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Startup Title Junk

Posted December 21, 2010 in

John Gruber at Daring Fireball wrote a little today about title tags. His main issue is that many news websites have annoyingly long and possibly SEO-focused title tags. He wishes every site had super simple human readable title tags (for example Google’s title tag is “Google” and Apple’s title tag is “Apple”). In an ideal world I obviously agree with John. It would be great if every title tag was simple. Google and Apple obviously don’t need to worry about people discovering their brand though a search engine like many early-stage startups.

I’ve been thinking of writing a blog post about how many small companies and startups get the title tag wrong. The original title of my post was going to be Can you afford to miss out on title tag traffic. knows of websites run by friends that make no effort to optimize their title tag for Google. It’s unfortunate, because these websites have done the hard work to establish a web presence. Some of these sites have a PageRank of 5. They could gain substantial search engine traffic with a simple title tag change.

One of the websites is a web based magazine quarterly called the Wag’s Revue. Their title tag is “Welcome to the Wag’s Revue”. They show up on the first page for searches like “welcome revue.” I know that not many people search google to find something to read, but if their title tag explained what they were an “Online Literary Magazine” they might acquire new readers every quarter.

Airbnb has a brilliantly engineered title, and with a little bit of effort, they optimize the search experience for 2 major types of search engine users:

1. People who already know the brand “Airbnb”. For whatever reason, they are typing the name into google. Maybe they don’t know if it’s “”, or maybe they just type everything into google. People who operate websites with any traffic know that this is a surprisingly significant percentage of search engine traffic.

2. People who are looking for what Airbnb offers without typing in the brand. These people may never have heard of Airbnb before.

Look at what happens in the first case where we type in “airbnb”:

Airbnb with ShortName Title

Perfect. For the user who is looking specifically for “Airbnb”, it is very clear where to navigate.

However, if you take a look at their title tag, this is what you will see. A very keyword-rich descriptive title:

<title>Vacation rentals, private rooms, sublets by the night - Accommodations on Airbnb</title>

So, how did google show a different title? Digging further into Airbnb’s html source, you will find this:

 <link rel="search" type="application/opensearchdescription+xml" href="/opensearch.xml" title="Airbnb" />

Airbnb is taking advantage of the open search description document.

Google will return the “ShortName” when a result turns up with a stronger match for the ShortName than the title.

It appears that google will try to automatically detect your “brand”. Some ways to try to indicate to google about your brand include putting it in your title along with a “divider” character, like a ‘|’ or ‘-’.
Now, take a look at the second case, where someone is just interested in finding a “vacation rental for the night”:

Airbnb with Descriptive Title

This is a much better result for someone who may not be familiar with the Airbnb brand yet.

So, as you can see, with some careful planing and using opensearch documents, you can craft a title tag to provide the best possible search experience for your users.

Edit: Previously, we incorrectly stated that we thought Airbnb was indicating to google about their “ShortName” via an opensearch xml document. The purpose of the opensearch xml document is actually to describe the search engine, which Airbnb runs on its main page.


  1. I am so glad you wrote this post. I literally JUST read Gruber’s piece before popping over to Hacker News and finding your post linked from there.

    I felt the exact same way about his article as you do. I stopped reading his article the moment I read: “The MSNBC home page’s title is chock full of SEO crap, and, bafflingly, doesn’t actually contain the string “MSNBC” until the very end”. I thought, WOW, this guy doesn’t know shit about SEO and the way people actually search for things, and promptly closed the tab. They don’t *have* to have MSNBC in the title because people already know the brand and search for it or click on it in their bookmarks – just like you showed with airbnb.

    Gruber’s posts are usually pretty well thought out and worth reading (if not just a little too pro-Apple), but this one really showed his ignorance in a whole bunch of bad ways. He is way too out of touch with how the average person uses a computer and the internet.

  2. I don’t think you’ve got that Airbnb example right.

    Airbnb shows up as just “Airbnb” when you search for [airbnb], and shows up as “Vacation rentals, blah blah blah” when you search for [vacation rentals].

    You argue that this is due to Airbnb’s opensearch document, but I don’t think that’s true. Instead, it’s simply because Google sometimes uses the main part of the domain name ( or the Dmoz name as the page title for navigational searches, especially when your title tag is full of SEO junk.

    Here’s more examples:

    [msnbc] shows up as “” … title tag: “Breaking News, Weather, Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports, Politics, Travel, Science, Technology, Local, US & World News –”
    [new yorker] shows up as “The New Yorker” … title tag: “National and world news, Profiles, culture, reviews, fiction, poetry : The New Yorker”
    [redfin] shows up as “Redfin” … title tag: “Search Homes for Sale & Find Real Estate Agents Who Put You First | Redfin”

    None of those pages have opensearch documents.

    • I think Dan Fabulich is on the right path. They have enough query to click-on data to understand what is most likely a branded search and then use that as a title singal. Inbound link anchor text from trusted sources like DMOZ can also validate a brand.

      The meta robots tag is supposed to eliminate Google (and previously Yahoo) from using titles from directory listings in SERPs, but that is not always the case.

  3. This gives me an idea, what if your website could haev multiple titles, instead of just one? All are titles for the same page, and depending on the current search query, the bestest possible title will appear in the search results page.

  4. I just wish there were an easier way to A/B test possible titles without potentially really screwing up search traffic.

  5. This is old news.

    Google has been auto-replacing page titles in it’s serps for weeks if not months now on searches by brand. That is all there is to it, there is no SEO science or complexity behind it.


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