Blog Headline Writing Lessons from Mega-traffic Sites

WSJ NYT NBC
What’s one of the most simple traffic building tools that even most top bloggers don’t use? Surprisingly, few bloggers take advantage of the ability to target a separate headline for people browsing the site and people searching via Google, Bing, etc..

WordPress, now the most popular platform for blogs and small websites, has that functionality in many themes and SEO plugins. The title that appears in search engine listings will default to the post title, but can be easily changed by typing in a different title below the post. In the Thesis theme, used in publishing this blog, the entry is just below the post editing box. The field is called “Custom Title Tag” and it appears in the “SEO Details” section. Another blog I write gets the functionality from a plugin, Joost de Valk’s WordPress SEO – there, the entry box is labeled “SEO Title.” Many other themes and plugins offer a similar feature.

What Big Traffic Sites Do

Not that many years ago, big news sites were clueless about search traffic. They assumed, apparently, that everyone knew who they were since they sold truckloads of papers or attracted millions of TV viewers. Of course, that’s changed – now, most are SEO-savvy and get millions of monthly visits sent by Google and other search engines. One of the most obvious transitions has been their headline writing.

Traditionally, headlines written by journalists have emphasized clever wording. They are meant to grab the reader’s attention, either on the newsstand or while the reader is perusing the pages. Often, they might incorporate a pun, alliteration, or play on an emotion like fear. And, in the early days of online journalism, that’s the way headlines were written. They were clever and clickable. Then, SEOs came onto the scene with bad news: search engines didn’t understand cute plays on words. The SEOs wanted simplicity, relevance, and keywords. A headline, which usually appeared on the page and doubled as the title tag in the code, should clearly state what the article was about.

This advice created some consternation – cleverness was out, keywords were in. Fun and intriguing headlines were replaced by bland, informative text. Soon, the content management systems of major news sites were adapted to create a compromise – the on-page headline would be written for the reader, and a separate entry would create the page title for consumption by search engines. It’s not a perfect compromise, since readers do see the page title in their browser and when viewing search results, and search engines do consider the headline text in ranking. But, this bargain works reasonably well.

In addition to reducing friction between headline writers and SEOs, the dual approach gives us a window into how sites that hope a single content item will get hundreds of thousands, or occasionally millions, of views, ply their trade. While the early CMS modifications to permit headline/title variations were likely hacks, now this approach is becoming nearly ubiquitous. And, as noted above, it’s no longer just for big-budget sites. It’s even easy for millions of WordPress users to employ as well.

Browsers AND Searchers

The idea of crafting content that “appeals to Google” isn’t as important as in years past. There WAS a time when your page title might be carefully structured to fit a search engine algorithm – a specific number of words and characters, two instances of the targeted keyword in certain positions, etc. Now, though, the real appeal is to human searchers. The title content will be a key part of the what the page ranks for, but will also be the text displayed in the search results listing. So, while the visible headline is geared to people browsing the site, the page title must appeal to searchers. If it resembles a query that they might type into the search engine, so much the better – the page may rank for that query, and the link will have a good chance of getting clicked.

Here are a few examples I found on the biggest news sites:

WSJ.com – The Wall Street Journal

Story Headline: “How Not to Blow It With Financial Aid – This is a solid title that plays on the well-established principle of fear of loss. Research shows that avoiding loss is a bigger incentive than achieving a gain (see How “Loss” Can Be a Winning Strategy), so the scary thought that one might “blow it” in the all-important college financial aid process is a great motivator to click and read. But, most people aren’t going to search Google for a negative concept like “how can I screw up the financial aid process.” Generally, they’ll look for a short, positive concept like “get more financial aid.” So, the WSJ staffer wisely chose a shorter page title: “How to Get Financial Aid.”

Story Headline: For the Fearful Who Have Everything… – Here’s another fear/loss driven headline that’s also kind of cryptic. People will click the link just to see what it’s about. The page title, meanwhile, is far more straightforward and keyword-based: “The Latest in High-tech Security Gadgets.”. That same phrase also forms the subtitle on the article page.

NYTimes.com

Story Headline: How Dangerous Is Your Couch? – Fear is the dominant theme again – who could resist clicking on this headline? But, the page title is far more specific, incorporating a proper name along with meatier keywords: Arlene Blum’s Crusade Against Toxic Couches.

Story Headline: How My Mother Disappeared – another intriguing, clickable headline. You don’t know if Mom was kidnapped, wandered off into the jungle, or was abducted by aliens. The page title tells the story: My Mother’s Struggle With Dementia. Needless to say, “dementia” is far more likely to be used in a search than “disappeared,” at least in relation to parent terms.

Even on these sites, not all titles are optimized – more often than not, they are identical to the headlines. In some cases, even rather cryptic headlines are carried into the page title. And, for many news stories, the title is a simple fact statement that works fine for both browsers and searchers. NBCNews.com takes a different approach. I spot-checked some of their headline links and they take a really interesting approach to optimization: their article headlines match the page title, which is likely ideal from an SEO standpoint and is also friendly to the searcher who clicks on a link and finds exactly the expected article. But, they rewrite their link text. So, links to articles from the home page, section pages, etc., can be short, punchy, and clickable without seriously compromising the SEO aspects.

Do Bloggers Need Headline/Title Variants?

I took a quick peek at a handful of blogs at the top of the AdAge Power 150 Top Marketing Blogs. While I only looked at a few pages from the blogs I checked, I found that none appeared to regularly use separate page titles and visible headlines.

Since Copyblogger is my go-to source for catchy headline advice (e.g., How to Write Magnetic Headlines, How to Write Headlines That Work, 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work) I thought they would be more likely to craft separate versions for browsers and searchers. Surprisingly, all the ones I checked were identical. But, what they DID do was ensure that the titles were sufficiently specific AND interesting to serve both purposes. For example, posts like How to Write an Article in 20 Minutes and SEO Copywriting: The Five Essential Elements to Focus On combine both reader interest and searchable specifics – there’s no pressing need to tweak the two versions.

Similarly, Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land, who I’m sure understand SEO just fine, go with a unified headline and title. Those titles, though, are straightforward and searchable – no metaphors, puns, or wordplay. Same for Mashable and SEOMoz.

News blog Huffington Post uses matching titles and headlines, but, like NBCNews.com, in some cases creates a shorter title for linking use around the site.

Do YOU Need to Write Special Titles?

If the most popular blogs on the Web don’t bother to write separate titles and headlines, do you need to bother? The answer: it depends. If your headline style is straightforward and factual, most of the time you don’t need separate versions. (Confession: 90+ percent of the time I don’t bother either.) Here’s when you SHOULD take the time to create a custom page title:

Your Headline is Catchy and Clickable, but Lacks Content. I must be a frustrated journalist wannabe – I tend to think of headlines that use puns or other wordplay, mimic famous phrases and sayings, etc. (I don’t always use them.) They may make a lot of sense to use on the site, but won’t tell either Google or searchers much about the content. In those case, like the WSJ and NYTimes examples, it makes sense to craft a more explicit title.

Your Headline is Long. A long headline on the page isn’t necessarily a problem. It may even be inviting and clickable on index pages. But, Google may truncate it for display in search results if it’s longer than 70 characters. So, writing a shorter title that preserves the main idea and relates to possible searches may be a good idea, particularly if dropping the last part of the post headline would make it harder to understand or less clickable.

You Can Make Your Headline More Search-Relevant. Sometimes a headline is reasonably good for both searchers and browsers, but you see that a variation on the order of words might make it better match what a searcher might type in. Or, the headline incorporates one word and you want to put a synonym of that word in a prominent position.

Do YOU take the time to craft headlines with both clickability and search in mind? Have you found some good examples of this practice? Or is this one issue that is just too much bother to think about? Let us know in a comment!

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This post was written by:

— who has written 984 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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24 responses to "Blog Headline Writing Lessons from Mega-traffic Sites" — Your Turn

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amy swanson 17. September 2012 at 4:30 pm

When it comes to titles I’m not very good at them. However, thankfully I work with awesome coworkers who are great at it! They’re able to get them just the right length, rich with SEO goodness, but still digestible for a human to read. I’m slowly getting the hang of it, but it’s a long and sometimes difficult process. The tips you included are awesome, thank you!

Reply

Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
18. September 2012 at 12:09 pm

These days, Amy, clarity of the headline is the main SEO tool. If a human reader can get the gist of the article from the headline, Google will be able to as well.

Roger

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Jessica Kihara 17. September 2012 at 6:17 pm

I’ve noticed the option with the All In One SEO plugin, but never really understood how to use it. Now that you’re pointing out how these giant sites use it, I definitely want to experiment. Thanks for pointing this out.

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Mary Klest
Twitter: maryklest
18. September 2012 at 11:06 am

My business partner and I go back and forth about this. She is more SEO oriented than I so we started adding search and page titles as a compromise. A popular headline I wrote for our blog at Content For Biz was: “If You Want to Rank, You’ve Got to Yank” and a popular headline she wrote was: “How to Write Potent Headlines: A Lesson From David Ogilvy.” It’s good to have headline options. The important thing to remember is you are writing for your audience.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
18. September 2012 at 12:04 pm

Great example, Mary. I have to admit, though, that even the “SEO” title works pretty well for humans browsing the site, too! Famous names in headlines can be effective, whether they are very relevant (who knows more about headlines than Ogilvy?) or unexpected (e.g., Social Media Lessons from Kermit the Frog).

Roger

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Preston D Lee
Twitter: prestondlee
18. September 2012 at 6:14 pm

This is a super-interesting post! But here’s my hang-up: why do we work so hard on SEO? So that Search Engines can find us. But why do we want search engines to find us? So that the HUMANS who are searching find our content. If your headline is perfect for search engines, but still doesn’t attract readers, you’re still sunk. The better solution is to step up as a copywriter and write headlines that BOTH attract bots and humans. Copyblogger does it amazingly and that’s why they see so much success.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
20. September 2012 at 6:38 am

That was kind of my point, Preston – the days of “writing for Google” are mostly over. It’s not about the keyword math now, it’s about relevance, clarity, and clickability.

Roger

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Preston D Lee
Twitter: prestondlee
18. September 2012 at 6:14 pm

This is a super-interesting post! But here’s my hang-up: why do we work so hard on SEO? So that Search Engines can find us. But why do we want search engines to find us? So that the HUMANS who are searching find our content. If your headline is perfect for search engines, but still doesn’t attract readers, you’re still sunk. The better solution is to step up as a copywriter and write headlines that BOTH attract bots and humans. Copyblogger does it amazingly and that’s why they see so much success.

Reply

Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
18. September 2012 at 7:34 pm

I agree, Preston. And I think in most cases one headline will work for both site-browsers and searchers. Every now and then, though, you may come up with the perfect, irresistible play on words that needs a version with more clarity and search clickability.

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Ernest Barbaric
Twitter: ebarbaric
19. September 2012 at 10:21 am

I just read a case study on an e-mail campaign ran by Liquid Agency for car rental company and they way they devised a title and subject line for this one-shot campaign was very strategic and thought-through. It resulted in a 288% increase in engagement.

Titles in any form (post, article, newsletter, video, etc.) have the power to make or break a content strategy, so I’m really glad you shared these ideas with us. It was also one of my more retweeted links I posted on Twitter :)

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
20. September 2012 at 6:42 am

Ernest, those killer headlines will keep paying dividends. They get more clickthroughs the first time around, which drives more sharing, more links, and likely a boost in rankings and search traffic.

Roger

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Ernest Barbaric
Twitter: ebarbaric
20. September 2012 at 9:35 am

Absolutely. I often talk about creating marketing assets in my classes – this is one of those ideas that grows in value over time. Thank you for the reply :)

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Lee Emmons
Twitter: APTINT
19. September 2012 at 8:06 pm

I feel like there’s always this kind of tension in creating content for websites, but I think clarity always has to take a priority over being catchy. I feel that the best I can do is write something that is both clear and clever, but I think it should almost always satisfy the condition of being clear.

It can be frustrating, though, because sometimes I feel like I’m sacrificing creativity for SEO. The Wordpress SEO by Yoast plugin does lead me to have different titles, but I never thought to use completely different titles. I’ll probably try that now for future blog posts.

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Steve Cook 19. September 2012 at 11:45 pm

I think there are essentially two major use cases applicable to online publishing: search engine-driven traffic and everything else, e.g. RSS feeds, email campaigns, and social networking.

I think that people using search engines have a very utilitarian mindset, most of the time. They are looking for something and they want to find it as fast as possible. Potentially obfuscating the true topic of page via a clever headline wil not generally lead to high click-thru rates in this use case.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
20. September 2012 at 6:47 am

There’s one other use case, Steve – visitors who come to the site by habit or by visiting another page. An intriguing, clickable headline may cause them to click through, driving up engagement metrics, pageviews, and ad impressions. For ad-driven sites, this kind of boost is highly desirable.

Roger

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Chris
Twitter: cmygoodies
1. October 2012 at 4:27 pm

I use that functionality from time to time but usually it is just one more thing that takes a bit more time so it doesn’t get done. Title writing is certainly an art now more than ever if we want to incorporate SEO factors as well as click-ability. I enjoyed your examples, and the reminder to pay more attention to my titles. :)

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Mary Klest
Twitter: maryklest
1. October 2012 at 4:52 pm

Did you see this announcement by Google: A newly hatched way to tag your news articles at http://ow.ly/e8yEv ? I think it may solve this problem. “The news_keywords metatag lets publishers specify a collection of terms that apply to a news article. These words don’t need to appear anywhere within the headline or body text.”

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
1. October 2012 at 5:13 pm

Thanks for providing that link, Mary! Good stuff. I wonder, though, how heavily Google can weight that since it is apparently invisible to users. That’s what the original meta keywords tag was supposed to do, and as soon as search engines began paying attention to it, SEOs and spammers abused it without mercy.

I could imagine Google establishing a trust factor for news-type sites that would weight this tag if there were no indicators of abuse like keyword stuffing or other spam flags. I think the title tag will remain important simply because it can’t be hidden from the visitor.

Roger

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SmartSEObacklinks
Twitter: SSBacklinks
24. October 2012 at 6:27 am

Hi Roger –

Now that we know Google is attempting to move away from parsing “strings” to allocating “things,” any old pages of a site, which now contain spam flags, as you cleverly put it, could well hurt a site.

Firstly, Google will soon be able to establish the relevancy of the Title and Tags to determine relevancy with the keyword.

Secondly, as Google collects G+ data search data alongside a wide array of demographics, successful marketing may well be quite old-school. One would need to know how to speak to a very specific audience to be found online. Google may well model what they know, to influence what search results are found by people of different demographics and socio-economic backgrounds.

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Pomme
Twitter: h_wasif
5. November 2012 at 6:43 am

Hi,

I was not good in the right use of Title,Heading in my blog article’s. However, thankfully I found your article which is very informative for me.

Also All In One SEO plugin i don’t about the right use of it and don’t know that is very important in SEO.The tips you included are awesome, thank you!

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Rudee 26. December 2012 at 12:41 pm

I am finding I don’t take the time to work on the headlines, but agree with you that it is important for SEO. I am starting to give it more weight and I am waiting for Google to start indexing what I have done.

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Clarinda 4. February 2014 at 1:28 am

Thanks, Roger! Great tips, and the examples are very relevant and interesting too. I’ve really been struggling with reader-friendly versus search-friendly titles. Will go through all the reference sites you’ve mentioned. Do you have anything on increasing reader engagement (commenting, social sharing, etc.)?

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
4. February 2014 at 7:56 am

Clarinda, there have been many posts (and even books) written about building community around websites. Once you have a real community, the comments will flow. But, to prime the pump, there are some things that have been shown to work. First, close the content with a question and/or invitation to comment. Controversial topics generate far more reader involvement. (Think, “10 Reasons PCs Crush Macs.”) Question headlines may serve to both get clicks and also stimulate comments. Good luck!

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Michael 24. April 2014 at 1:39 pm

Excellent list of resources. It IS very difficult though, to come up with a decent headline that’s both search engine friendly and click worthy… and not have it sound like those awful things from the viral sites you see everywhere now.

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5 responses to "Blog Headline Writing Lessons from Mega-traffic Sites" — Your Turn

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