Crafting a provocative headline is Writing 101. It’s something all professional writers (or anyone who has received any education in writing) are taught to do. But writing a headline for the Web is a whole different ballgame.
Online you have to contend with a million distractions – 20% of people don’t even read your headline in the first place. You also have to contend with the mass amount of content available. Simply put, there is a lot of competition for reader attention.
That’s not all.
You also have to take search engines into consideration. I think of Google as one of my readers – a really picky reader, at that. I not only have to write a provocative headline for my human readers, but I have to write one that has real meaning and decent keyword usage for Google.
And finally there is social media. The algorithms used as of this writing pull from the “meta title” – the same field search engines pull from. Which means that when your blog is posted to social media, the meta title has to be both smart for search engines and provocative for human readers.
It’s enough to make your head spin. But any copywriter worth their salt thinks about these things when they write a headline for the Web.
Here’s how you can do it too.
Consider Keywords – But Don’t Over-think Them
Personally, I think people often over-think keywords. Keywords, put simply, are the words your intended audience are searching on to find your content.
If you’re writing with your audience in mind, keywords will be a natural part of the way you write. If you get done writing a blog post and you notice that there are no relevant keywords in there – for example you write a post about how to make meetings more effective and never include the word “meeting” – it means you’re not really writing for your audience in the first place.
That said, it’s always helpful to understand what keywords are more popular, and what keywords have less competition. Less competition means you’re getting more targeted traffic. The Google Keyword Planning tool is a good place to start with that research.
For the record, keywords are much more important in your meta title (or SEO title) than they are in your headline (or page title / H1). If you’re using a standard WordPress website with an SEO plugin (like Yoast), your meta title is the one that you fill out for SEO.
So yes, you’re going to be writing two headlines in the end — one for the page (something to draw your readers) and one for SEO (something to draw Google).
Human Brains Like Numbers
Headlines that include numbers are great for readers and search engines alike. They trigger something in the human brain that makes us want to find out more, while working well with Google’s search algorithm.
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The best numbers to use in headlines are 3, 5, 7, 10, and any multiple of 5 thereafter. There are lots of theories about this. Some say that odd numbers trigger the organization impulse in our brains, and multiples of 5 appear as greater numbers (more value). Some say it’s a cultural preference. The only thing that really matters about this when writing headlines, though, is that these numbers work better.
Pro tip: Use the actual numeral, not the spelled-out word. That is, use “7” instead of “seven.”
Starting a headline with “How to” is also effective for both readers and search engines. Especially since Google’s Hummingbird update, as the search engine algorithm has improved to produce better results from conversational searches.
Conversational search means typing in (or dictating, if you’re on a smartphone) a search term as a statement. Like, “Where is the nearest Best Buy?” or “How do I improve my blog traffic?” Smartphones really drove that change. We don’t search on keywords when we ask Siri for directions, we use a full question. We’ve taken that to search engines more and more.
The point of all that geek speak, of course, is that “How to XYZ” is going to be clearer for your readers and pull up better in Google than just using “XYZ” in your headline.
Ask a Question
Asking a question in a headline is not only intriguing to those who want the answer, but it once again works well with Google’s newest search engine algorithms.
There are two ways you can ask a question.
- Ask a vague question that alludes to something exclusive or shocking. Like “Have you ever made this mistake?” Don’t you want to know what mistake I’m talking about?
- Ask a direct question that your audience is actually searching for an answer for. Like “Are people falling asleep in your meetings?” If I wanted to learn how to make my meetings more productive and interesting, I would probably want to read that article.
This is another place where it might be good to write one headline for your readers (the intriguing question) and different meta title for search engines (the direct, conversational question).
I created a headline swipe-file last year for our newsletter subscribers. (If you didn’t know this already, I love to give out free downloads to our newsletter subscribers.) Now I’m going to share it with you – not just to give you a cheat sheet of tried-and-true headlines to work off of, but to show you what good headlines look like.
Do you struggle to write good headlines? Tell me about it in the comments below, or tweet me at @horizonpeak.