As a preface, I want to mention that this post is not any sort of secret formula for SEO. The only way to succeed at SEO is to deliver relevant content to a user, and if you don’t do that you are not going to succeed.
However, like most things there are always opportunities for small optimizations. As part of our culture of testing as Thumbtack, we recently decided to test an often overlooked part of a webpage and see if it would impact search traffic: the title tag. The reason we did this is because often times whatever you put in your title tag is what search engines will make the headline of your listing on a search results page. Here is what a basic result for one of our pages looks like:
If you visit that page, you will see that what we have in the title tag is exactly what Google has chosen to put as the title of the listing on the search result page. Great!
We decided to A/B test 3 different variations of the title tag and see what impact it would make. Here are the variations we chose (with location and service type substituted for each specific page):
- Looking for the best House Cleaning Services in San Francisco? (baseline)
- Get Free Quotes Today From House Cleaning Services In San Francisco (quotes first variation)
- House Cleaning Services in San Francisco – Get Free Quotes Today (quotes last variation)
To make sure the test would have enough data, we opted in a few thousand pages into each bucket, then set them loose. Our pages are indexed somewhat often so we felt fairly confident that the results within a week or two would be significant, i.e., if there was no change in traffic within the first two weeks then we were confident that was because the buckets were equal, not because the changes had not been picked up.
Getting results for a test like this is challenging because search traffic has a lot of variance in it. Not only do you have to deal with differing traffic based on the day of the week, but in the background your search traffic might be going up and down from things outside of your control (i.e., algorithm changes). So, to control for variance in search traffic, instead of getting our results from raw hit numbers, we instead looked at the ratio of hits from our experimental titles to hits from our baseline title.
The key dates on the graph are October 7th when we launched the test, and October 14th when we ended the test.
As you can see, the result came quickly and painfully. The alternate variations underperformed the baseline by 20-30%. Remember, nothing else on the pages changed: not the content, not the H1 tag, not the meta description; the only change on the page was the wording between the <title> and the </title>.
After letting the test run for a week and with the results indisputable, we reverted the titles back to the baseline and hoped the traffic would return back to normal levels. And as you can see in the above graph, for the most part the traffic did come back. We clearly had made an SEO mistake, but once corrected and re-indexed by Google, there did not appear to be a lingering punishment.
The title tag is important. When a user is looking at a search results page, the first thing they look at to decide if they are going to visit your site is the title that Google presents, which more often than not is your title tag. If your title is a good concise title which matches the searchers intent, the searcher is more likely to click to your page. You must remember that your SEO funnel does not start when a user visits your site from a search engine, it starts when a user sees your result on a search engine result page.
When we started to analyze exactly why the titles underperformed so badly, the first thing we did was look at how the titles looked on the search results. We were surprised to see that the listings looked like this:
Google completely ignored our <title> tag and instead created a composite title, constructed via an unknown method. For example, the phrases “House Cleaning San Francisco” and “| Thumbtack” did not appear anywhere on the page, yet that was the title on the SERP. So then the question became, did our search volume drop because our rankings went down or because people were clicking less? In a way these are connected long term in that we expect that Google would demote results that do not get clicked often, but in the short term we don’t believe this would make a difference. So we checked the ranks of a few of the pages, and the rankings seemed relatively stable. We believe the drop in traffic was mainly due to going from a (relatively) good title to a bad title, and that was worth 20-30% of search clicks.
Then we wondered why Google chose to ignore our new titles. Our guess is that Google found the new title to be a little fishy due to the usage of the words free or today, and the algorithm decided to replace it instead of polluting their search results. From our perspective we felt the title was very accurate, in that we do offer people free quotes on service jobs in a timely manner, but from an algorithmic perspective we understand that it would be difficult to differentiate that at scale.
- Is Google using your <title>s? Search for your pages in Google and see what shows up as the title of your listing. Is it the <title> of your page? If not and you feel it is worse than your title, try to figure out why Google isn’t using your title. Make sure the keywords in the title are relevant to your page and you avoid spammy looking words.
- Test your titles. Try to come up with a few variations of your titles and test them out on your site. If your site gets indexed relatively often, you should be able to see results relatively quickly. Remember: this isn’t about increasing your ranking, this is about getting the most out of the rankings you have. You are leaving traffic on the table if you don’t have a great title.
- Monitor your bounce rates. Increasing the CTR of your search results at the expense of a higher bounce rate is a bad trade-off. Google tracks when people bounce from your page, and if people are bouncing a lot that is a negative signal that your listing is not what the user is searching for, and will hurt you in the long run. Make sure your title doesn’t mislead users into clicking.