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Title Tag Optimization & Semantic Search

The way Google deciphers relevant content online to present to users is an ever evolving process. Title tags have always been at the forefront in Google’s algorithms for deciding the quality of a page as it relates to the query, and are still weighed heavily today. Optimizing a page’s title tag for a particular SERP used to be about the exclusive focus on keywords. Now there’s less focus on matching keywords and an increased focus on matching the intent of the user. Today both keyword research and contextual analysis are fundamental in optimizing your title tags.

What is Semantic Search

Google’s semantic search broke out of its concept phase in 2013 with the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm. Hummingbird considers pages that speak to context and a searcher's needs and wants rather than the simple fact that a user’s keywords match a page’s metadata. Today’s optimizations require tying in user’s intent with the content presented. Semantic search is not necessarily new to SEOs but its evolution will change the way we think about the first page.

Predictive Technologies

One of the areas semantic search is evolving is in its ability to predict what the user wants next. Neil Patel does a great job of simply explaining the System of Knowledge derived from ontologies (lists of subjects that are related by concept).

The semantic web uses this interplay of sets, properties, and relations to order the vast amount of data that comprise the Web.”


Once that knowledge is compiled, engines can more efficiently predict what’s going to happen next. In the example below I searched,“How tall is Obama?” The more obvious evidence of semantic search at work is the knowledge graph display and simple answer to my question, but take a look at the other results.

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There must be a strong connection between wanting to know President Obama’s height and also the height of those running for election in 2016. Granted there is usage of “tall” in the metadata for the first two organic results, but nowhere in that metadata for the first result  is “Obama” mentioned. Here, Google has found a common string and relevant content to answer the real question at hand.

Semantic Search and Title Tags

Title tags have been the subject of debate in relation to ranking factors for some time now. Many experts feel that the title tag is no longer a strong ranking factor and that algorithms don’t weigh their content as heavily. The more defined debate has been the relationship between keywords used in a title tag and its ranking position. Research by Brian Dean and backlinko reveals that after content on the page, title tags are the most important on-page factor for ranking. He also deduces that keywords in the title tag play a strong role to this day.

It is evident that writing click worthy title tags that will rank has evolved from the caveman technique of inserting as many keywords as possible—but to abandon keyword research and focus on title tags today would be a grave mistake. The advanced approach would be to combine your keyword research with predictive search analysis to formulate content on your pages and create the title tags that highlight them. Now more than ever businesses need to know their market inside and out to the point that they can supply content for the things their users will search for next.

How to Optimize

As you can see in the example below, when I search for “trips to Cancun”, the top ranked pages have title tags with multiple variations of terms using “Cancun” in the phrase.

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The keyword “trips” is only used in one of the title tags, and the others use phrases including “vacation” and “travel.” Google is making the assumption that I want to go to Cancun for vacation and not business, as the majority of intent for that location revolves around vacation. So why not use “trips” in the title tag? You certainly could, as it gets some search volume, but combining keyword search volume with user intent points optimization towards using vacation terms. In the above search you will notice that the only title tag that uses “trips” is a Travelocity page. But maybe they are trying to say too much? See how they rank for the phrase “Cancun vacation.”

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If the webpage is aiming at users booking trips to Cancun then they should be using vacation in the copy and title tag. I would be interested in seeing what it would do to Travelocity’s ranking for “Cancun vacation” if they removed “trips” from their title tag, and possibly reduced its usage on the page.

Predicting Search

When it comes to predictive analysis there are many resources to pull information from and draw a conclusion. You could explore review channels to see what terms people use in association with a service or product. You could explore social channels for the same thing. A lot of that information can come from organic competitive research too. The overall goal is to find all the questions and concerns someone might search in association with the specific product or service.

One area I like to start with is seasonality. Cancun gets the majority of users searching in January, February, and March. Users typically are searching for spring break packages or deals. Knowing this, it would be imperative to create content on that page or another supporting page about spring break in Cancun. The title tag in this situation should definitely use “spring break” + “vacation” as part of the keyword research, but may include other supporting terms that were discovered on social channels or related search such as “spots”, “all inclusive”, “packages”, or “deals”.

Title tags still play a major role in page level ranking factors, and keywords are still very important to include. Combining keyword research with contextual relevancy will give your preferred landing pages the advantage in SERPs. Making sure that the title tag represents both of these assets will be the driving force behind the incredible content you have created for your users. As Google continues to build on their machine learning techniques they will serve up pages that not only answer the immediate question on hand, but also answer what the user is “really” wanting to know.

Cole Rieben

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