We all know that including our primary keyword in the title tag is important, right? I believe this to be one of the biggest and most broadly highlighted SEO misconceptions. It might have mattered once, but times have changed and evidence has disappeared yet most people, even specialists, still believes in it’s importance.
Marie Haynes, a skilled SEO specialist wrote:
Everyone who knows even a little about SEO knows that it is vitally important to put your keywords in your title tag.
I know the article was published back in 2016, but it was likely wrong then too - just as it is wrong now.
Notice the word vitally. Keep in mind that vital is a synonym for necessary or essential. That means that Maria, as well as many others, advocates that not including the keyword in your title tag is a SEO death penalty.
In other words, you won’t rank if you leave out the keyword in title.
Changing one's mind
A wise man by the name Willy Brandt once wrote:
It often takes more courage to change one's opinion than to keep it.
Changing one’s mind about something requires insight and effort compared to just stubbornly sticking to a one’s current opinion.
You obviously have no obligation to change your mind based on this blog post. However, ask yourself this:
What evidence would I need to change my mind?
We live in a world where data is increasingly available to help guide our decisions. Anecdotal experience shouldn’t cut it any longer and the data is pretty clear.
There is no reason to be driven entirely by data - be data-inspired instead.
A decade old intuition about keyword in title
Where does this intuition come from?
It might come from experiments that has proved, that if you take two literally identical pages and include a gibberish keyword in the title tag on one of the pages, then the page that had the keyword in the title, would beat the page that didn’t - for the gibberish word.
But we don’t know by how much.
The winner page (with the keyword in title) could potentially have gained as marginal an effect as 0,0001 index points. Granted, it could also have won by a huge margin, and everything in-between.
That it is why it doesn’t help us much - we know nothing about the size of the effect!
Furthermore, the amount of data is sparse, so we know little about the stability of these findings - although it is fair to assume that the experiment could be easily replicated.
How to validate an idea
Evidence-based SEO is about validating hypotheses in sort of the same way a physicist would. We just require less and/or worse proof, because we don’t require the same confidence level.
However, we do need some evidence.
Sine there aren’t that many controlled experiments, we often rely on correlation studies. Furthermore, the controlled experiments that are actually made, usually test a potential ranking factor in such an isolated way, as to say almost nothing meaningful.
Correlation doesn’t mean causation and correlation studies are far from perfect. However, it is by all accounts the best data we have available to judge SEO initiatives.
To increase the pool of data, I will present some of the results from my exclusively Danish correlation study.
Note: The study included 1.000 search queries with an average search volume per month of 2.100 (all keywords > 1.000 searches per month). I looked at 67 different variables, and compiled data for the top 50 search results for each search query. Resulting in more than 3 million data points.
However, it seems only fair to include all the other correlation studies etc. to create a more systematic review of the “keyword in title” effect.
SearchMetrics have been producing ranking factor studies for several years. SEMRush also published a study in 2017. Ahrefs and Brian Dean from Backlinko both published a study in 2016.
Let’s take a look at all these studies.
SEMRush listed 20 factors from important to not important. Keyword in title was the second least important of the listed factors. However, they did not list it as completely unimportant.
Sometime Brian Dean's work is too populistic for my taste. However, he often puts together grand pieces of work. Kudos, Brian! His study was big, thorough and well designed, and found the correlation between keyword in title and rank to be 0,021.
That is super low, and absolutely insignificant. Brian saw the light after dwelling on his own data:
This finding suggests that Google doesn’t need to see the exact keyword in your title tag to understand your page’s topic.
SearchMetrics has been the authority on SEO correlation studies for nearly a decade. But why have no one learned from their studies? People talk about them, read them, share them and supposedly learn from them. However, everyone must be cherry picking.
Take a look at this.
In their 2013 study they reported that the correlation of keyword in title was 0,00. That is back when we would assume Google’s algorithm to be less intelligent than it is today.
In 2014 they found the correlation to be 0,02 - still meaningless.
Finally, in 2016 it was found to be -0,04.
All in all, they have been saying for the past six years, that keyword in title doesn’t correlate with good rankings.
Ahrefs actually found a decent correlation in their study from 2016. The data seemed very biased, which is why the comment from the analyst clearly stated: “But will using an exact match keyword in the title tag of your page make it rank better? Probably not!”
Finally, my correlation study from 2017 found no basis for keyword in title as a ranking factor. The data looks completely random - just as if keywords in title made no difference at all.
The calculated correlation for exact match use of keyword in title was 0,003. While the allowance for the words being separated increased the correlation to 0,007, which is still terrible insignificant.
It is to sum up the 5 great reasons why keyword in title doesn’t matter:
- SearchMetric’s studies indicate it doesn’t matter.
- Brian Dean’s data indicate it doesn’t matter.
- SEMRush’s data indicate it doesn’t matter.
- Ahrefs’ analyst says it probably doesn’t matter.
- My data indicate it doesn’t matter.
Combining all these indications should create a strong notion that keyword in title is not a very important SEO initiative. If it is a ranking factor, the amount of statistical noise and the miniscule effects clearly prove that it is at the minimum unimportant.
Yet, 99% of all the SEO’s I meet still say that keyword in title is important.
Furthermore, SEO specialists usually want me to defend and justify my opinion, which I will happily do. It just seems strange that believing keyword in title doesn’t matter is still a controversial opinion in 2018.
The burden of proof should be on those who say it matters.
Final reflections and pragmatism
Keyword in title is a rather small thing in the big scheme of SEO.
How long does it take to produce a great 2.000 word article? Many, many hours of focused work. Compare that to the 1 minute it takes to include the keyword in the title tag.
Furthermore, I do not claim that relevance of the title tag is unimportant. So, if you want to be on the safe side, then feel free to include the keyword.
My priority is to write a great click-worthy title tag and put my money on CTR impacting rankings way more than keyword in title. Of course, those two initiatives are not mutually exclusive. The sceptics or perfectionists could aim for both.
To sum up my argument in one efficient sentence; Keyword in title is probably not a ranking factor at all and it surely isn’t an important SEO initiative.
P.S. I do not believe I know everything. If you have great evidence, that isn’t public or that I have missed about keyword in the title, then please comment or write me on LinkedIn. I am always open to changing my mind if new evidence appears.