What is a stop word and why is it so terrible?
So many people ignore the fact that ‘About’ is a stop word. Why is that? We’ll get into a short explanation in a bit, but for now, I’ll admit that the use of it drives me nutz. Maybe it’s my OCD, but I’m of the opinion that a poor little crawl spider ought to have a clue what he’s looking at. If he has to guess, he’ll simply go elsewhere.
The title of a page — the words inside the < title > tag — is one of the most important factors for ranking in search results. It’s the first line that people see, and the first thing the crawl spiders find. Make it totally relevant to the content of your page, and also include the keyword or phrase that defines that page.
Pay attention to ‘stop words’ — the words that search engines historically ignored because they’re unnecessary. Normally that would include articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but) and prepositions (in, on, of). Recently, however, Google has begun to allow them. The result is ungainly titles (and slugs).
When you do a search, the title comes first in your results. It’s followed by the URL – or the breadcrumb – and the snippet (which is usually the metadescription plus the date of publication or revision). In the example below, the title is in blue (or purple). Yes, it’s more than one word.
A few explanations
Breadcrumb: Just as in Hansel & Gretel, the breadcrumb trail shows how you got to the page. For instance, URL > Shop > Product > Checkout. Some website owners choose to make the breadcrumbs visible on their site itself. Others don’t. In the example below, the breadcrumb is in green.
Snippet: The short description that follows the URL or breadcrumb, in your search result. The snippet contains a date and the metadescription.
The date of publication or revision comes first, so you can tell how old your information is. Very handy when you’re looking for current entries, or doing research of an historical nature.
After the date comes the metadescription. Think of this as a little teaser of ad copy, designed to interest people enough to click onto your page. A well written metadescription is invaluable. Put some thought into it, because it’s the gateway to your site. Here again, include your keyword or phrase.
Here’s an illustration from Yoast, of a well written page title and its descriptors:
Both groups – search engines and people – see early words first. Search engines will yield better results if you put your keywords near the beginning of the page title. Marketing research shows that you have a tiny window of 3 seconds to get a person’s attention. People scanning search results ‘read the headlines’. Make your title interesting and put your keywords as close to the start as possible.
Be brief, but not cryptic
The very fact that you have a website in the first place means that you have something to say, or something to sell. Whichever is the case, you want to ensure that you get more visitors to your site. In my humble opinion, titling a page ‘About’ (stop word!) is pretty close to putting up a ‘Closed’ sign in your window.
However, if you or your client are fixed on vague one-word titles, you can almost make up for that with the slug and the metadescription. Make sure the most important keyword is close to the start, then the next few in the rest of the description. It’s a good idea to use one or two short sentences, but no more than 120 keystrokes (yes, spaces count).
Be gentle with your slugs.
In addition to the metadescription, to give the crawl spiders something to work with, you can make the ‘slug’ a bit longer with a couple of key terms. The slug is the tail end of the web address, that defines the page. So, instead of just URL > about, which is sort of a dead end, you can add terms to the slug: URL > about-keyword-keyword. This leaves the title, and the menu entry, as originally specified, but still gives crawl spiders something to find. About is still a dead end stop word, but now it has a couple of friends along for laughs.
A word of caution, though: When editing the slug, take care not to trigger a 301 redirect chain. This can happen if you edit the slug, save it, and then tomorrow or the next day, change your mind and edit it again. Such actions follow the axiom, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’
Even worse than a 301 redirect chain is the dreaded 404 Page Not Found, especially when it happens because you screwed up. Sometimes it’s better to leave the slug alone and take up the slack in the content and the image alt text.
Now, let’s say something about keyword stuffing: Don’t.
It’s easy to yield to the temptation to put a dozen keywords into the title, or category, or wherever you can think of. Not only does the practice make your content hard to read, but it also is a huge turn-off to the crawl spiders. They know when you’re trying too hard. So make your titles using the 3 Bears Method: Not too big, not too small, but just right.
This business of creating a good title can get confusing and/or frustrating. Need some guidance or sympathy? Contact me!