Headlines: Write for SEO or for Creativity?

By Alan Eggleston

When writing headlines (or titles), do you feel a tension between exercising creativity and building optimization? You don’t need to.

Some sites have plenty of ranking authority and popularity, so they have more freedom to be creative. This applies to news sites, reference sites, university research sites, and high traffic sites. If you don’t edit for one of those categories, however, chances are you need to worry more about optimization.

(Note: Primary placement of keywords is still important for search ranking among the top sites, but not among all sites for those with authority and popularity.)

So what is important in how you use keywords in headlines?

Some Headline Keyword Rules

First Rule: The closer to the front of the headline a keyword appears the better. If it can be the first or second word, that’s perfect. The further a keyword is from the beginning of the headline, the less importance the search engines give it. Of course, being included at all is better than not being included. As with all rules, this isn’t absolute – search engines will compare your headline keyword placement with that of other websites against whom you are competing for ranking.

Second Rule: The closer multiple keywords place together in the headline, the better they will associate for a search. The further apart they are, the less connection a search engine will give them as a unit, although, again, placing them in the same headline is better than not having them there.

Third Rule: Search engines will account for multiple cases of a word. However, if you know searchers look for a particular case most often, it will strengthen your ranking to use it in your headline.

Fourth Rule: It’s possible to rank for keywords not in your headline if there is a strong enough connection between the keyword showing up elsewhere on the page, such as in the URL, intro paragraph, alt tags, image tags, description, and so on. However, your strongest position is also to include it in your headline.

Headline Writing Made Practical

How do we translate rules into practical use? How about some examples?

Remember the story of the Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick, Tonto? Let’s suppose instead of working together for the good of the Old West and finally riding into the sunset, they decide to go their separate ways:

SEO Headline:
Lone Ranger and Tonto: Heroic Masked Man and His Faithful Sidekick Go Their Separate Ways

The SEO Headline begins with as many keywords weighted to the beginning of the headline as possible to make searching for news on the Lone Ranger and Tonto the easiest. It should rank high for those two keywords as well as Masked Man and Faithful Sidekick.

Standard Headline:
Masked Man and His Faithful Sidekick Split

The Standard Headline uses terms once familiarly referenced to describe the Lone Ranger and Tonto, but would anyone today think to use them to find a story on these two characters? Probably not. It’s a semi-creative headline but not all that SEO-friendly and, frankly, probably won’t attract many readers.

Creative Headline:
Tonto Says, “Sayonara Kemosabe”

The Creative Headline tells the story, but Lone Ranger is nowhere to be found, and if you combined Tonto with Split or Break Up or other keywords to try to find a story on their split-up, this headline won’t draw you to it. It’s a fun headline, but it isn’t SEO-friendly. It might show up several SERPs pages down under Tonto. Some die-hard fans might know enough to look up kemosabe.

True but Useless Headline:
Masked Ranger and Sidekick Take the Lone Road

The True but Useless Headline is just what it describes. The two keywords – Lone and Ranger are split, so if this headline ranks, it’s likely to be beyond page 10, well out of the search results of the standard reader.

Can You Achieve Compromise?

If you have a separate SEO team writing your headlines, the issue may be out of your hands. Or perhaps meeting over compromise would yield some results. Somewhere between writing headlines that sell and writing headlines that make you findable will be one that suits everyone. In that event, the tension doesn’t need to exist.

Compromise Headline:
Lone Ranger and Tonto to Split: “What ‘We,’ Kemosabe?”

Next Up – Optimizing Text Without Keyword Stuffing

Search engines admonish us to write naturally for the reader. Next time, I explore how to write naturally for the reader and still ensure your site is competitive in a search – without tripping the “keyword stuffing” tripwire. Join me!


2 thoughts on “Headlines: Write for SEO or for Creativity?

  1. Pingback: Twitter: 5 Notes | Web Editors

  2. Pingback: Body Text: Optimizing Content Without Keyword Stuffing | Web Editors

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