January 27


How to Write Headlines Google Will Love & You and I Will Click, Read, and Share

I really don’t like BuzzFeed. I’m scornful of viralnova. I feel more than annoyed by the supposed feel-good site, Upworthy.

Every time I see a post from these sites in my Facebook news feed (which is much more often than I’d like) I have a virtual vomit build-up inside my mouth.

With headlines like, “All The Science Reasons Redheads Do That Redhead Thing They Redhead Do So Well” (*eyeroll*) and “Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week”, it’s clickbait in its purest form. And my au contraire nature naturally rebels.

I resist the urge to click on those headlines (thankfully that part is easy!). But I can’t help feeling they’re tricking millions of people to (gladly) click and share. There must be a way to make this white hat, no?

Headline Writing History

I’m a scholar of the Jakob Nielsen school of usability. As a blogger, I use the Yoast SEO plugin and fill in the “Focus Keyword” field for every post.

In 2009, Nielsen introduced the concept of writing short, snappy headlines and quoted the BBC’s website as the best example of headline-writing.

He said: “Precise communication in a handful of words? The editors at BBC News achieve it every day, offering remarkable headline usability.”

Nielsen claimed that BBC headlines have the following characteristics:

  • Short, typically 5 words or less
  • Information-rich
  • Starts with keywords
  • Understandable, even out of context
  • Predictable/matches reader expectations

The headlines from viral sites like Upworthy, on the other hand, espouse principles that are usually diametrically opposite:

  • Long, sometimes to the point of being rambling and incoherent
  • Emotion-rich
  • Few or no keywords
  • Typically non-contextual
  • Bank on shock/emotional factor

Nielsen once proclaimed that “Online headlines must be absolutely clear when taken out of context” *Sigh*. We’ve come a long way since then. Now most writers don’t give away too much in their headlines and instead try to invoke curiosity.

Headline Writing Evolution

The father of advertising, David Ogilvy, said that “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar.”

Even if the dollar value isn’t accurate, we still know that headlines are super-important to our content. We know they’re the first step. The job of the headline today is simply to get the reader to click open the article.

So is the traditional helpful SEO-focused headline dead? Are we all supposed to write emotional clickbait now to have any chance of our content being read and shared?

From Nielsen to BuzzFeed, I feel we have finally come full circle in the headline writing process.

I now believe that the best headlines are ones which marry SEO with emotion. They are the ones we want to click on but they are also the ones that convey the essence of the article and follow through on the promise of the headline.

Marry Emotion with SEO and Write Trigger Headlines

As marketers, we know that emotion sells. We know that stories capture attention and help retain information. We know that stories which invoke strong emotions (shock, hilarity, disbelief, etc) are shared. The most shared stories go viral. We are constantly encouraged to tell stories, not churn out “content”. In fact I think the word “content” will slowly be replaced by the word “story”.

“Story is King” will be the mantra of 2015.

So to write effective headlines today, I believe we need to have a mix of keywords for context combined with story elements for clickability.

The way to do this is to start with your focus keywords and then build emotional triggers around it.

So with that goal in mind, I’ve attempted to Upworthy-fy some SEO headlines from recent articles at Search Engine Watch. Here are the results:

Original SEW Headline Trigger Headline built around Keywords
Facebook to Kill Sponsored Stories When Facebook kills sponsored stories, what will be your brand’s Plan B?
Don’t Stick a Fork in Guest Blogging Yet… Don’t stick a fork in guest blogging yet because what Matt Cutts says next could change your entire perspective
What is Duplicate Content? Duplicate content is bad, right? Apparently, not in all instances …
How Do You Stack Up Against Top Brands on Twitter? [Study] What are the top brands doing on Twitter that your brand isn’t? And how you can up your game.

What do you think? Can you improve upon these? Would you click on the ones in the right column? Did you read the ones in the left column? Which ones appeal to you more?

More importantly, is this a tactic you could see yourself using for your own content writing process?


Note: This article first appeared on Search Engine Watch

Photo Credit: Ted Rheingold




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