on point: from archive 2004

Name that Web Page!

Clive Sweeney — January 22, 2004

Some things are a matter of opinion, and some things are more absolute.

But when it comes to giving your Web page a title, there's no question — do it. That's an absolute. If you don't, you've made a mistake and your site and your users will suffer.

Actually I feel a bit silly saying you should give your webpage a title. It's like telling men to wear their pants with the zipper in the front. But I can't remember the last time I saw a man with his pants on backwards, while on the other hand I encountered two business websites this past weekend that had untitled pages. No title at all.

Of course there are variations on not having a page title. It's not always completely missing. Try this sometime: do an Internet search for "page title". See what I mean? How many thousands of pages are there on the Internet whose actual title is "Page Title" or "Untitled Document"?

Right about now maybe you're thinking, "What's the big deal? Page title, no page title, or even 'Page Title' — what difference does it make?" And so you might be puzzled when you hear that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) says that <title> is "the most important element of a quality Web page".

Let's say you have indeed given your page a title. Where might it show up?

  • at the top of page in the window title bar
  • in a task bar tab (Windows)
  • below the row(s) of icons when a user is alt-tabbing between open windows
  • in a bookmark
  • in a browser history list of sites recently visited
  • at the top of a printed version of the page
  • and, of course, the page title normally appears as the heading in search results

So if the page doesn't have a title, it's not as user-friendly. Here are a few of the results:

  • the window title bar and task bar tab may show just the URL and/or the browser name
  • when the user bookmarks an untitled page, the bookmark label will normally default to the page URL
  • search results may substitute the first heading or text from the page (e.g., Google, Yahoo) or just leave the title space blank (e.g., AllTheWeb)

Besides being less user-friendly, the lack of a title may imply the site developer (and the site owner) aren't very professional. Beyond that, however, is the fact that the page title is very heavily weighted in search rankings. Keywords in the page title are most important, followed by keywords in headings, and then keywords in normal text on the page. How much advantage can you afford to give up?

That's the absolute — give every page a title. But what title will work best? This is more a matter of opinion. First of all, I hope we can agree that "Home Page" and "Welcome" don't work very well. What good, for example, is a bookmark named "Welcome" (beyond the warm feeling it gives you)? At a bare minimum you at least want to identify the site.

As a more concrete example, let's say we have a site for a company called Acme Supplies. There's a start for the title of the home page — "Acme Supplies". It makes sense in all the places that a title is used. But would we want to use the same title for every page on the site? It's often done that way, but obviously this is less helpful if you've bookmarked several pages for the site or if you're looking through the browser history:

  • Acme Supplies
  • Acme Supplies
  • Acme Supplies
  • Acme Supplies

You can see where I'm going. Don't drop the site name — you don't want a title like "Contact Us" (who?) — but include something in the title that identifies the specific page. Perhaps for the widgets page you'll have "Acme Supplies: Widgets". And if the page is deeper in the hierarchy, perhaps you would have "Acme Supplies: Widgets — Pricing" or "Acme Supplies: Widget Pricing". These titles include the essentials, and they conform to what seems to be a generally accepted titling style. But here's where you can find legitimate differences of opinion. Should the specific page identifier come first, as in "Widget Pricing — Acme Supplies"? The argument is that "Widget Pricing" is the real topic of the page and should have precedence. If you look at the Designshift page titles, you can see my preference is for the site name first, and this seems to be the more common usage, but we're edging into "six of one, half a dozen of the other" territory here.

You have to remember that, whatever the title, it shouldn't be too long. Shorter titles are obviously easier to read, but there are length limitations in almost every way that a page title will be displayed. For example, Internet Explorer will truncate a title in the window title bar once it gets beyond about 80 characters. Your bookmarks or favorites will probably be much more severely shortened, and search engines will normally only show a certain number of characters. For example, Google may cut titles off at about 60 or so characters, replacing the rest with an ellipsis (…). So it's commonly suggested that titles be limited to 60–80 characters. If possible, I'd suggest aiming for even fewer.

And now we come to another very important feature of the page title, one that many of us frequently overlook, if we're aware of it at all. As I mentioned earlier, the title is very heavily weighted by search engines. For this reason many developers suggest loading the page title with keywords. It's hard to argue with this one, although it's certainly a less aesthetically pleasing use of the title element. Let's use an earlier example, the Acme Supplies site. Pumping keywords into the title might result in something like "Acme Supplies Widgets Whirligigs Whistles Stainless Steel Low Price Under $30 Easy Credit Lifetime Warranty". It's not as short and user friendly, but if it gets results, I won't argue.

For a real world example, check the title on the Web Site Optimization home page.

I'm trying it out. All the interior pages of the Designshift site are titled with the site name followed by the topic of the page, but on the home page I'm stretching a bit to include more keywords — "Designshift: Web Design & Flash Development — Raleigh / Durham, North Carolina". About 75 characters that say who, what, where. It's worth a shot.

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