s saying it’s all in the title. When a searcher is trying to find you within the search result page, your page title has to stick out, and yet be familiar.

Bad titles

Here are examples of bad titles for the Web:

Puns: A pun is good, but it won’t be targetting the keywords anyone entered. A pun takes a fraction of a second longer to grasp; time you shouldn’t waste. And yet, many headings and titles on webpages are word plays.
Let’s say I’m writing a tutorial on HTML. I could name it:

... and so on. But those titles are not self-explanatory. In traditional print media, people have a little more time on their hands, and less information to choose from (and dig through). Nobody’s taking home 10,000 magazines, and throwing one away as soon as he’s not pleased within the first second. The Web’s different. We are offered much more than 10,000 magazines. We took several libraries home with us. Online, you need to deliver instant satisfaction.
By the way, above may make for good sub-titles. Because the reader is already prepared as to what’s it all about.

Wordy titles: The faster you get your point across, the better. You might want to think about it like having 7 positions to fill; the first counts for 7 points, the second for 6, and so on. The last word will get a meager single point. And any position not filled will score points as well. Now which of the following would you choose?

  1. A Tutorial and Introduction to the Advanced Writing of HTML
  2. HTML: Advanced Tutorial

If the tutorial is about “a”, “and”, “to”, and “the”, the first version would score good. It’s not getting any points for its usage of “HTML”, however. This word might not even show up because the string is truncated in a certain context. But the page is mainly about HTML. So the second version wins, hands-down.

Titles that don’t work without context: Every page title of a web page should work without any previous knowledge of the website they’re embedded in. Additionally, you might want to put the title of your webpage at the end (like in square brackets) to make sure it’s recognizable in the context of many other titles of the same nature.

Redundant words: Many pages include words that are completely unnecessary. A word like “Homepage”, “Welcome”, or “Online” are good examples. Of course we’re welcome, of course this is a homepage, and sure, it’s online as well. Get straight to the point and don’t behave like you need to explain the concept of the Internet to every single user. Also, the URL of the page doesn’t belong in the title – unless it’s specifically part of the brand (like

Unspecific titles: Maybe you got just the right keywords in a tense phrase. Say, the page is about Alfed Hitchcock. Maybe you feel like naming it “Alfred Hitchcock”.
But there’s 1,000 other pages like that in the search result. Tell your potential readers exactly what you’re delivering. Is it an introduction to his films? A biography? A discussion of the MacGuffin? His film cameos? Modern directors imitating him? His TV work? Quotes? A link portal? A gallery?
So take the additional word, and the title transforms from unspecific and small, to small, yet specific. (E.g. “Alfred Hitchcock Biography” would be a better choice.)

More than titles

Those examples are not just about the title, or a page’s main heading. This is also about words you emphasize in the text; other headlines in-between; and link text. The lower in the hierarchy, the more context you can assume, but don’t forget people might scan your page and don’t follow the flow you intended. The online reader is unpredictable, hyperactive, easy to scare away, and hard to lure in; especially, if you make things overtly complicated.
Build your pages in inverted pyramid fashion: starting out with a clear title, a short summary, writing about the most important points first, and introducing details later.


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