Why über-Optimised SEO Titles Kill Click-Throughs & Conversion Rates

By , August 14th, 2011 in SEO | 48 comments

Optimizing Title and Description Meta tags is one of the cornerstones of successful SEO. BUT if you’re designing your tags only to achieve a top SERP position the end result might actually be less traffic to your site. Why? Because when meta tags are optimized for ranking position you often sacrifice an effective call-to-action and your click-through rates will suffer as a result.

Put too much weight on Ranking and your Conversion will drop (off)

How many emails do you get every day from someone you never heard of who promises to put you at the top spot of Google? More than you care to remember.

And how often do you respond – “Yes, what a great idea!”? Never.

Nevertheless I’m sure you are working with some SEO agency right now, and probably have worked with a bunch of them over the years. And even the not-so-douchie ones who don’t spam your inbox still have the same basic promise – We will get you to the top. And you reward them accordingly. If you make it to the top the agency stays and get paid. If not – agency goes and new agency enters. Some agencies are actually ( still – yes I know!) paid on a performance basis which means that you only pay them when your phrases rank, say 5 or higher, on Google.

So they will do any, and everything to get you there. And since Title and Description tags are some of the most powerful SEO levers they will start their work there. But that’s when trouble begins. Or at least – can begin.

The mechanics of Meta tags

(Skip this section if you already know how the Meta Tags work).

The Title and Description tags will be seen in two different ways:

  1. First by the search engine spider/crawlers who will use the content to determine your position in the Search results (among several other factors).
  2. Then the Title tag will be used as the blue “Heading” and the Description tag as the “Body text” for your placement on the Search results page.

It is this second appearance which tends to be overlooked. Your Title and Description tags actually make up an “ad” which is displayed in direct competition with the paid ads (on Google). And ads should be designed to create interest and be persuasive. But if you only optimize them for the bots and forget the humans you’re not getting the best out of your SEO spending.

Title and Description tags actually make up an “ad” which is displayed in direct competition with the paid ads.

Example: Optimizing for the search phrase “Landing page”

I guess the best way to explain is by showing some real world examples. I’m in the business of landing page and conversion rate optimization myself so let’s start there.

When I Googled “landing page” on July 19 this ad came up on position 5.

You can see that the search phrase appears 4 times in the Title and Description tag. It also appears at the beginning of both tags (which is better than later), plus the domain name itself contains the search phrase. No wonder it’s ranking high.

But now comes the interesting question – Would you click this “ad”? To me it looks more or less like some garbled, scraped content, and it has absolutely no call to action.

Consider this other ad on position 7 on the same Search results page:

This is the “ad” of our Conversion-Fest hosts Unbounce. This is not as optimized for ranking as the previous ad of landingpages.com but even though Unbounce rank 2 positions lower I’m pretty sure they get a lot more clicks.

They’ve managed to keep the search phrase in the first position of the Title tag, but they follow it immediately with action oriented verbs “Create”, “Publish”. And the Description tag is a nice summary of what their tool does.

Nice work Oli & Co!

Optimizing for “Conversion rate optimization”

Let’s continue with some more examples from the CRO business.

Here’s what I found on position number 8 for the phrase “Conversion rate optimization”:

This is an example where you try to optimize for too many search phrases on one page. It’s not only bad for CTR (since it’s unfocused), but it’s also bad for ranking since it’s hard to get one page to rank for many phrases. In this case I would advise them to break up this page into several pages and optimize each page for one phrase only.

Last example – Let’s find some cheap flights

Travel is one of the most competitive areas online so if you rank on page 1 for “cheap flights” it means you invested a truckload of money to get there.

On position 5 I found this ad:

I picked it because it’s real easy to see how you can improve it without any negative impact on ranking.

SEO agencies sing the gospel of short Title tags for ranking purposes, but here you also see how uninteresting the ad becomes when the Title just dwindles away with……

Secondly, if someone looks for cheap flights, what the h— is the word “Business class” doing there? That’s the exact opposite of cheap.

Lastly – the Description is written in passive form which does not entice action.


Here’s my rewrite:

Cheap Flights – Find Last Minute Cheap Flights

Compare Cheap Flights from 100’s of airlines with our FREE Flight Comparison Service. Find the perfect flight at the Lowest Price.


The Title still contains the search phrase two times and it’s shorter. The Description now has two action verbs + the search phrase is earlier in the text so it’s easier to spot the bolded words.

A final word on the search scent

As landing page professionals we all know the importance of maintaining the scent from the search to the landing page. I think a great example is the Avis case which was featured in the WhichTestWon Awards this year. They had a 74% uplift in bookings largely thanks to dynamic keywords insertion in the title of the landing page.

So wait a minute, shouldn’t the same apply to your ordinary “organic landing page”? Of course!

So if your Title tag is the heading of your “organic ad”, then you should make sure that your page has the same messaging prominently displayed on the page. If you do so, you will maintain the scent, and decrease the bounce rate.

So if there is one thing our otherwise impeccably optimized Conversion-Fest hosts could improve it’s just this.

As you can see their Title tag is the third (sub) heading on their first page “Create, Publish and…..”

It might be worth a try to display this heading just a little bit earlier and in more visible formatting?!

Here’s what to do now

If you are paying big bucks to some SEO agency who has given you finished tags to just implement on your site, take a second look.

Search for your phrases. See what the results look like. Examine the “ads” of all your competitors. Do they have a clear call to action? Not too diluted? Active rather than passive form? Focused on one search phrase?

Then, if needed, go back to your SEO agency and tell them they need to rework those tags before you send them the next check.

Disclaimer

I’m not an SEO expert. If those of you who are find some things you see as faulty, please use the comment section and I’ll be happy to learn more.

Also, don’t waste your time bashing my site Conversionista.com. I’m currently only optimizing for the Swedish language on Conversionista.se (but if you have some tips there, hey that’s great!)

– John Ekman

This is a guest post, entered in the 2011 Unbounce Conversion Fest Blogging Contest. All opinions are those of the author.

John Ekman is the founder and CEO of Conversionista! – The number 1 Conversion consulting company in Sweden (possibly Scandinavia?!). You will find posts similar to this one on Johns' blog on Conversion rate optimization. According to John a Conversionista is someone deeply and crazily passionate about improving conversion rates.

Comments

  1. Oli Gardner says:

    Thanks for using Unbounce in your example John! Clearly I have a little work to do :)

  2. Fredrik Lennstrom says:

    Google does not base rankings on description tag -http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/09/google-does-not-use-keywords-meta-tag.html. So if you trying to optimize for Google, there is nothing to loose!

    • Agree – As an SEO “Semi-professional” I see the Google algorithm as a big guessing game. But at least you can say this: If they publicly say that they don’t use the description tag for rank and sometimes use it for the SERP – then WHY should you optimize for rank only and not for conversion at all?! (like many obviously do).

      • Yomar Lopez says:

        BINGO!

        It is totally a guessing game but there is a science to it, whereas you collect data, interpret the data, and take action.. It’s much like conversions and split testing: you have to isolate factors, make small changes, and then see what works long-term.

        You can speed up some of the process by manually submitting pages and sites to search engines and directories. You can also use pinging services like Ping-o-matic and Ping.fm to inform key sites of your content updates… but it still takes time to really see the trends. That’s why I say any good SEO campaign should start with a three-month trial period, a launch-and-learn, as Chris Brogan would say.

        From there, lots of tweaking and reassessment can be expected.. It’s an ongoing process and not a matter of tweaking copy and building links. If only it were that simple – I’d be able to take on more clients at once! LOL

        Google has always been good about hinting at the ingredients in their secret sauce.. But they never truly spill the beans.. And every SEO best practice has and will have different results for everyone. Again, you just have to analyze and adapt to stay competitive.

        Certainly, the SEO game has changed a lot from the days in which changing some tags, spamming keywords, and getting some links was really all there was to it.. Oh, and you can’t forget the more black-hat techniques like cloaking and using bots/scripts (which could get your site penalized nowadays.. just saying)… 8)

  3. Naomi Niles says:

    Nice article, John. I’ve never been able to get totally on the SEO bandwagon because I don’t like “robot language” much. Probably that’s why I don’t rank as well as I should either, lol!

    I think it’s important then to find a specialist who knows how to work the delicate balance between SEO and CRO. I know that I, for one, wouldn’t want to work with an SEO that only cares about rank.

    • Yomar Lopez says:

      Indeed, Naomi!

      I feel that focusing on rank and tons of traffic alone is only good if your web site thrives off of increased hits.. but that’s rare. Even with PPC, having more relevant hits and “pre-qualified leads” landing on your pages makes for a more engaged audience.

      You’re absolutely right about the robot language in the SEO world, too. As a programmer and IT veteran, I’ve learned to filter out the technical jargon. In fact, I find that most “SEOs” focus on the technical aspect of the business. I actually break it down into simple terms so that there is actionable insight in the monthly reports AND it doesn’t look like gibberish. LOL

      Anywho…

      All the technical aspects of SEO are fine and dandy, but the softer side is becoming increasingly more valuable, especially with regards to integrating with other marketing efforts. Good SEO overlaps with so much of what we do online as small businesses that you’d be surprised what opportunities you are missing out on without the SEO piece in place.

      Again, I don’t look at it merely as SEO, SMO, CRO, or even SEM.. It’s all connected. It’s Inbound Marketing and you can’t have one without the other, if you ask me.

      …And, no, it’s not a sales pitch. I’m good with SEO clients right now. ;o)

  4. Yomar Lopez says:

    It’s always cool to see SEO from a non-SEM’s perspective. I think most of my fellow SEO people focus more on ranking and increasing traffic, but I think it’s a waste effort if you’re not…

    - Showing up on the most relevant searches.
    - Optimizing for the right keywords.
    - Bringing people to poor content.

    I’ve found that, when you have very competitive search spaces like “landing pages” or “cheap flights”, you can go for long-tail versions of them and capture the traffic on the more competitive market all in one fell swoop. That’s not really an SEO secret, but there’s several ways to do this.

    It’s important that you mentioned conversion and click-through rates. To look at SEO merely as SERP placement, page rank, and link popularity is short-sighted, in my humble opinion. After all, if you get tons of traffic and don’t do anything with it, your bounce rate will soar through the roof!

    Ah, and here is where Unbounce comes into play. Good natural plug there, BTW. Haha

    You know, one frustrating thing as the service provider in the “SEO marriage” is when I work with clients that don’t work with me to get their content right. You need to do some promotion and tweaking of content, on and off-page, to get those pages performing.

    It’s also very much possible to have content, say your web site’s home page, rank for multiple keywords. Titles and meta types are not as powerful as they used to be but still relevant. It’s the inline/body content that really matters most.

    Still, you’re right about having more targeted pages for specific keywords. Just remember that Google looks at the site as a whole and each individual page.. It’s easy to confuse authority, link popularity, and page rank, especially with the constant changes and swapping around of like terminology.

    Last but not least, when anyone works with an “SEO” (I prefer Inbound Marketer myself), remember that changes may take two or three months, sometimes more, to show up. This year alone Google has over 500 algorithm changes to be executed for their search platform.. And they’re only one of many search engines. Then you have directories, social bookmarking sites, syndication platforms, and other things that SEO bolsters.

    As fun as it is to look at Google SERP results going up, there’s a much big picture. You also have to consider that sometimes it’s better to capture more traffic in a smaller community, than a little traffic in a HUGE community…

    But I digress. I really enjoy these discussions. Thank you so much for sharing this. Interestingly enough, I am working on an article for a Canadian SEM/SEO company and a few of these issues were going to be tackled, with particular focus on the elusive “SEO marriage”. I think there are some SEO/SEM gurus out there that make the rest of us look bad. I like to deliver value and results so no one could ever question that they’re getting their money’s worth… but that’s not always the case with others, so I can understand when you talk about not writing a check until you get what you want. ;o)

    • Yomar,thanks a lot for sharing your ideas.

      As I wrote, l’m not an SEO expert, and l was hoping to learn more from insightful comments.

      Which l did!

      • Yomar Lopez says:

        I’m glad to hear it!

        Hey, for what it’s worth, I know this article will draw flack from the very sensitive/defensive SEO folks out there. You can’t please everyone. I get what you’re saying here and I think it’s something that has to be said.

        In fact, I’ve made similar claims on my own blog, which technically would be shooting myself in the foot… But I like to call a spade a spade. Driving traffic is great and certainly worth the investment.. But, for those that need more, your average SEO “expert” won’t be enough.. You need someone that understands Internet Marketing and the busienss process thereof as a whole.

        The way I see it, it’s better to avoid painful break-ups in the SEO relationship by being able to say, “I like you, I really do, but you’re not what I’m looking for.. At least not right now.” That way, we can all move on to be with the right people and live happily ever after.. at least in theory! ;o)

        • I’ve been slammed this week, so I am coming into the conversation late, but I am enjoying catching up.
          The more I read your responses, Yomar, I think we were separated at birth :).
          Anyway, beyond the details about meta tags and if they matter. I think following Google’s advice about content and “writing for readers, rather than robots” is as applicable here as anywhere.

  5. Mike Coughlin says:

    I am an Unbounce customer and really enjoy reading the blog. However, there have been a few posts, this one in particular that really do seem to cast a wide net over the SEO industry as snake oil salesman that come and go, make promises that aren’t followed through on, and generally aren’t needed.

    As an SEO expert, that works on large brands and can show millions of dollars in ROI, I get a little tired of that representation.

    I’m sure that wasn’t your intention and believe me, I grow tired of the phone calls from all over the world, promising me the world through SEO, but this type of representation really doesn’t help to move the industry further.

    • Mike, unfortunately we both know that there is a snake-oil segment in this business.

      AND

      I understand how frustrating it must feel to have that shadow of doubt hanging over you.

      BUT

      Top-class agencies also overlook conversion & CTR factors. This, l think, is largely an effect of the “unhealthy” relationship between agencies and clients,where dients ask for quick wins and top position and agencies are unable to stand up against that pressure.So both agencies and clients are at fault.

      Or?

      • Yomar Lopez says:

        I’m with you here, John.

        Quite honestly, there are quacks in all lines of work in the service industry, not just SEO. It can be argued that us SEO folks have the worst wrap and there’s more people willing to throw SEO out the window because they don’t see the real benefit/value… But I don’t worry about that. That’s just the nature of the beast.

        I really did not see your article as dismissive at all. In fact, I think you provided some good considerations for both SEO providers and clients alike. When clients are more aware of the different approaches, it makes it easier to find someone that suits your personal needs. As such, there’s plenty of room for the black-hat SEOs, the technically-focused SEOs, and the rest of us, the ones that bring it all together with marketing magic and business strategy. 8)

  6. Kristi Hines says:

    If more people thought of their meta title and descriptions like ads and less like keyword stuffing material, they would do far better with getting clicks from search results. Definitely good examples of why you need to let go of the SEO and think about the visitors perception of your spot in search results instead.

    • Yomar Lopez says:

      My thing is: they should not be mutually exclusive. SEO nowadays is more about the social signals than the technical aspects.. So you can optimize for human audiences AND search engines simultaneously.

      Also, search engines tend to be funky about whether they use your meta data for SERP abstracts versus random excerpts. Google’s algorithm is so complex that I think they’re not setting it up so that the results display what seems more relevant and popular, rather than what the web developers want you to see. This is the result of years of bait-and-switch, cloaked and spoofed web sites.

      I guess someone finally figured it out and said, “Let the tomfoolery end here!” ;o)

  7. Meanne says:

    meta tags are not effective in SEO.

    • Yomar Lopez says:

      It depends on the search engine or directory, really.. They used to be a gold mine. As he mentioned here, the meta types are more for catering to human audiences now than trying to rank higher in SERPs and such. 8)

    • I don’t think you can say whether meta tags “work” or “don’t” work- That’s too general. The Title, Description, and Keywords tags all do very different jobs, and carry different weight.

      But in any case – If these tags have less and less impact on rank, that only strengthens the case for Conversion oriented “SEO ads”.

      • Yomar Lopez says:

        Exactly.

        Like I said, I’m agreeing with you.. Just making sure that everyone understands that meta tags/types are still valuable, but more for different reasons now.

        Trying to figure out how these items are weighed is a foolish endeavor.. But projecting something of value to human audiences, well, that’s much easier. You make plenty of sense here, bud! 8)

    • I would agree with you in the case of keyword meta tags. That’s old news, though. There is still some value in the other meta tags, though. How much? Who knows?
      As was stated in the article, however, a good title and description that is actually descriptive will make a difference in click-through.

  8. Oli Gardner says:

    Editors note: LOVE the discussions going on here. Right, wrong, good bad. It’s just really helpful for everyone to get to read all of your perspectives.

    Love it.

    Please continue…

  9. Lift says:

    I agry, good information about this tropic, it is very inportant to do something about it.

    Many regards from Denmark

  10. [...] ask John Ekman, it does in some cases. As he writes in his blogpost on The Unbounce Blog – Why über-Optimised SEO Titles Kill Click-Throughs & Conversion Rates, sometimes the effort to optimize for the search engine defuses the call-to-action copy needed to [...]

  11. My post set fire to Jesper Åström who wrote a great follow-up called “Does SEO hurt Conversion?”

    http://jesperastrom.com/conversion/does-seo-hurt-conversion/

    He is more insightful than me on SEO and possibly also more fed-up with SEO bad practices.

    It’s a great read. Highly recommended.

  12. Vinod says:

    My site is currently #1 for quite a few search terms on google. Will rankings drop if I rewrite the title/meta tags?

  13. My experience that a change itself will not affect rank so much.

    It’s not like Google will punish you for not keeping your tags “fixed”

    Unless the change means it’s a tag which is a lot worse from an SEO perspective.

    As I tried to point out , rewriting tags for Conversion, normally doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice “rank factors”.

    But you should really ask one of the “real SEO experts”, I’m just Semi-Pro, remember?

    If you need an audit and suggestions, drop me an email and I can help (together with some “real SEO experts” I’m partner with).

  14. Tomás dT says:

    Optimizing titles and descriptions in SERP´s is the best way to increase clicks and oriented traffic. It is like AdWords ads, you have to show the value of your pages and, at the same time, filter visits in order to increase conversions. Regards!

  15. [...] Ekman – Conversionista, med en gästpost hos Unbounce och Jesper Åström har i veckan lyft upp detta perspektiv och det är mycket intressant läsning. [...]

  16. Great article John! And very much needed. We see way to much of this in the digital world today. We liked it so much that we felt the need to write a follow up. That actually turned out so long we had to cut it in 3 parts :) For those of you that understand Swedish (or can stand G translate) please drop in and let us know what you think:
    http://www.search-integration.se/seo-ekonomi-betalar-du-for-vad-du-far
    http://www.search-integration.se/seo-ekonomi-webbanalys-ger-dig-svaren
    http://www.search-integration.se/seo-ekonomi-sokordsanalys-innehall-lankar

  17. Lassar says:

    One thing to mention. Google does not like the word free in the description.

    I tried free download in my description, and google did not like it. I don’t really remember, but I think google cut the description short.

  18. Björn says:

    Great article John, this is indeed something that is often overlooked. As Google often says, do it for the user.

  19. [...] Why über-Optimised SEO Titles Kill Click-Throughs & Conversion Rates – Optimizing Title and Description Meta tags is one of the cornerstones of successful SEO. BUT if you’re designing your tags only to achieve a top SERP position the end result might actually be less traffic to your site. Why? Because when meta tags are optimized for ranking position you often sacrifice an effective call-to-action and your click-through rates will suffer as a result. [...]

  20. seo says:

    Hey are using WordPress for your site platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own. Do you need any coding expertise to make your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  21. Benjamin says:

    Is it still legal just to say thanks for a very usefull blog?
    Love it, cant stop reading :-)

  22. Kevin Yeaman says:

    Web marketing experts and beginners alike spend a lot of time wishing Google could be more transparent with its ranking algorithm, but most of the time, it is just like a hide-and-seek game. That being said, these are solid tips someone thinking of engaging a SEO consultant can keep in mind in order not to get cheated.

  23. Helle says:

    Exactly! Your thoughts sounds very sensible. Thanks for a great article…

    Many regards
    Helle from Denmark

  24. Bo says:

    Thanks for good inspiration. Personally I have used the rewrites you give as an example on cheap flights on my pages. My traffic has gone up a bit after the rewrites – better than nothing:-)

    Regards
    Bo

  25. Gravemaskin says:

    Interesting, I think your right, we have tested it to :-)
    But I think we will test it again to be sure

    Many regards and thanks

  26. Konkursbo says:

    Nice blog post

    I will test it with my boss.

    Thanks you very much

  27. Svarv says:

    Good information

    Thank you for a nice blog.

  28. Returgods says:

    Cool website, alot off good information, thank you very much :-)

  29. It is really hard to find the right balance between SEO and CTR. You did a very good job in your examples – thanks for the post :)

  30. [...] phrase far too many times in their meta tags in hopes of appearing at the top of search results lists. This leads to the creation of search engine listings that look canned and bot-generated; [...]

  31. Thanks for a great article… I will test it on my website asap!

  32. Thanks for a great article… I will test it on my website asap!

  33. This article has some great points, that are still relevant “today” (it was written back in 2011); still a lot of website owners don’t follow it.

    Why?

    Because it’s much easier to look at your rankings in Google than it is to actually measure the CTR you get from SERP’s.

    One could say “I would prefer to be in the #4 spot than in the #8 spot, no matter what title I have for that landing page”.

    But, as Ekman points out, you can actually make quite good (great!) titles if you just take think about what the visitor tend to click on, instead of solely focusing on where you would like your keywords to appear.

    This said, I’m really looking forward to the point where Google decides that 2 X KEYWORD is not better than 1 X KEYWORD in the title. Who ever said that in the first place?

    With the Penguin Update finally making a difference (here in September 2013) it seems like there is still some kind of hope, but to say that Google operates fast when it comes to making their search engine “a better place”, I believe that would – to some extension – be an exaggeration :-)

    Thanks for a great article!

    Nicolai Kostakis

x
Get actionable optimization tips delivered straight to your inbox.

You'll learn:

  • What it takes to build successful marketing campaigns
  • Why your landing page design and copy might be working against you
  • How to increase conversions while delighting leads and customers