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3 Misunderstood SEO Best Practices

After a great Friday Dojo chat led by Gabriella Sannino someone in the ensuing convo asked about the meta keywords tag. Specifically why should they include it since the Search Engines don’t use it.  I wanted to provide an opposite view to their belief that pages should be coded and built for Search Engines. I decided that I should share another point of view.

Fixing 3 common SEO best practices

Build Pages for Search Engines not Users

I have many reasons for why I believe this is not a good “best Practice” for SEO’s, especially, those who are at the beginning of their journey to being an SEO warrior. But here are 3 good reasons why building pages with Search Engines as first concern is not a good idea:

  1. The obvious: People buy the products or are taking the action that meets the site’s goal. Search Engines are only your audience if you make all your money from advertising.
  2. Algorithms change: Ranking factors change constantly and you have hitched your wagon to the horse called “Algo Chaser”
  3. What you do now specifically for Search Engines may remove options you may need in the future eg: many on site search programs use meta tags

Number 3 is always a big concern when you believe “Future Proofing” your SEO is essential to long term success! Since most of the sites I work on are dynamic data driven sites the meta keyword and description elements are always very difficult to implement. I have left the keyword tag and description tag out of sites at different times. Currently I’m of the opinion that the removal or an empty value in these elements may be a “red flag” for Search Engines and invoke some sort of SEO filter.

My take on this is simple. I build sites with people as my primary concern and Search Engines second. In the 15 years I’ve been dong this “thing of ours” the one thing I’ve learned is that many SEO decisions come down to the lesser of two evils. We are constantly accessing the impact on SEO and user experience from our web development decisions.

So, when you put Search Engines first you’ve essentially made this too simple a decision that results in painting yourself into a corner.

For instance, “why have meta tags Search Engines don’t use them”. Consider including because an onsite search might use them or another search engine could come along that uses them. So long as you add a just a few slang, misspellings and such and definitely don’t bother with the target keywords terms there is no harm done and more importantly no added risk to rankings. Lastly for SEO I think… SEOs sometimes don’t include those elements (having done that myself) so it could be a red flag for professional optimization. Sort of in the vein of PageRank sculpting being an SEO flag that too is unproven… but…

Google Indexes 70 chars in Titles

In this example the entire blame does not rest with the site that first floated this idea as best practice. What is more interesting is that according to a poll David Harry took in the Dojo the Warriors, for the most part, were using the 60-65 number for truncation. SEO misunderstandings about the Title displayed in SERPs and indexing of title is concerning for someone who believes training is the key to the future of the trade.

Write for people not search engines

I looked at lots of pages on the site that floated 70 chars trying to figure out why I keep seeing “Google only indexes 70 chars”. Since, the 70 chars is synonymous with a certain blog as they are the only place I’ve seen this number used as a “best practice”. Looking through the site I could not see anything beyond that in the “tutorial” 70chars is talked as display, but, indexation was not addressed from what I could see.

First off, lets clear up exactly what we’re talking about. Google displays up to 70 chars in the SERP. Google indexes much more than that. I searched that site and concluded that they seem to discuss weighting vaguely and nothing about how much of the title is indexed. So seemingly some SEO’s have

What I think is happening is that some SEOs mistake the displayed title in the SERP as being all that is indexed. Quite simply that is not correct.

The real facts are that Google likely indexes all the title! What Google weights from the title for ranking is a different matter. This is based on a test that a SEO buddy did a few years back. I know ya’ skeptics are thinking it has changed. It has AFAIK but it is a very small refinement that wouldn’t affect the original consensus! Title best practices haven’t changed as long as I have been optimizing pages for Google. I went to the old test and wouldn’t ya’ know it “grasshopper” is still testing. It is showing 70 chars to be too simplistic to base “best practices” on.

There are IMO, many misconceptions about titles starting with indexing and ending with how length of title displayed in the SERP and words weighted as title (words given more importance) ie: full optimization are arrived at. The consensus among some SEOs currently seems to be that 70 chars is the length for best practices. That is cookie cutting the most important optimization target in the arsenal. Absolutely you’d be hard pressed to find a Title in a Google SERP that exceeds 70 chars but that is basing all title decisions on what Google displays as Title.

The real deal is that:

  1. It’s not likely a char measurement deciding where the position of truncation/ellipse occurs
  2. The function to truncate likely has at least two steps (indicated by always being a word)
  3. Seemingly truncates before stop words if they are the last word (indicated by my inability to find a stopword as last word in a SERP and the test)
  4. All title is indexed (indicated by being returned in site search)
  5. All words beyond the tenth word receive no weight as Title, unless, within the 70 chars displayed
  6. All words beyond the tenth word or the length function are indexed as part of document

Above are basis for my Title “best practices” based on a discussion in SearchReturn and writing what was likely the first SEO Title tutorial… ever.  😉

It has been my method for a very long time! I get extremely annoyed whenever I hear this 70 char misleader. I came to adopt these as “best practices” by observing the SERPs, by thinking like a programmer/engineer to realize it was two step function and lastly a good friend has been running a test for many years in which I use to track title weighting and indexation.

I shared the post from SearchReturn in the Dojo. Most ignored it. The smart ones saw it for what it was, though old, still very much true. The test is not exhaustive but, to that end even if it were you wouldn’t come out with a different outcome. The intitle search operator is the closest we’ll ever come to knowing what is weighted as title.

First lets look at how Google may return the display portion of the Title. That’s the part displayed in the SERP. Its obvious that 70 chars is indeed the maximum but if it was just grabbing 70 chars there would be fragmented words in the SERPs so we know that there must be another eval of the 70 chars to ellipse within that limit as a whole word. I also found that if the last word was a stop word the eval looked backward not forward. This is an indication that there is indeed some sort of word eval involved.

“Below is based upon using the Google intitle search syntax as the test for what is indexed and what is weighted as title. So the accuracy of this is only as accurate as the intitle search returning what is indexed and weighted as title.”

So, while we’re at it let’s discuss the Head, Body and Tail of the Weighted Title and possible weighting of the Title signal along them. IMO, it’s not consistent and is inconsistent in a manner that favors front end loading primary keyword terms. Just so you know… I believe front end loading is not just for titles, but any HTML element or Object in a document. One of the best practices I took from the SearchReturn discussion was the use of 60 chars for what I refer to as the head or as referred to in the post  “place important terms within”. The sixty char length may not be as true now for truncation.

IMO, the Head of the Title contains the words between the 1st char and 60ish char or last word containing the 60th char OR the entire tenth word or last word preceding the 70th char if greater than 10 words.  The Body of the title is between the end of the Head (60-70 char ) up to and including tenth word or all words in the first 70 chars minus stop words. The Tail is not weighted as part of title or returned in an intitle search but is returned in a normal search using no search syntax. Indicating it isn’t weighted as title but is indexed.

All of the title is indexed it may not be weighted as title and keyword matches may not be counted as matches!

This indicates 70 chars or up to 10 words may well be the cutoff for what is weighted and indexed as title. The fact that words beyond the tenth or all words contained within 70 chars are returned in InTitle is pretty telling. Words outside of that are returned for a normal search (so are indexed) but are not returned using the intitle search indicating they may not be weighted as title.

There is one more technique that I will add to my best practices, though, I think a lot of people will disagree but I only put Brands anywhere in the title if they have an offline retail storefront, offline signage or traditional Media campaigns. Basically I think only about 1 in likely 1000’s can build an online brand worth taking 30% of the displayed and weighted title. There I said it.

Simply, I don’t think if you Have a real brand that someone is searching for you have to optimize your title to get your brand in the #1 position, Google and any search engine worth it’s salt will find a business/brand name with very little optimization. It’s why there is seemingly favoritism shown to brands in the rankings. Besides, you can build a better Brand message/presence in the description.

Headings Have No or Little SEO Value

Sorry there is no way to know this definitively. I don’t care how many sites etc. you test this across. It’s just too complicated to measure that to a point where all factors are considered. Again as a “Best Practice” it is not cut and dried. Headings are known to stand out on the page for users scanning a page so the gains again in usability should be a chief concern because the user takes the actions that fulfill site goals.

Also even if that weren’t true I’d argue there are reasons to believe it may affect other ranking signals around it. For instance a link in close proximity.

Heading tags are of NO value?

Conclusions for These 3 SEO “Best Practices”

The Title is a pretty important part of the SEO puzzle. I have put forth a few of my personal observations. The other two are basically trying to provide another point of view and how I came to those conclusions. The thought process is as important as the info. The point I’m making is don’t set things in stone or don’t be a cookie cutter SEO. With every decision you make you will learn something… even if it is a mistake… you will learn.

What say you on these SEO best practices? Sound off in the comments Below!.



  1. Ian October 18, 2010

    Great post Terry.

    It would be somewhat mean of Google to first say “don’t bother with meta-keywords for we don’t use them anymore” and then red-flag everyone who follows their advice. Not that they wouldn’t do it if they wanted to, but still doesn’t look very plausible IMHO.

    As for the titles, Shaun of Hobo ran a test that proves your theory. Only he found that Google counts the first 12 words into the title and all the rest is indexed as part of the document.

    And does anyone really think headings have no SEO weight? jeez 😉

  2. Doc Sheldon October 18, 2010

    Good info, and well stated, Terry.
    I think that for many, “best practices” could be more accurately described as “crap I have read somewhere and chose to believe, rather than having to think for myself”.
    Your theory on titles makes sense to me. As for the keywords meta tags, I can see your point, but I’m not yet convinced that Google is casting disparaging glances at sites solely because they appear to be professionally optimized (provided all the techniques in evidence are in compliance with their suggested practices).
    On the other hand, don’t color me as one that believes Google is a benevolent God, either.
    On headings, until I see more evidence to the contrary, I think I’ll continue to treat them as though they have SEO value.

  3. Terry October 18, 2010

    Hey Ian… well agreed it is one of many “reactions” to a null result… but for me goes to “Future Proofing” my SEO. It is a possibility I believe warrants consideration as it is “peculiar activity” especially for an ecommerce site.

    hmmm 12 words could be possible I noticed indications that it is a number bigger than 10 words but… am just redeving a site that will have some big asse blog titles replacing some titles tailored to the 10 word “best practices” I was using… lets see what happens 😉

    Doc… yeah used to be big fan o’ the guidelines until the mantra went from ” don’t do things just for SE’s” then they turn around a did the paid links FUD… which no follow is basically adding “unless we tell you differently”. Ummm sorry that’s not an acceptable change …

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