The Title Attribute and Why It’s Almost Useless

For a long time I thought HTML’s “title” attribute was really useful (more on what that is very soon). However, it isn’t. It seems useful and it fails to solve the problems you want it to. At times, it can make things worse!

What Is the HTML Title Attribute?

One “HTML attribute” that you can find all over the web is the “title” attribute. It’s commonly found on links like this one: Google. If you hover your cursor over that link, you should see a “tooltip” that also says “Google.” Here’s the HTML code to output that link where you can see the title attribute that you should not use:

WordPress uses tooltips in its own interface.1 In some cases, it’s used to give instructions to users:

A Tooltip in WordPress Admin.
When a user hovers over the “slug” field to edit the post’s URL, they see this title tooltip.Update: This is still a good screenshot example of a title attribute, but it has since been removed from WordPress along with many other uses of the title attribute. Title attributes are a bad place for explaining a feature since they aren’t universally accessible.

WordPress also makes it easy to add the titles attribute to links with the “Insert/Edit Link” tool, but don’t use that field. WordPress fills it in automatically, but you should delete its contents. WordPress has since removed this feature. There was a bit of a kerfuffle when this was done, but I haven’t encountered any new WordPress users that miss or request the ability to add title attributes.

Why Not to Use the Title Attribute

I had a sinking feeling about the title attribute for a while, but hadn’t seen anything definitive until I came across the aptly named “I thought title text improved accessibility. I was wrong.”:

So if you’ve been adding descriptive text into the title attribute, don’t. Blind users won’t hear it. It’s next to useless. This common misconception could lead to important information being completely inaccessible by the people who it’s intended for.

An article with even nittier-grittier details, “Using the HTML title attribute”, comes from the Paciello Group blog, an excellent source for web accessibility information.

The HTML title attribute is problematic. It is problematic because it is not well supported in some crucial respects, even though it has been with us for over 14 years. With the rise of touch screen interfaces, the usefulness of this attribute has decreased. The accessibility of the title attribute has fallen victim to a unfortunate combination of poor browser support, poor screen reader support and poor authoring practices.

As that quote suggests, the title attribute isn’t shown or read to users with screen readers, touch devices, or even twitchy mouse hands. That means if a title tooltip is required to explain a feature or link, a significant percentage of users will have a hard time using your site.

At other times, when people use bad title attributes (such as my redundant “Google” example), the tooltip provides no additional information but is irritating to those who can see it.

The title attribute is a lose-lose.

What To Do Instead of the Title Attribute?

Most of the time, title attributes are a crutch for an unclear interface or piece of writing.

Particularly for links like the second screenshot from above, well-written link text will not need a title attribute because it’s descriptive on its own. Remember the five attributes of a well-written label from the Nielsen Norman Group:2

  1. Accurate
  2. Concise
  3. Familiar
  4. Comprehensive
  5. Front-Loaded

WordPress users wanting to go the extra mile should check out the WP Accessibility plugin that adds a lot of accessibility features to WordPress including removing the title attributes from many parts of a site.

April 27, 2017: WordPress has continued removing title attributes and most are finally gone! There are other good reasons to still use the WP Accessibility plugin, but this isn’t one of them anymore.

For those that want a really technical solution, I recommend reading up on the WCAG’s technique C7 for hiding descriptive anchor text.

A Relic of Times Past

The web changes fast and that means old best practices live on long past their prime. Just last week, I came across a really good WordPress developer recommending the use of title attributes. He could school me in PHP but didn’t know the problems of the title. So just because you can add it doesn’t mean you should!

The title attribute never really worked, and its effectiveness is decreasing rapidly. Do yourself and your visitors a favor and drop it!

Or Is It?

A commenter shared the Nielsen-Norman Group’s updated (June 19, 2016) article on the title attribute which advocates for using it. I don’t technically disagree with the guidelines, but I stand by the recommendations in this post. For a little more detail, read the comment thread below.

12 thoughts on “The Title Attribute and Why It’s Almost Useless”

    1. Indeed! If titles have any real SEO benefit that’s news to me. (Aside: Alt attributes probably do have some SEO impact, but abusing those is even worse since it negatively impacts screen reader users!)

      I’ve never seen that site before but it looks awesome! Thanks for sharing, Justin.

  1. Disagree strongly. It can be a good way to provide supplemental information. For instance, I link to dozens of news articles on my website every day. On mouseover, thanks to the “title” attribute, users can preview the article’s headline and see the name of the source publication. Rather than being eliminated, it should be enhanced so that it’s functional on touchscreens.

    1. Vic, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’d encourage you to read the two articles I link to if you didn’t (both in the “Why Not to Use the Title Attribute” section).

      I should be extra clear that I’m not making saying the title attribute wasn’t a good idea for a feature—though I don’t know what my answer would be! What I’m saying is that using the title attribute means that a significant percentage of users have no way of accessing the content. Based on what I know, I’d feel pretty confident in guessing that screen readers and browsers will not prioritize making title attributes accessible either. I suspect they’re in for a very long, slow, drawn-out death.

      Given that, it means that using the title attribute for any meaningful content is unambiguously contradictory to best practices for building an accessible and usable site.

  2. I’m sorry but this is completely asinine. First of all, the title atteibute is crucial to SEO, and undeniably helps page ranking when it’s done properly. To anyone reading this nonsense and actually believing it, that is, if you want your site to rank well, be found, and compete with everyone else in your industry online – I’d tell you 100 out of 100 times never ever ever ever ever ever remove your website’s title attributes. Hell…, I came to this page and read this jargon as a result of its visible title on Google!!!! ——– Alright…., This is an outdated post I am aware…., so I’ll hope uve figured it out and see how foolish your opinion here was. The title atteibute on a web page is vital to SEO and page ranking on every major search engine, and for your information, maybe to make u happy here. Things always progress online, and weak/poorly written functionalities like this one – have evolved since this was written. I do agree with what u said as far as misuse and the poor functionality of the title attribute – for it having been around for so many years, and it’s importantance to SEO. BUT…, newer releases to website systems like WordPress are rectifying this issue and taking the title atteibute’s functionality out of the hands of third party developers and into those of website owners. The latest WP versions and Theme releases are taking this very seriously, not allowing the title atteibute to be fully utilized without custom integration that plugins wont be able to provide (according to WP, and the direction of this atteibute in WP and Theme’s coming out). Everything from custom page titling to archive titling may or may not require additional custom coding with each WP release – making it less likely to be a abused, less likely to be utilized in archives and tag pages as its been for so long – creating lots of bad search results in the past. Also making it less likely for its use to be integrated fully with third party plugins. Fully meaning, the full extent of its usefulness to SEO, without attention from site owners who have a WP site. So your wish is granted, and even though I seem pissy, I did read the article. But please do your homework before you put something Ike this online – it doesnt make you look like you know what’s what as far as crucial areas to online marketing and growth of a brand or business online. SEO is and will always be essential to any brand or business, and will continue to grow in its importance with each day that passes, each mobile device that is released, etc. Title attributes aren’t going anywhere and have and will remain a critical factor to page ranking and SEO.

    1. Hi Chase,

      It sounds like you’re thinking of the title *element* which stores the web page’s title in the head and looks like this HTML:

      <head>
      <title>My Page Title</title>
      <head>

      You’re totally right that the title element (and page headings) are important SEO signals, and WordPress has indeed improved our ability to manage them recently.

      This is different from the title *attribute* which is the topic of this article. The title attribute creates a small tooltip in some browsers and looks like this in HTML:

      <a href=”http://google.com” title=”Do a search”>Google</a>

      It’s the latter that causes usability problems, has no impact on SEO, and makes accessibility worse for some screen reader users. Since writing this article, I continue to recommend against using it.

    1. Hi David Thanks for sharing this article. I’ve been meaning to add an addendum to this article with it ever since I read it. I’d be a card-carrying member of the church of Jakob Nielsen if that were a think!

      The article you link to and this one essentially agree on all the considerations one takes when using the title attribute yet come to the opposite conclusions. I’m ok with that! (And I’m in agreement with the W3C, so it’s not like it’s a one-sided debate.)

      In my experience and based on my particular client base, I have almost never seen the title attribute used in the manner advocated by the article. It’s much more often redundant, a crutch for poorly-written link text, or superfluous. To all but the most informed, the title attribute gives a false sense of usefulness that I think is extremely bad for usability overall.

      There are doubtlessly lots of people who can follow the advice of the article, but I’m literally not sure I’ve ever seen it consistently done on a website (except presumably nngroup.com!). A long, informed debate of the title attribute would certainly be more nuanced, but based on my time building and helping people manage websites, I think the internet on the whole would be better without title attributes.

      Since you shared the article, what do you think?

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