Keywords and Title Tags: When to Break the SEO Rules

February 17, 2019 / Search Engine Optimization / By Kathy Alice

How many times have you heard or read that it is critical for SEO to have keywords in your title tags? And that you want your keywords in the front of the tag?

There’s no shortage of advice out there about title tags and keywords, many advocating a “keyword first” title tag rule.

… “Having the keyword first means better rankings” …
… “inserting your keywords at the start of your title tag will enable search engines to crawl those words faster.” …
… “keywords closer to the beginning of your title tag may have more impact on search rankings” …

So after seeing this good advice, a site owner then pops into a keyword research tool and looks for the most relevant and highest volume keyword they can find that is a match for their page. And they create a title tag that looks something like this:

Home Workout Equipment – Sitename

I hope you agree, this is not a winning title tag that get clicks.

Now, we can make it better by adding a more specific keyword. For example:

Home Workout Equipment, Exercise Bands – Sitename

Why is this better? For one thing, it does add another keyword to rank for.

And consider this: A page featuring exercise bands may also include other portable workout equipment such as hand weights and jump ropes. Do you think bigger exercise equipment like a StairMaster would be on this page? Not likely.

Users interested in this type of lightweight exercise equipment are more likely to click through, because it is clearer from the snippet (the listing for the page in the search results) what they will see when they click through.

In this era of semantic search, if we pick a keyword that belongs to the right topic, that can win. Finding that perfect exact keyword is no longer the holy grail.

Keywords matter, but not as much as they used to

Backlinko did a million Google search result study to see which ranking factors mattered most, and found “.. very small relationship between title tag keyword optimization and ranking.

Correlation between ranking and keyword in title
Correlation between ranking and keyword in title

Other studies have confirmed this finding. Keywords in title tags are rarely found to be a top ranking factor.

However don’t throw away your keywords yet, you DO want keywords in your title tag, as they identify the topic of your page. And it still makes sense to chose an unique target keyword and place it into the tag. But the right keyword to start your title tag off may not be one you find in a keyword tool.

The trap of “keyword first” thinking.

Let’s take our example of “home workout equipment” and Google it:

home workout equipment SERP

Maybe your site is up to beating Dick’s Sporting Goods, but are you really going to take on Amazon?

Scroll further down and see that Walmart also has a spot on page 1. Another retail behemoth that’s tough to outrank.

And take closer look at the screenshot above and see what the descriptions say these pages are actually selling, “..Home Gym Machine .. Elliptical Trainers …”.

Is this a match for what you’re offering?

If you haven’t heard of “searcher intent” or “search intent”, pay attention. As for SEO today it has become integral to the on page optimization process.

Searcher intent is what it sounds like, the reason behind the search. Some human picked those very words to type (or speak) into Google.

What was he or she thinking? What did they want?

Ask yourself: How can I satisfy, better than my competitors, that search intent?

In this case, the keyword “home workout equipment” is a broad keyword, so the intent is not absolutely clear and likely represents a searcher that is just starting to research home workout equipment. With broad keywords such as these, Google will mix it up and provide both transactional and informational SERPs.

And as an aside, while I haven’t done a deep dive into the data, it really seems that searchers looking for “home workout equipment” are looking for exercise machines, not portable workout gear.

Getting back to the SERPs for our search …

After Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two eCommerce sites; we see informational results. In this case two review articles as well as Google’s suggestions (also known as “People Also Ask”) for refining the search:

home workout equipment informational SERPs

What chance does our little niche fitness site have, with its limited selection of home workout equipment, to out-rank these well known sites?


Instead of researching for a keyword, start with the searcher intent. What are they looking for? Don’t guess.

Just search on your candidate keyword and let Google tell you. You could be completely off base.

Funnels matter

I do my fair share of meta tag writing, and I always do a better job if I understand the business. I see my job as creating a link between the target searcher (the ideal visitor) and what the page has to offer. Because my ultimate goal is to get that desirable searcher to click on the snippet that shows up in the search results so they can land on my page.

And while every website has multiple entry doors, some doors are better for people who already know about you.

Let’s take our page with our exercise bands and hand weights. This page (which is from a real site I audited, I’m just protecting the innocent by not naming names) is part of a website that promotes a fitness system. The “home workout equipment” that it is selling supports a unique set of exercises designed to yield a specific result.

Marketing 101 is figuring out what makes your business unique, your “unique selling proposition”. In this site’s case it is the fitness system and the celebrities that endorse it.

The USP for this business has little to do with the exercise bands and hand weights. This page becomes important once the searcher has bought into the concept and needs to buy the equipment. In other words, it’s not a TOFU page.

I’m sure many of you have seen a marketing funnel. But here’s one anyway:

marketing funnel

The idea of a funnel is that your prospect moves through different stages of becoming more familiar with your business and products before buying. TOFU (top of the funnel) pages are designed to create awareness of the business and/or product. But our “home workout equipment” page is a MOFU (middle of funnel) or even a BOFU page (bottom of the funnel). It serves best the people who already know about the business, are interested, and are moving towards a decision or action.

We can see this when we look at the keywords in Google Search Console. When people search for the equipment on this site they search for “<Brand> equipment”.

We want to make it easy for our searcher to click on our result. Instead, by NOT using the Brand name in the title tag we are creating cognitive stress.

A snippet that shows the words that match what you search on invites clicks. It’s familiar. It’s easy. You don’t have to over-think.

So the more you can match the terms being searched, the better.

Don’t be afraid to use brand names in your title tags

Basic SEO is easy. More advanced SEO is full of nuance and I hope my example here shows why.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” .. Pablo Picasso.

The takeaway I hope you leave with is, when it comes to non TOFU pages, going for a non branded keyword may not the best choice.

And keep in mind, that often what you really need to do is to remove your SEO hat and put your human one on.

About the Author Kathy Alice

Kathy Alice Brown is a SEO expert specializing in Technical SEO and Content. In her spare time she loves to get outside.

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