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Titles and Search Engine Marketing
By Shari Thurow February 2, 2004

When you hire a search engine marketing (SEM) firm, you'll hear the word "title" used frequently. Are search engine marketers referring to the HTML title tag or to a title and hyperlink in a search engine ad?

This column will help you understand the different types of titles and why they're important to SEM.

HTML Title Tags

One of the most important tags for "natural" or "organic" search engine optimization (SEO) is the HTML title tag. Title text is text placed between the <title> and </titl> tags. A title tag and its content looks like this:

<title>Organic green teas from ABC Tea Company</title>

HTML title-tag content is important for positioning and providing a call to action. All major crawler-based search engines (Google, Inktomi, etc.) use title-tag content to determine relevancy. Additionally, much of the title-tag content is the hyperlink in search engine results pages (SERPs).

A keyword-stuffed title tag does not give potential customers the right impression. Do you want people to buy organic green teas from your company? Or do you want them to buy green teas; green tea; organic green tea; and organic green teas? Write for your target audience when you create HTML title-tag content.


A problem with many CMSs is they place the same title-tag text on multiple pages, sometimes on every page. Since every page on a Web site is unique, identical title-tag content doesn't showcase each page's individuality. Worse, it won't help with positioning.

Sometimes, a CMS will pull the title-tag text from actual content on the page. This can be good, if the page has naturally keyword-rich content. If the main headline contains targeted keyword phrases, the CMS can pull the title tags from the main headlines.

However, I find it more effective when professional copywriters write unique title tags for every page. Whenever possible, I try to make the HTML title tag its own field.

Title Attribute

Many Web marketers and designers mix up the title attribute and the HTML title tag. In HTML, an attribute contains information about the data in the HTML tag, but it's not the actual data. Width and height are common attributes in an image tag:

<img src="images/logo.gif" width="150" height="50"/>

A title attribute is commonly placed on the anchor tag, like so:

<a href="page.html" title="Click here for information on green tea.">

What's great about the title attribute is it adds a little pop-up bubble in Explorer that displays this text. So the title-attribute text can be used to encourage people to click the link. This text is also good for accessibility purposes.

The bad news? None of the crawler-based search engines use this text to determine ranking. So don't waste time with a search engine marketer who spends a great deal of time on this attribute.

Web Directories

When you submit your site to a Web directory (a human-edited search engine) such as Yahoo!, Open Directory, or, the form will ask you for a title. The form is not asking for an HTML title.

Most often, a Web directory title is your official business name or the name of the Web site. Think of it this way: Most directories want the title of a Web site; crawler-based search engines want the title of a Web page.

Most crawler-based search engines will display the first 40-70 characters of an HTML title tag, but directory titles tend to be shorter. Be prepared to write a variety of titles for directory submission.

Search Engine Advertising

With search engine advertising (such as Google's AdWords and Overture), the title isn't the same as the HTML title tag. Rather, it's the text used as the hyperlink in the ad.

This particular title is often shorter than the HTML title-tag text and the directory title. Overture's current limit is 40 characters. These titles usually cannot contain certain words, such as "best" or "number one." Unlike natural SEO, an ad's title text doesn't necessarily have to contain a keyword phrase to be effective.

Ranking for search engine advertising has nothing at all to do with the ad's title text. Position is based on the bid amount.

Multimedia Files

Multimedia files such as Flash movies, audio files, video files, and so forth can have titles in their metadata.

Karen Howe, general manager at Singingfish, the rich media search engine recently purchased by AOL, recommends giving descriptive, keyword-rich titles to all multimedia files. The software used to create multimedia files has a title field.

Be sure your multimedia designers put descriptive, keyword-rich information in other metadata fields as well.

"Title" has many different meanings in the SEM industry. Make sure you and your SEM firm are speaking the same language when marketing your site.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in New York, March 1-4.


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