The title of a Web page plays several important roles – and not all of them are immediately obvious.

The first – and most obvious – is that it tells people which page they are on when browsing a website, by displaying the page name in the bar at the top of the browser.

Interestingly, my experience is that a fair proportion of people – usually those who are less computer savvy – don’t even look at the title bar. They seem to ‘tune it out’ and focus on the page itself. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important – we still need to cater for the many people who do know where it is, and do look for it.

In terms of orientation, we have to remember that our page isn’t an isolated item – it’s part of a site, or a section within a site. So just providing a page name alone isn’t sufficient to orientate users. We’ll see how this becomes even more important when we look at how search engines handle page titles.

The page title becomes critical in the search engine results pages. On these pages, it is the key visual anchor to attract people to a specific page.

Search Google for the term ‘Dalek’, then note how different Web pages use the title to describe the page itself. Naming your pages in the most informative way helps people to decide which website to visit, when presented with a list of alternatives.

You can also see that the page title is carrying more information, depending on the site. This often includes the name of the site itself, and perhaps the section of the site within which the page resides. Sometimes the title is even more descriptive (this is usually the case with the home page of a site, where the site itself may be described in the title).

A common syntax for titling pages might be:
Site name – section name – page name

This is good, but it does have two drawbacks. If your site name and section names are long, they push the page name away to the right. Within search engines, this can mean that the page name becomes truncated so essential information is lost. Sometimes this won’t matter and sometimes it is disastrous.

The second drawback is that the page title is a key factor in search engines deciding how unique pages are. If most of your page title is the same at the start of the title (section name – site name) then the pages look more similar and may not get as well identified as separate pages.

So another syntax for titling pages might be:
Page name – section name – site name

This is better for people browsing the search engine results, as the part that’s changing the most is where they are looking the most closely – on the left. The downside, of course, is that now your site name could become truncated.

A compromise might be:
Page name – site name

None of the three scenarios outlined above is ‘best’ or ‘worst’, there’s just a trade-off in each between different factors. And, to be fair, we’ve used each of these within sites that we’ve built, choosing the most appropriate or using the client’s preference.

(If you’re editing a website using a content management system, this structure may not be something you can influence – you may only be able to add the page title, and the rest is already predetermined for you.)

The final factor we’re going to look at is how search engines themselves make use of the information in the page title.

The page title is a massive factor in how a search engine indexes, ranks and displays a page (or group of pages). Getting it right can really help in your search engine results – getting it wrong can cripple them.

Here’s an example of ‘wrong’. If you type “untitled page” into Google, you’ll get around 5,500,000 pages returned. “Untitled page” is what a page is called by default when it’s created in a tool such as Dreamweaver. In all of those pages, the person creating the site has not changed the title to something meaningful – effectively trashing the search engine results for that page.

If you were to name every page on your site with the same title, it would significantly increase the chances of search engines seeing the pages as ‘similar’ so not returning more than one page in the search results. So, it is important to have a different page name for each page.

There’s little point in naming a page so that it is highly optimised for search engines alone, for example by just listing keywords one after the other. Even if it got you high in the search engine results, it would not be helpful to people when they are choosing one site from many – they are far more likely to go with the descriptive title.

The name itself should ‘do what it says on the tin’ – so that the page delivers what the title has promised, and you don’t end up with an ‘empty click’ (someone who clicks to the page and then bails because it’s not what they wanted).

As with all things Web, it’s a balance between the needs of people and the way that search engines work. When in doubt, lean towards the needs of people – because that’s what search engines are trying to do anyway, so it should then be best for both.

Of course the page title is far from being the only factor in indexing and ranking a page, but it is one of the most important.