How to Write Brilliant Headlines for SEO, Social & Your Readers
Headlines. We’re bombarded by them on a daily basis as online publications vie for the most pageviews.
What’s the magic formula for the world’s best headlines? Is it long or short? Positive or negative? Clever or straightforward? Is it BuzzFeed or the BBC?
I hesitate to call headline writing on the web an art, as it’s more of a science mixed with a bit of luck. Even if you follow all the advice on the proper words to use to increase clicks, there’s still no guarantee that people will click on your headline, no matter how many superlatives you cram in.
After all, your competitor may have a more compelling headline than you, Google might not rank it well enough to be seen, people might not share it socially, or you just might not have done as good a job as you think you have. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
Regardless, your ultimate goal remains: to write brilliant, amazing headlines. A great headline increases the odds that you’ll get clicked, read, shared, and ultimately rank better. What follows are some tips and advice on how you can learn to write accurate, optimized, click-worthy headlines.
Do You Write 16 Headlines for Every Piece of Content?
As I was reminded of in this ClickZ post, David Ogilvy wrote that he never writes fewer than 16 headlines for a single advertisement.
Sixteen? Why? Because:
“If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money. A change of headline can make a difference of 10 to one in sales.”
Couple this with the often-quoted stat from Copyblogger: that “8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” (Let’s not even get into the depressing reality that most of those people who click don’t actually read copy all the way through.)
Honestly, I’ve never written 16 headline options for anything. Unfortunately, one and done is a rarity – more often than not, it takes a handful of tweaks, and can even be a struggle to include everything you want to.
Some days, it’s a struggle to write a decent headline. To get past headline-writing block, consider bouncing ideas off of someone. Show them the story, or give them the gist of it, and see what ideas they toss at you. They may end up writing the perfect headline for you, or they’ll suggest something that gets your brain firing on all cylinders.
The Goal of Awesome Headlines
Your post should clearly convey what the reader will get when they click through to read the piece. But that’s not all. It should:
- Be optimized for search. What keywords will people use to find your post in search engines?
- Be optimized for social. With only 140 characters to work with on Twitter (editor’s note — as of June 2019, this is now 280 characters,) you need to make sure your headline is fit for social sharing. Depending on your audience, and the topic, consider adding hashtags into your headline, especially if your post is about an event or conference, to potentially increase engagement and visibility.
- Be optimized for your audience: Your headline must keep your built-in target audience or loyal readers. If certain headlines cause a negative backlash from loyal readers (e.g., “SEO is Dead!!”), maybe it’s time to eliminate such headlines.
- Speak to the reader: There’s a reason many people include the word “You” in headlines. It works. But this could also mean indicating that there is a benefit to reading the piece (i.e., the content answers a question).
- Entice the reader: This can be done by asking questions (e.g., “Are You Making Any of These Common Tax Mistakes?”) or revealing secrets (“15 Best Kept Secrets of the Super Rich”).
- Educate, Inform, or Entertain: Every piece of content should do this. Your headline must set readers’ expectations here. For example, an educational headline might be “How to Get a Job at Google”; an informative headline might be “Why Apple Employees Quit”; an entertaining headline might be “20 Must-See Places Before the World Ends.”
- Be Understandable: Google’s Matt Cutts recently posted a video discussing the importance of clarity when writing for the web. I say this goes for your headlines as well. Whether it’s a headline or the article copy, your writing should be understandable for your readers and search engines. Searchers need to know this is a post they want to click on, because you can’t rely on Google to add more context by showing the snippet you want in search results.
Consulting your analytics can reveal what articles resonate most with your audience.
13 Headlines About Sony PlayStation 4 Sales
On Feb. 18, numerous headlines about PlayStation sales figures emerged on all the usual tech news sites. These headlines would all fall into the “inform” category.
Since we don’t have access to analytics data for each post, we can only take a look at how each performed socially and is now performing in the SERPs (mainly looking at Google).
One note about the search results: Rather than showing searchers the most recent sales figures from February, Google is including older, outdated sales figures from December (one from the PlayStation.Blog) and January (from JoyStiq.com). There are also newer stories about sales in Japan, and even sites like Amazon.com and Walmart appear, as if my search for [playstation 4 sales figures] indicates my intent to buy a PS4.
OK, let’s look at some headlines:
Sony has sold over 5.3 million PlayStation 4 consoles worldwide (The Verge).
This post has about 2,000 social shares, 288 comments, and (as of this writing) appears in the second organic spot on Google when I search for [sony playstation 4 sales figures].
While it has had more lasting power on Google, it’s still not the most interesting or “search optimized” headline (seems more conversational, perhaps the influence of Hummingbird?). Even at a mere 64 characters, it seems a bit needlessly wordy.
Personally, “has sold over” makes my inner headline writer weep (and my old friend AP style says when referring to numbers, you should use “more than,” not “over”). Including “worldwide” seems unnecessary.
So without looking beyond just the surface to hard pageview data, the Verge’s popularity and engagement likely sent the right signals to keep ranking well. Also, when it comes to news, sometimes being first to publish has long-term benefits, and this was the first story on this topic that appeared in my RSS feed.
Sony sells 5.3M PlayStation 4s worldwide since launch (VentureBeat)
This post has more than 300 social shares, one comment and appears in the top organic spot. Yep. Right on Page 4 of Google. (However, a post from Feb. 13 about PS4 outselling Xbox does sit in the sixth spot of Page 1.)
Ah, now see, “Sony sells” has a more active voice. However, “since launch” just is a killer – when else would they have sold them since? Before launching? Also, “4s” just looks awkward. Is that a new model? Like an iPhone 5s? Or is that the plural?
Sony has sold over 5.3 million PlayStation 4 game consoles to date (The Next Web)
How many shares? The Next Web ain’t sharing. It has one comment, and ranks right in the middle of Page 7 of Google.
Not wild about using “game consoles” here, as taking a look at a Google SERP for this keyword reveals several retailers trying to sell, but no news posts. Total lack of keyword targeting for that headline.
Also, “to date”? Really? As opposed to last Wednesday? Or next Sunday? And it also has the “over” issue like The Verge.
Sony Sold More Than 5.3 Million PlayStation 4 Consoles Globally (Mashable)
This post has more than 2,600 social shares, three comments and is somewhere in the abyss of Google (I stopped looking after Page 10).
Hey, look, they get “more than” vs. “over.” That said, it’s really wordy for a headline. One thing I’ve done in the past to tighten up headlines is using a simple “+” to indicate more than.
I’m still not wild about “consoles.”
As for “globally,” this word really doesn’t matter for a headline. If you’re talking about one country, then it would make sense to say “Japan” or “U.S.” in the headline. But if Sony, a global company, is revealing sales figures, it seems a bit redundant.
Sony Says PS4 Sales Top 5 Million (WSJ)
This post has less than 150 social shares, no comments and can be found in the middle of Page 8 of Google.
You can tell this is a longtime newspaper. A short, understandable headline. But, again, Sony is separated from PS4. Is “Says” needed? No. Cut that out and that’s a near perfect headline (personally, I’d add that .3 to the figure, though you could argue that it might make readers want to find out by how much).
However, an interesting note: this is only an H1, not what WSJ is using in the title tag and showing to Google searchers. WSJ’s title tag is: Sony Tops PS4 Sales Target Ahead Of Japan Launch.
Ugh. Super boring. Maybe not for WSJ readers, but for the general world, yeah.
Sony Beats Its PS4 Sales Target, With 5.3M Consoles Sold In 3-Months (TechCrunch)
This post has more than 1,000 social shares, one comment and is also in the Google abyss. This one is just a snoozer. Beating its sales target? Does the average reader search for this, or care? Also, why the hyphen for 3-months?
Sony PlayStation 4 sales top 5 million worldwide (CNET)
This one has more than 300 social shares, 54 comments and is the top organic search result for [sony playstation 4 sales] on Bing.
Love getting “Sony PlayStation 4 sales” right at the front. Solid headline, though “worldwide” does nothing for me.
A few other headlines ranking on Page 1 of Google are:
- PlayStation®4 Sales Surpass 5.3 Million Units Worldwide (Press release on PRNewswire)
- Sony PlayStation 4 sales top 5 million (Sydney Morning Herald)
- Sony Says the PlayStation 4 Is Well Past 5 Million Units Sold Worldwide (TIME)
What other posts will you find on Page 1 of Bing:
- Sony announces PlayStation 4 sales rise to 5.3 million worldwide (Joystiq)
- Sony hits PlayStation 4 sales goal well ahead of target (via Yahoo Games)
- PlayStation 4 sales hit 5.3 million before Japanese debut (TechHive)
- PlayStation 4 sales pass 5m worldwide (The Guardian)
Write Your Own Headline
OK, now it’s your turn. You’re the editor of a news publication or blog and you’ve just finished editing your story about the PS4 sales figures. What would be YOUR perfect headline for this story?
Danny Goodwin is Executive Editor of Search Engine Journal. For over 10 years, Danny has written articles on PPC, marketing and SEO. Follow him on Twitter for smart SEO news.
Photo thanks to Christopher Woo. (Headline News)
Just for fun…
Sales of Sony Playstation 4 Console (5.3 Million) Exceed the population of Norway
It’s always fun to scale a number to a more vivid example.
Taking all your feedback and using my own brainz, mine would have been:
“Sony Playstation Sold 5.3 Million PS4 Consoles in 3 Months”
It fails because it doesn’t get “PS4 Sales” in there… but I would say it wins because:
– States the story facts in the headline.
– Gets “Sony Playstation” and “PS4” in there without losing any sense – and I would bet PS4 is the higher volume search term.
– Plays numbers against numbers so has a kind of alliterative quality.
– Tells the “extraodinary” and positive story, which tends to get more play on social.
@Victor: Yes, great point. I do like the idea of comparing sales to a size of a country’s population. Very cool, creative idea.
@Jonathan: Yes, good points all around. It’s definitely a good idea to check out the search volume for certain terms whenever writing your headlines. Interesting you say positive performs better than negative. I’d actually say positive or negative can work equally well, the only kind of content that really fails is average/vanilla content.
Okay, this is a bit of cheating but every great marketing thinks outside the box. Based on this article http://www.extremetech.com/gaming/177788-ps4-hits-6-million-consoles-sold-13-7-million-games-xbox-one-still-only-around-4-million
Playstation 4 Sales: 50% More Units Than Xbox One
Playstation 4 Sales Dominate Xbox One
Playstation 4 Sales Frag Xbox, Sell 1.5x as Many Units
Forgive me for cheating, but I think the comparison is so much more interesting. How’d I do?
@Liston: Right on! A comparison is definitely a great idea here, and it piggybacks onto the constant PS4 vs. Xbox One debates. Plus it adds a second dimension to the story, and most of the stories I mentioned didn’t really discuss anything beyond Sony’s numbers.
Danny (and Heather),
I do write multiple headlines for almost everything I write. Normally it’s around 10 headlines; but I have written as many as 30.
These are all kept on a worksheet that is saved with the document, then transferred to a swipe file.
Many of my headlines either find life in a new article or as a subhead in the current one.
I totally agree with your point about optimizing for social, by the way. It is vitally important.
I might add that since Twitter, for example, is limited to 147 characters, you might want to leave room for people to add their own thoughts when they share.
Great article, Danny!
Awesome post. The importance of a headline can not be overstated. In addition to impacting Google rankings, headlines can also cause drops in traffic from other sources. It doesn’t matter if you write the best story in the world if no one wants to click on the link. So anyway, I thought this was a nice article and would be a nice resource for our readers, so I included it in my roundup of March’s best SEO, social media, and content marketing. http://www.northcutt.com/blog/2014/04/march-round-up-best-seo-social-media-content-marketing/ Thanks for the nice post.