Optimizing your website is a balancing act.
On one hand, you have the search engines and their need to understand what your website or specific page is about and have it fed to them in a manner that they can prioritize properly. On the other hand, you have these pesky humans (let's call them "visitors") who want the site to be usable, intuitive, and generally don't want to read an essay to understand what you're offering and how it will benefit them.
The ad you use to bring them to your site is no different.
At this point you may be thinking, “But we're talking about Google organic. Aren't ads for AdWords?” Technically the answer here is “yes”, but thinking of your web page titles and descriptions in terms of ad copy is a useful way to really understand what they are and what they can do for you.
Fortunately in this case the user and the bots can generally be attracted to the same thing.
What Are Titles and Descriptions?
The title and description you select for your web page should be viewed as an ad. The reason for this is that it's likely the first copy your potential visitor will see and is often your only opportunity to coax them into clicking through to your website.
While some people simply click the top sites without consideration (Google is flawless in its ranking systems after all) most, at least, scan the titles and/or descriptions to see if the site is a match for what they're looking for. This means that your titles and descriptions, if properly crafted, are your opportunity to attract the visitor to your site.
It's important to also understand that when the keywords being searched are included in the ad they appear bolded. This is an additional draw for the eye, but not a license to keyword stuff.
The goal here isn't to bold as much as you can; it's to create a compelling ad for the searchers that drives them to click through to your site.
Global Rules for Organic and Ad Titles and Descriptions
There are some core rules that are common to organic and ad titles and descriptions.
- Make sure your title and description don't exceed the maximum displayed by Google (65 characters for the title and 155 for the description). These numbers change a bit from time-to-time so these are the low numbers as you don't want to be chasing character count changes. This is an incredibly important rule and personally, it's a huge pet-peeve of mine when I see titles and descriptions ending in "...". The reason this bothers me as much as it does is that it basically means that as a marketer, you're not getting your message across. If the displayed message is incomplete then it might as well not be included as the visitor will never see it anyway. Following this rule will force you to summarize the page in a manner that will be read by potential visitors.
- Write like a human. A human being is going to be reading this copy and judging the target content by it. If the title and description are well-written and appeal to the searcher, they will be clicked. A string of keywords or poorly written copy will only work to ensure that your web server doesn't get bogged down with traffic. Your host will thank you, your accountant won't.
- Include your main keywords in both the title and description and your secondary terms where possible. Each page on your site likely has a specific phrase or perhaps set of similar phrases that you are hoping to attain rankings for. It's important to try to work the central phrase into both the title and description. You may also have some secondary terms you want to target. The "rules" around this are different for the title than for the description and so they will be discussed individually below.
What are "main" and "secondary" keywords?
Consider the homepage of a real estate site for an agent in New York. The main keywords would likely be "new york real estate".
Other related phrases (according to Google's keyword suggestion tool) are "city", "upstate", "listings" and "luxury". There are others, but let's work with this list as these are some of the more highly searched.
What we'll be considering below are ways of working with these keywords to write titles and descriptions that will work for both the search engines and potential visitors.
Crafting Your Ad Headline
Just because you can take up 65 characters doesn't mean you should.
The title is the first and most important element on any given web page. Without a compelling title and the direct and indirect SEO benefits it provides, you won't have the traffic you want from Google organic, so the rest (e.g., good copy, navigation, images) really become less important.
You don't need to stuff your title tag with words just to fill it up. In fact, there's a lot of benefit to white space. After all, if all your competitors have 60 word titles and yours is 30 which do you think will stand out?
I've actually run tests and found that reducing the total word count can have significant click-through benefits. In one case a tweak to a client's title from the lengthy, keyword-rich title that took them to number one with a low click-through rate saw the client drop from first to third in the search results (dropping from 9 words to 4 including losing one of their main keywords). One might view this as horrendous, but traffic for the phrase that dropped more than tripled.
Let's return to our example of the New York real estate agent. We know we have to include "new york real estate" in the title as that's the pivot phrase. I don't think “pivot” is a commonly used term in this context – I use it to mean the phrase which all other terms revolve around in that all additional phrases that we would target on the homepage would include this "pivot phrase" and simply include additional words. The pivot phrase is usually, but not always, the main keyword phrase.
So we have our pivot phrase as well as the secondary list (to repeat, it includes: city, upstate, listings and luxury). The over-zealous SEO in us all would want to write a title that looks something like:
New York Real Estate Listing | Upstate To The City | NYC Luxury | SomeAgent.com
The first problem is obviously that at 79 characters, it's too long. It will end up displaying in Google as:
New York Real Estate Listing | Upstate To The City | NYC Luxury
Essentially, the brand is gone. Perhaps worse than that, it reads horribly.
What we need to consider is which elements are crucial for the search engines and the visitors to let them know what the core of the site is about. In this case I would be prone to create a default title (read the section below on testing as to why I call it default) of:
New York City Real Estate | SomeAgent.com
This title comes in at a healthy 41 characters, doesn't imply the site only serves a specific area or type of real estate, and in the context of all the other titles in the organic results for the phrase "new york real estate", it's one of the few that doesn't have an over SEO'd title ending with "…".
Essentially it needs to include the pivot phrase as all other targeted phrases will revolve around it, we need to make sure it conveys easily the broad scope of the target page and attracts the largest scope of searchers.
Crafting Your Ad Copy
Now it's time to consider how your ad copy should read. We know we have character limitations coming in at 155 characters. Different than titles, I haven't found a co-relation between shorter descriptions and higher click-through rates outside the more obvious, "If it reads better shorter, leave it that way."
To put things into context, we are competing in a media world. Coca-Cola (I hear they put a penny or two into market research) is a great example. If you look at one of their ads they don't read, "Coke: best cola soft drink. Buy online or in the store. Buy in bottles or cans." No, their ads are short and sweet ranging from "Enjoy Coca Cola" to some of the classics "Always Coca-Cola." and "Coke is it!"
Now, Coke can do that because they're a brand and that's all they're trying to promote. You'll have to include a bit more in the way of keywords but the principle behind Coke's strategy carries over and that's to capture the intent and compel the reader to desire more information.
If we weren't a real estate agent in New York and were instead an established brand and if we didn't have to worry about getting keywords into the description we might be tempted to create a title like:
Live the dream.
Will that work? No. If the keywords aren't in the description tag itself, Google will often substitute text from your page copy thus reducing your control over what appears.
We need to make sure that we get the pivot phrase in the description, include as many of the secondary phrases as we can while creating compelling copy and keep all that under 155 characters. Easy-breezy.
To that end, you could create a default description that looks similar to this:
Find the perfect home with New York real estate agent Some Agent. From luxury homes to lofts, from upstate to the city - we've got your listing.
In this case we were able to work in all the secondary terms as well as the pivot phrase. That may not always be possible. The focus is to use as many as can be added while keeping the description easily read by a human, compelling to what their goal is, and relevant to what you offer.
Test, Test, Test
Nobody is perfect. Recognizing this is crucial in ad development.
When referencing Coca-Cola above I listed some of their taglines but one has to know that the selection didn't involve the owner of Coke sitting down, thinking of what he liked, and spending millions of dollars marketing it. No, each tagline will have been put past users, vetted, analyzed for affect and then deployed. Fortunately we don't have to invest the countless dollars this would take – we just need to test.
Here's the core of the problem: we might think we know what the user wants, their motivations, their urgency and their inclinations but without testing we're simply guessing.
If you're the business owner or someone heavily involved in the day-to-day of it, you're likely too close to the situation and skewed by what you want them to think as opposed to what they're actually thinking.
If you're an SEO firm you have the benefit of an outside perspective, but my motivations and the way I search are different than most, so I know I can't always count on my intuition. I have experience and past analytics to draw on, but since every situation is different, I have to know that my assumptions in what will draw targeted visitors to click a result may, or may not, be spot-on.
Another factor is that the best titles and descriptions change over time. The core reason for which is that people change over time; but another too often ignored factor is that over time the phrases you rank for and their position in the SERPs will change. As this happens, the visitor expectation/desire will change and with it, so must your ad copy.
When I'm working on this aspect of "SEO" I create default titles and descriptions (as noted above). Be patient (especially if you've got a new site) until the site starts ranking for the phrases being targeted, as prior to that the traffic won't be indicative of that which we want to measure.
Essentially, if the ad copy doesn't work well for “what rules govern New York City real estate agents” one can't assume it won't work for the phrases we're really after.
Again, be patient, but when you do start to rank for some of the targeted phrases it's time to pull click-through data out of your analytics and begin making a series of minor tweaks to the title and description to see if you can bump it up. Consider making one change, wait until that change is reflected in the SERPs, and leave it for at least a week (preferably more depending on your traffic volume) and make another tweak.
You do end up having to lock in at some point. Once when I was doing this, I ended up testing over a dozen titles and five descriptions. The ones I settled on produced 3x the click-throughs for our top converting phrases than the default. At that point I could continue testing but knowing that there was far more room up than down, I decided to apply those efforts elsewhere.
The SEO Benefit
Having a compelling ad can be more important than getting each and every keyword in the title and description. The biggest reason for this (aside from traffic) is that Google considers your click-through rate for a phrase to be a relevancy factor.
Rightfully, if your result isn't used by visitors, Google concludes that the site isn't relevant and down it will slide. After all, they want to make sure that their users are provided with a full array of relevant and desirable results.
In the end it's a win-win; if you write compelling ad copy you get more traffic which results in a higher relevancy score, which gets you higher rankings, which gets you more exposure at a higher click-through rate.