If you weren't paying much attention to the SEO news sources last week, you may have missed one of many odd debates about what a Googler (someone who works at Google) had to say on a particular subject. In this case, what John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, had to say about the importance of the title tag in a Google Hangout with webmasters.
Mr. Mueller often has discussions like this, and what he says will sometimes become fairly big news stories. How big a story this became, however, surprised me.
What is a title tag?
Many webmasters get the title tag confused with the page headline. The title tag is actually an element found in the HTML code of a website. Somewhat confusingly, contained within the title tag is another headline for the page (although many platforms and/or webmasters will simply use the same text in both the title tag and the on-page headline). Usually while looking at a website the only time you'll see the title tag's content is if you look in the tab at the top of your web browser.
Why is the title tag important?
Well, it's important for a couple of reasons. On many websites, if a user posts a link to your webpage, the site will automatically use the title tag as the text to make into a link, as it is easier to read than a URL. Perhaps more importantly, search engines like Google will often (but not always) display the tag as a link on one of their search engine results pages. Not only will they display it, they'll also use it as one of many factors that determines where your page ends up ranking.
What did he say?
If you want to find the full transcript and video, Search Engine Roundtable has a good writeup of it. Essentially, a webmaster asked John to clarify an earlier statement about how critical the title tag was to a page's ranking. John responded by saying "...it's not the most critical part of a page...", When asked what the most critical part of the page is, he replied with "More like the actual content on the page."
What I find interesting is the fact that this has become a rather big story as of late. It's not unusual for John's statements to appear all over the web, but the idea that the quality of the actual page content is the most important ranking factor is a bit of a no-brainer. The title tag is certainly a very important ranking factor; I've personally gotten pages to rank better by modifying the title tag, and Marie Haynes recently confirmed that even the order of words in the tag can affect rank.
That said, a search engine's primary function is to get the user to the page with the best content on the subject, not the best title tag. The page with the great content will make the user happy, and the happy user will return to Google for future searches. Thus, for a search engine like Google to survive, a page with poor content but a great title tag will not (or at least not for long) outrank a page with great content and no title tag.
So continue to work on your page's title tag, but only after creating great on-page content.