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.

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.


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

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About John Ekman
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.
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