How to create headlines that capture your reader’s attention and boost your SEO ranking too

Headline writing is an art form. And for newspapers a great headline makes the difference between what sells and what doesn’t. The red-top tabloid sub-editors, especially from The Sun, have the skill down to a tee. Some of The Sun’s most memorable headlines from the last 40 years in print have been: “Freddie Starr ate my Hamster”, “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” and “Wham bam! Sam Cam to be mam”. The techniques the headline writers have used, be it witty, intriguing, sensational or a play on words, are well-honed and designed to grab a reader’s attention at the newsstand (and sell more papers).

But, in a digital world, a headline must serve two masters – its reader and the algorithms of the search engine optimiser (i.e. the likes of Google, Yahoo etc). The reader must be interested enough to want to click, but the headline must have the article’s keywords in it or else the reader may not find it (well, not on the first three pages of the search engine’s results anyway).

For example during the Guardian’s coverage of the winter Olympics 2014 it used differing headlines for its print and digital editions. The headline for its interview with the skier Chemmy Alcott in print read: “This is my last Olympics – I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain” alongside a large picture of her.  Its online version was: “Chemmy Alcott: I would love a Hollywood ending in Sochi”. The second headline was SEO friendly as it included the person’s name and where the Olympics were taking place, Sochi. The digital subheading also supported the SEO ranking by including the keywords “alpine skier”, “Russia” and “Olympics”.

Writing for Google’s algorithms got journalists hot under the collar during the 2012 American Super Bowl. A war of words broke out between the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. It was sparked by a simple question posed by The Huffington Post, “What Time Is The Super Bowl?” which many argued was a boring headline created especially for SEO purposes. At the time a reporter from the New York Times, Steve Lohr, wrote that algorithms don’t appreciate wit, irony, humour or style. He said: “They’re numbingly-literal minded”. That maybe true in some cases, but if you give it enough thought your headlines can grab your reader’s attention and please the search engines too. Here’s how:

1. Don’t write the same headline for both your article and the page title

Your headline is what your readers see and your page title is what the search engines are looking for. You can be creative and witty in the first, but more mundane in the second instance. Take an example from the BBC’s News site a few years back. Its reader-friendly headline read: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS? Its page title said: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear”. The BBC’s head of product development and technology said at the time: “The search engine has to get a straightforward, factual headline, so it can understand it.”

2. Use the meta description box to give your headline greater impact in SEO rankings

To boost your SEO rankings you need to include a summery in the meta description box. This needs be no longer than one or two sentences but adds more power to the headline.

An example given by Mashable which it quoted from the New York Magazine is:

Article title: “What’s eating the NYPD?”

Page title: “Why the NYPD is turning on Ray Kelly”

Meta Description: “Ray Kelly has built the best police force in the country. Now it is turning on him.”

3. Limit your headline to no more than 40 characters

This is very hard to do and takes some skill (look back on the best tabloid headlines). We tried to do it for this piece and failed (nearly double at 77 characters). But it’s the key to capturing your audience on the move on their mobiles. The Associated Press’s news wires (daily stories written and shared with 11,000 worldwide media outlets) admits to limiting its online headlines to this figure for speed, brevity (it can update a story multiply times a day) and making concessions to small screens.

4. Do keyword research before crafting your headline

Find the two or three most searched words that relate to your subject and include them in your headline and the first few sentences of your piece to boost your SEO ranking opportunity. In Buffer’s blog post earlier this year, they took their research one step further and reported which were the most common words used in viral headlines. The top words were “You and Your” – supporting your content’s mission to help other people. With the most common phrases being “The most” and “How to”. The first because it’s authoritative, the second because people think you’re imparting knowledge.

5. Use a negative superlative (i.e. Never or Worst) in the headline for a higher click-rate

Research conducted by Outbrain between April and July 2012 and repeated in August and September 2012 (from 65,000 paid links) found that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives were 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts. The report suggested that words and phrases like “the best” and “always” were overused and readers have become more sceptical of them – associating them with cheap marketing rather than quality journalism or information. In contrast negative superlatives were more unexpected or intriguing.

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