Answering a common conundrum: What are title and description best practices? UPDATED for 2023. If you also want meta title/meta description 101 like, “Um what are they?!” There’s an FAQ of sorts below the slightly headier stuff.
Why do we care about titles and descriptions?
Though they do not appear on your webpage, meta titles and meta descriptions have two equally important audiences:
- Googlebot/SEO: We want Google to rank us well. Google pays attention to titles and descriptions. They aren’t displayed on your webpage, but they’re in your page’s HTML, which Google crawls.
- Humans/UX: We see titles and descriptions in the SERP snippets where powerful language might influence us to click on a listing. (See image at the bottom of this post, and the link immediately below for real-world examples of where we see this content.)
How to make great titles and descriptions?
Google already has a guide for title and description best practices. You should check it out. Seriously. That’s step one.
2. Google scrubbed its former SEO guru Matt Cutts from its pages. Until new Google SEO fella John Mueller makes a new video, here’s a video similar to the one that Google used to lean on. Watch it (crappy audio and all) or if you’re short on time, watch Cutts’s 3-minute talk. Sure, Cutts himself admits (sheepishly) to not using a meta description on all of his personal blog posts, but that doesn’t mean you should also jump off the bridge.
3. Some guy on the internet (me) has the following to add:
SEO keywords in titles & descriptions?
Be mindful of your keywords while crafting titles and descriptions. Use a verbatim or synonym keyword instance or two when appropriate, but don’t keyword-stuff, and don’t use keywords unrelated to the content. On larger sites, many titles and descrips will not contain keywords.
How long should titles & descriptions be?
Meta Titles should be 50 to 60 characters (not words!) including spaces. Use Title/Headline Case for Titles. Avoid sing-songy language in titles. Be direct. Write tersely. Don’t repeat words unnecessarily, and eliminate the chaff. Every word counts. If you don’t provide a good meta title, Google will use its grubby robot-hands to create a title for you. We don’t want that.
Meta descriptions should be between 140 and 160 characters (not words!) including spaces. Try to get close to 150-155 characters when you can. Use regular old sentences most of the time in a description.
Can I use titles and descriptions to motivate or tease?
Don’t directly instruct people to click on your listing but you should often write something engaging, or at least informative (regarding what’s on the page,) using your keyword concepts when appropriate. …without telling them to click, visit, etc.
“Learn” – “discover” – “find out how…” – or posing a question answered on the page are all okay, but writing something interesting without a call to action is also acceptable and often a better use of your limited space for crucial messaging.
Don’t bury the lead
Avoid vague, clickbaity titles which bury the lead. Your title IS the lead.
Brand Name in Titles / Descriptions?
Unless your site doesn’t rank well for your brand name, avoid using use the business/website name in descriptions or titles. As much as you should omit the website/biz name from almost all titles/descriptions, if a page addresses a person or a thing, (or is specifically about the business), you should probably mention the person, thing, or biz in the description.
Meta Title – Meta Description FAQ
Should I set my CMS to auto-append anything to my titles, site-wide?
No. If auto-appended text causes your titles to be long, Google is more likely to rewrite and generate its own titles.
What is a meta title?
Do you have multiple tabs open in your desktop browser? Each tab probably has a little branded icon followed by some text. A favicon followed by the page’s meta title. That’s the only place you’ll see the title in your browser window unless that page is fortunate enough to be displayed in Google search results (SERPS). Google usually leans on those titles for the most prominent, boldest text in its search listings. (See image below.) So, in short, a meta title is a bit of text describing a page that doesn’t show up on the page.
What is a meta description?
More visually elusive than, but just as important as the title, the meta description will only appear to your human audience if Google decides to use it in a SERP listing.
How do I find the existing title/description of a page?
View the code: Examine the page source code. Then control+f or command+f to search for ‘title’ or ‘description’. Note: you’re not looking for og:description or og:title; those are sometimes different beasts. Ignore those unless you’re doing Open Graph optimization.
Use a browser extension: Firefox, Chrome, and Safari probably all have extensions to copy a page’s meta information. …At least they used to.
That title/description image you’ve heard so much about:
Something like but better than the image below used to be on the official Google titles/descrips guide. Here’s an aging image showing where title and description usually appear in SERPs, and how sometimes they don’t. Click it to enlarge.
Regardless, don’t neglect these important opportunities to communicate with your human and robot audiences. The content in these crucial content pieces should be unique; don’t just parrot something you wrote in the body text.
PS – New (as of original publication) logo for my fficient.com shingle is at the top of this post. I’ll write a piece on the logo process someday. …This postscript is mostly to encourage me to write it.
PPS – I feel I should explain why I don’t use title/description best practices on this blog; I can’t. Well, I could, but it would be cost another $21/mo to upgrade to the WordPress.com business plan. I’m not actively looking for new clients, so improving my SEO through titles & descriptions is (perhaps ironically) not worth it for me. I could switch to self-hosted WordPress or some other CMS to have full title/description control, but wordpress.com is so easy, and more than adequate for me. Besides, I’m a fan of not paying more for extra pain in the ass with negative ROI. Please add this to the (growing) list of do as I say and not as I do.
Dan Dreifort consults on search and usability. He’s trying to find a campaign finance reform organization for whom to volunteer. Please network with him. To the dismay of his wife and cats, he makes sounds with iCurd.com, synthBand.com, and other bands.