Learning to optimize blog post titles and descriptions is crucial to getting your posts found by search engines. That’s what SEO is about: search engine optimization.
By default, search engines typically display your blog’s post title and first words on search engine results pages (SERPs). Social media channels use these same defaults when someone shares the post.
But that’s not always the best thing for getting your posts clicked and read on SERPs or social feeds.
This post looks at why that is, and what you should, and can, do about it.
Optimize for Where Your Content Appears
Titles and descriptions serve different purposes in different places. Search titles need to be found, for instance, while social titles must urge action. The title you like on your blog home page may be too long for recommended search or social character counts. Your descriptions may require different information.
And of course, search results full of default gobbledygook, as I see all too often, do your hard-worked content a great disservice: death by neglect.
You don’t have to come up with several titles and descriptions for every post; that’s not my point. The same ones can work equally well everywhere. Later in this post I’ll show you a neat formula for that.
My point is to consider how to optimize your blog posts for both search engines and social media, so they work most effectively in both places.
In an earlier post I explained the difference between SEO and SMO: search engine vs. social media optimization.
This post looks in more detail at how to write differently for those two cases.
Elements of Optimizing 1: Length
Countless clicks are lost, measureless content goes unread because its title and/or description does not display effectively on SERPs and social feeds. An overlong title is cut off, or content is passed over because the description fails to communicate its value. What works in one place may not work in the other.
Preventing all this is part of both SEO and SMO, where you’ll see the terms “title tag” and “meta description.” Optimizing your title (tags) and (meta) descriptions leads to more clicks and greater engagement all around.
Some elements of optimizing are the same, some are different.
How many words and letters?
When your titles and descriptions get cut off, fewer people click on them. This is one thing SEO and SMO have in common. It’s an example of so-called human SEO — optimize for people first, machines second. People want to read a complete title and description.Optimize for people first, machines second.Click To Tweet
For machines, keeping titles to 55 characters and descriptions to 120 characters should make all or most of your text display on most devices. Opinions vary on this but most are not too far off these numbers. Specific best counts vary from channel to channel, and the upper limits are not necessarily the most clicked.
Google, for instance, cuts off titles around 50-60 characters — 600 pixels to be precise, which changes your character count depending on their width, i.e. more l’s than w’s. Same deal with descriptions: about 158 characters is the current limit. Less for mobile displays.
On social media, the best length for tweets is not the same for Facebook posts and neither are like Pinterest or Instagram captions. Each has its own display rules and cutoffs.
To prevent your titles from getting cut off, analyzer tools (like those I describe below) rank the length of your posts and titles among the most crucial factors. They’ll compare your word and character counts to market research on the most viewable, clickable lengths for the top social media channels.
Counting is not the issue. Every writing app has a word and character counter. And Sprout Social often updates its excellent guide to social media character counts, which includes a tool for working your posts to the right length for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Make good use of character counts
At the same time, it’s not just how many characters, but what you say in those characters, that counts. People don’t just want complete titles and descriptions, they want them to say something useful.
Truncated titles in search results leave me wondering yet strangely not caring what the rest says. A description full of default metadata or half a first sentence produces the same response; it tells me nothing. The post goes unread.
In sharp contrast, when I read a full title and informative description, I’m told instantly whether the content likely contains my answers. If so, I’m more likely to click, even if the first post was equally or more informative.
The cut-off post failed to tell me it was informative. The author didn’t use the title tag or meta description wisely by optimizing them. When choosing between two titles, people decide based on the descriptions.
The same holds true after someone shares your post using its sharing icons. Pre-filling the pop-up with your optimized social post can spur more engagement down the line than the unfiltered default values.
Elements of Optimizing 2: Keywords and action words
The basic difference between writing for search engines and social media is: keywords vs. action words.
Keywords are the words people type into search bars, and knowing the exact words your intended audience types is the foundation of search engine optimization (SEO). You learn this by conducting keyword research; useful guides to that are here, here, here, and here.
Search engines look for keywords at the beginning (especially) and end of your title — another reason you want the title short enough to appear fully on SERPs: so searching humans can see the keyword too.
Keywords in descriptions don’t count toward SERP rankings; however, they are highlighted in search results when they appear verbatim, basically a beacon for the searcher’s eye. So you want them there too, near the beginning if possible.
One final, crucial place that search engines look for keywords is in the URL. WordPress creates a default URL slug (everything after the final / ) by using every word in your post title. You don’t want it too long though. You can always edit the slug.
SMO: Action words
The keywords so important to your blog post SEO don’t matter for social media optimization (SMO). There’s no slug worth mentioning, and social posts don’t appear on SERPs.
What matters are words of intrigue that compel action.
In search results, a user has sought out a search term, and answers appear on a static page. Titles and descriptions are optimized to be found. If they’re within the character count and answer the searcher’s question, the user will likely click.
In social media, by contrast, users are typically not searching, so search terms won’t avail you. Instead, content is being pushed to users down a scrolling feed, and you want them to act on it before it passes them by.
That requires different rules of engagement. Instead of answering a question, your sharing title and description should offer the promise of a benefit if only they’ll like, share, or click through to your content. (I’ll discuss images in my next post.)
In short: SEO tells searchers you have what they’re looking for, SMO urges users to act on an opportunity that appears without searching.
Your titles and descriptions may need to employ different language for this. That’s the lesson.
There’s some crossover between SEO and SMO because social media channels are search engines in their own right, and you can’t ignore that.
Instead of SEO keywords, however, users type hashtags, usernames, products and services, and trending terms into their Twitter or Instagram search bar. Some of that may overlap with your keywords, but much will not.
Either way, if you’re planning to optimize your content for social sharing, you may need to research hashtags and the rest as potential search terms, in addition to your SEO keywords.
Truth in wording
Bad behavior does not go unnoticed or unpunished by the dreaded algorithms. For all the news about fake news, being truthful is rewarded in rankings.
Your titles and descriptions must always represent your content accurately. Google bots know if it doesn’t because they’ve learned to read at a high level, and they’ll punish your rankings harshly if you misrepresent it.
In social posting, you must deliver on your promise of a benefit. Like accurate representation, it’s simple ethics. Social media is full of misrepresentation (to put it politely), and reputation matters.
Being as good as your word is the foundation. In this way at least, optimizing for search engines and social media are alike.
Build an Optimizing Toolkit
Now that you’re ready to optimize your content for web, search, and social, how do you do it?
Simply enough, WordPress and other website builders have a place in their post settings to replace the default opening lines with a customized excerpt for your site (that may or may not get used on SERPs or feeds; probably not). No knowledge or plugins required. You can see the difference between excerpt and first line on this blog’s home page.
That takes care of one optimization. For search engines and social sharing, several free tools make similar changes easy.
CoSchedule headline and social message analyzers
As I wrote in an earlier post, CoSchedule (affiliate link) provides excellent tools for trying out versions of your headlines and social media messages to see what works best across your campaigns and promotions.
Both tools analyze your content for all the important factors — keywords, power words, sentiment, character count, etc. — and offer tips for improvement. I find them very helpful.
Social sharing plugins
For WordPress sites, a free SEO plugin like Yoast or Rank Math may be all you need to customize your titles and descriptions. (Website builders like SquareSpace and Weebly don’t offer such options, or very few.)
With the plugins you can add titles, descriptions, and featured images for search engines and social media that are different from your actual displayed blog post. Many social sharing plugins handle this for social posts, and also provide share tracking and analytics not available in the SEO plugins.
Yoast is one of the most popular free plugins. People know it for SEO but you can optimize the SMO titles and descriptions too. With the paid upgrade, you can preview these customizations.
In Yoast, you change the SEO title and description by editing the “snippet,” which otherwise defaults to your post title and opening lines. This new snippet is what appears on SERPs. Optimize for Facebook and Twitter basically the same way under a different tab in the plugin. Paste in your optimized texts and save.
On this site I use Rank Math and Social Warfare (affiliate link) to accomplish the same things. Social Warfare also has Pinterest options so people can pin your images with the captions you want, useful if that’s where you’re socially active.
Free character counters
Here again are those free character counters I linked to above:
The neat technique I promised
Written properly, the same title and description can work equally well for SEO and SMO. No need for multiple versions.SEO and SMO are part of good writing, not an afterthought.Click To Tweet
The experienced folks at Copyblogger get full credit for this sound and clever approach to writing titles that are search- and social-friendly at the same time.
Their formula includes both keywords and action words, and adds the single most influential factor in raising clickthrough rates: numbers.
keyword + colon + number + specific benefit and/or trigger words
In words: A keyword-rich search term before the colon, and a specific, quantifiable benefit after it, like a title and subtitle:
Social Media Optimization: 5 Ways It Can Increase Your Blog Traffic
Copyblogger gives more examples as well as a detailed explanation of what I’ve already outlined briefly: how to write differently for search and social.
Conclusion: Optimize While You Write
Optimizing blog posts for search engines and social media is not something you do separately from writing them. It’s something to keep in mind while you write them.
I don’t mean let them bog down your creative writing flow. I just mean remember they’re part of good internet writing, not an afterthought.
Making SEO and SMO part of your writing process takes a little work, but it’s not extra work. It’s fundamental. It’s the difference between people finding and viewing your content or not.
Fortunately it’s not that hard. There are excellent free tools to help you with it. They require no specialized knowledge, only practice.
I’ll be writing much more about optimizing both your content and your blogging workflow. The best way to find out when is to submit the form below this post so you’ll get blog updates a couple times a month. I’ll also send you my worksheet on finding time to write your blog even when you think you don’t have any.
Featured Image: Lê Tân on Unsplash