Title tags and meta descriptions

Watch this video to learn what title tags and meta descriptions are, how to use them as part of your SEO strategy and best practice.

Access the spreadsheet to help you review your titles and meta descriptions here:
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In this video we’re going to look at title tags and meta descriptions. I’ll run through what they are, how they help with optimising your site for search engines and best practice.

When someone searches online, the search engine looks at the information it holds on every page, to find the most relevant results and deliver these, with those pages ranked as having higher relevancy appearing higher up in the list of results.

Whilst the search companies are very secretive about the exact criteria for determining the rank of a page, there are several factors which they have confirmed have an impact.

If you’re writing content for your pages which reflect the value of your products or services, and how they can help people by providing a solution to everyday problems or tasks, and using the same language that your customers use, then you’re already creating pages that search engines want to direct people to.

But there are a few simple ways you can make sure key content is easy for the search engines to categorise and show to people searching for products or services like yours.

We’ll look at title tags first: every page on your website should have a unique title, that tells people visiting the page and the search engines what the page is about. The search engines will match the content of this to the terms people use in their search. Search engines are now so advanced that they can cope with synonyms and semantically related phrases too - for example if I type ‘women’s mackintosh’ into Google, down here there’s a link to Trench Coats on the John Lewis site, with no mention of mackintoshes. If I click on this… and just run a site search, there’s actually no mention of mackintosh anywhere on the John Lewis site, but Google knows that a trench coat is the same as a mackintosh and delivered this page as a result. As another example, it can also tell that for a search phrase such as ‘when is the best time to cut the grass’, pages which talk about lawn mowing and might only use the word cutting once, are still highly relevant.

So your title will usually include the name of a product or service, or a category, or for a blog or similar content pages, it might use a keyword and popular search phrases such as ‘how to’ or ‘best’. The title is what appears in the search engine results - so if we look at our John Lewis example, the title of the page is here… and if we go back to the page again, we can see that the page title appears on our tab. If I bookmark this page, that title will also populate the bookmark name.

If we go back to the results page… You can see that this example has the product first, the category and then the website name or brand. These are separated by a vertical symbol which is a pipe. If we scroll up, we can see that Debenhams follows a very similar format, but uses dashes to separate the product, category and departments, with a pipe separating the brand name.

Formatting your titles this way gives the searcher much more information than just a title. It shows where the page sits in your website - and this reassures people that they’re going to be taken to a relevant page. For example here I specifically want womenswear, not mens. A structured title also helps people to get a feel for the navigation of your site. And by including categories, you’re also telling the search engines the volume of products or services you carry in each category and therefore how relevant your site is to people looking for that items in that category.

However that’s not to say that you can always manage to get everything into a title tag - you have a limited number of characters to get your message across. I’m just going to type in YSL Black Opium and we’ll get the search results for this Yves Saint Laurent perfume. The name of the product is already quite long, and you can see that this first result has been cut off, with the name of the brand not showing in full and the ellipses replacing the last word. If we look at the Debenhams and John Lewis results, they’ve both dropped the category component of the titles for this product. Your title tag should be about 60 characters long. You will occasionally see titles which are slightly longer because they have lots of narrow characters, but if you stick to 55-60 characters you shouldn’t see any truncated titles.

You’ll also see in the search results that there is some text beneath the title. This is a snippet and it describes the content of the page more fully. If you don’t populate this, the search engines will frequently try and find some text on the page to use. However, you can do your best to control the text people see here by including a meta description. If your description is considered too short, or not as relevant to the search terms as some other text, the search engines may not use it, but if you write a strong meta description that’s relevant to the page content there’s a good chance it will be shown here. And if your meta description is relevant to people searching, they’ll click through, which will in turn help your ranking in the results pages.

So what should a meta description include? Well this is your opportunity to provide key information to people, that will persuade them to click through and visit your page. You will want to include your unique selling points here, and possibly the benefits, a price or product specs - the description doesn’t have to be full sentences.

Your description should include keywords. Any search terms or closely related terms which appear in your description will be shown in bold text, which can really help your listing stand out from the rest.

The key question is, what do your customers value about your products or need to know as part of making a decision to purchase? It’s also good to include a call to action - if we look at our perfume examples there are phrases such as ‘Buy Now’ and ‘Shop online today’ which prompt people to click through. You might also choose to include selling points of your business as a whole - for example free delivery or guarantees or warranties you offer.

Again there is a character limit. As this is much higher it’s hard to give a definitive number due to the difference in letter widths, but you should aim for a maximum of 300 characters. The description is an opportunity to convince people, so you should try to use it to its fullest potential - anything less than 100 characters is unlikely to do justice to your page.

If you’re revising a lot of title tags and meta tags at once, it can be helpful to create them in a spreadsheet. This will help you achieve consistency without duplication. I’ve created a spreadsheet which you can access using the link below or at the end of the video.

This spreadsheet has two tabs - one for building titles and one to check your titles and meta descriptions for length and duplicates. You can make a copy of the spreadsheet so you can edit it.

If you need to create titles for all your pages, or a set of new pages, the first tab will create them for you. If you only have a few titles to create, skip on to the second tab.

Simply paste your product or service names into the first column, put any subcategories in the second column (otherwise leave this blank - don’t delete it as this create an error), put your categories in the third column and your brand name in the first cell of the fourth column and copy it down. Filling in these columns will generate the titles with pipes, dashes or a mixture of both. Once you’ve decided which format you prefer, you can delete the other two columns.

If the combination of all the elements is too long, the formula will try deleting first the subcategory and then the category to shorten the title.

There are some helper columns which are hidden - you can unhide these if you wish to understand how the titles are built, but there’s no need to.

The formulas are filled in to the thousandth row - if you have more pages to generate titles for than this, you’ll need to copy the formulas to subsequent rows.

Once you have all your titles you can copy them into the next tab.

This tab allows you to create and review titles and meta descriptions before copying them into your web content management system.

Fill in the page URL for reference. Copy your titles from the previous tab or create them here. If you’re creating them, don’t forget to include categories and your brand name, separated by a pipe or dash. If you duplicate any titles they will be highlighted. This isn’t case sensitive but remember that other minor variations such as different punctuation won’t show as duplicates.

The next column will count the number of characters in your title and the fourth column will show you whether this is too short - less than 40 characters, or too long - more than 60 characters. If it’s too short, it will show you the number of characters you need to increase it by in blue, and if it’s too long it will show you the number of characters you need to reduce it by in red. If there are no problems with the title length, you will see a dash.

The description length and next column work in the same way - where the minimum value is 100 characters and the maximum is 300.

You also have the option to enter your main keyword for each page and check it’s present in the title and description, but I only recommend this if you already have this data in a spreadsheet, otherwise this will be a time consuming process and it should be quite natural to include your keyword in your title and meta description anyway as this will be, or be very closely related to, the main subject of the page.

The formulas and formatting on the sheet are again entered up to the 1000th row.

Once you have all your titles and meta descriptions, you need to paste them into your website CMS - the content management system your site is built with such as WordPress, Drupal, Wix etc.

If you’re using WordPress, Yoast is a popular solution which allows you to bulk edit page titles and meta descriptions, and it will also check you have included a keyword you nominate and the length of your data, but I still find it easier to use a spreadsheet so I can review the data and get an overall view.

There are also paid options to import data in CSV format for WordPress. If you’re exporting the data as CSV and importing it into your site content management system, don’t forget to make sure the columns are correctly named and that you’ve removed the dummy data.

For other CMS, look for modules or plugins which enable bulk editing of metadata, or you will be able to enter the data directly onto the page.

And that’s it! I hope you find this information and the spreadsheet useful. You’re welcome to share the link, but please don’t share your own version of the spreadsheet without crediting gillhinds.com. If you have any suggestions for improvements, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below.


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