5 ways to write better headlines

Are your headlines so clever readers don’t get them? Do you try to squeeze in extra keywords? Do you forgo lists? If so, this article is for you.

Your headlines suck.

They’re boring, formulaic and so jammed with exact-match keywords that even black hat search engine optimization (SEO) people roll their eyes and mumble, “Seriously?”

Sure, you’ve read all the blog posts that tell you keywords need to fall within the first four words, or to use exciting words or the precise keyword combination that matches your Google Analytics.

But the headlines are Just. So. Boring.

Most SEO tactics are as overdone as a cheap steak. Not only are people tired of them, but Google has dropped the ban hammer on many SEO pros for befouling the Google punch bowl with backlink spam and low-value content.

It starts with bad headlines

Sometimes it’s better to get back to basics and write headlines the way journalists are taught.

I don’t mean BuzzFeed-style headlines: “The 5 absolute worst headlines of 2013” or “You won’t believe what these journalists are wearing.”

I mean informative, interesting headlines that make people want to read your articles.

Here are a few ways to keep your headlines fresh and compelling. None of them involve SEO and Google bots.

1. Write headlines that deliver their promises.

Don’t lie. Don’t promise something and then fail to follow through.

A common complaint of those “5 secrets your doctor doesn’t want you to know” or “X versus Y smack down: Who’s better?” headlines is they often don’t deliver on their promises. The doctor’s secrets are so basic even remote Amazonian tribes know them, or the author wimped out and never picked a winner in the so-called smack down. Instead the author ended with, “It’s hard to pick, because both solutions have advantages and disadvantages.” That’s about as meaningful as a participation trophy.

If you overinflate your headlines too often, you’ll become the marketer who cried wolf. People will quit paying attention. If you have to trick people into reading your stuff, it must not be very good.

Make sure the content matches the headline.

2. Don’t write headlines that are clever or abstract.

Don’t use your headline as a secret code for the reader. Don’t make it a final punch line that people will only understand when they reach the end of the article. Write a headline that immediately tells the reader what the piece is about so he can decide whether to read it.

Being clever often means being unclear. If you’re not clear, people won’t waste time trying to figure you out. Save the cleverness for the content. Remember, people are skimmers now, so your headlines must make them want to read your piece.

3. Don’t obsess over exact keywords.

Google has stopped telling us what keywords work, so you can stop obsessing over exact matches (“USB microphones” versus “USB microphone,” or “marble polisher” versus “marble polishing tools.”)

Google is now focused on larger topics. As long as you talk repeatedly about USB microphones or marble polishers, Google doesn’t care what keyword phrases you use.

Google also recognizes synonyms. The search engine is learning what words mean, rather than trying to find exact matches. Rather than switching between different variations of the same keyword phrase, just stick with the overall topic. Google will be able to keep up.

You still need keywords because they help Google index content properly. But if you’re contorting headlines to put in an exact keyword in the right place, stop.

4. Know list posts still rule.

I don’t care if you hate list posts. I don’t care if you think they’re the scourge of the Internet.

Do you know who likes them? Your readers.

Do you know who keeps reading and sharing them? Your readers.

Pay attention to the teaser copy on Cosmopolitan magazine the next time you’re in the supermarket checkout line. What are those mini headlines? “5 tricks he wants you to know in the bedroom,” “3 surprise foods for weight loss” and “57 awkward breakup lines.”

Why has Cosmo been using lists since at least the 1960s?

Because they work.

They make women (and some men) buy the magazine. Cosmo knows what drives impulse buys. I’ll quit making list posts when Cosmo decides it’s no longer an effective strategy.

Just make sure you deliver on the promises you make without over-exaggerating. (Still looking at you, BuzzFeed.)

5. Write headlines that inform and hook readers.

Peruse your local newspaper’s website. Which headlines catch your eye? Why?

Do they use words that clicked with you? Do they talk about a situation you’re involved with? Maybe the headline is about a product you use or business you favor.

Your headlines need to follow those same patterns. Answer questions or give information the reader will care about.

If you’re providing an answer to an important question, ask the question in the headline: “Where can you find the local fireworks displays in central Indiana?”

If you’re sharing important news that will affect a number of people, share it in the headline: “More than 40 million Target credit card accounts compromised: How to protect yourself.”

If you want readers to be interested in your product, show them benefits they’ll like: “New gas additive saves up to 3 MPG, $200 per year.”

If you want people to care about your topic, give them something to care about: “27 Elvis impersonators save Christmas for tiny Nebraska town.”

Google’s Hummingbird algorithm forces content marketers to adopt this kind of writing. Google wants content that answers questions and provides value, not content that follows some secret keyword formula. Since people are asking more and more questions on Google-“Where are the fireworks displays this year?”-Google wants us to focus on answering them.

Headlines are no longer the SEO torture chamber they’ve been for the last several years, being twisted and contorted to make Google rank content higher than it deserves. Headlines are useful tools once again, and maybe (just maybe) we can see some creative, informative headlines that don’t shock, titillate, over-promise and under-deliver.

Also, maybe Keanu Reeves will win an Oscar.

Erik Deckers is the owner of Professional Blog Service, a newspaper humor columnist and the co-author of “Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself” and “No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing.” A version of this article originally appeared on Convince & Convert.


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