80% of readers never make it past your headline. And for the lucky 20% that do, most will click away after a quick skim through. In this day and age, you have to grab the reader’s attention in a few words—that is, if you can even get in front of them. How people see and understand your marketing content is largely up to a computer algorithm. That’s why every marketer should know how to write SEO-friendly headlines that appeal to search algorithms and people.

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Whether you’re blogging for brand awareness or sales, getting your blog post in front of an audience is the first and most important step. You could have the most newsworthy or forward-thinking blog post out there, but if it’s not optimized for search engines, then you may as well print it out and throw it away.

Search engine optimization is a key part of a marketing funnel. Still, it’s easy to make the mistake of over-optimizing for search engines and under-optimizing for actual human readers. 

Back in the advertising heyday of the ‘60s, David Ogilvy warned copywriters not to skimp on the headline. 

“On the average,” he is quoted in his book Confessions of an Advertising Man, “Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

If there’s one takeaway from this, it’s this — 80% of readers never even make it past the headline.

How to Write SEO-Friendly Headlines

Clickability and readability are crucial to getting users to move from the search engine results page (SERP) to your website. Clickable blog titles drive more traffic, even from non-search sources (paid, email, social), which signals to Google that an article is worth reading. 

Like most things in marketing, headline writing is one part art, one part science. Here’s how to write SEO-friendly headlines that please people as much as they attract search engine algorithms.

1. Know Your Audience

This might seem obvious, but knowing your audience can get you that extra “click.” We’ve said it before, but writing just for the search algorithm alone won’t cut it. 

Even if your headline is the most perfectly constructed, SEO-optimized headline ever written, it won’t reach its full click potential if it’s not fluent to a human reader. Most audiences like personality or creativity in headlines, so use your voice and show that a human wrote it. 

You have to find the perfect balance between writing for a human and writing for a computer; however, at the end of the day, a person is going to be the one to click on your headline and read your content. This is why it’s critical to understand your buyers so that you can market to them better. Katelyn Bourgoin shared what motivates people to buy on our Digital Marketing Troop podcast:

2. Research Possible Keywords and Variations

Effective keyword research is integral to any SEO strategy, and blog headlines are no different. 

These should be keywords that, if someone typed them in and found your content, your content would answer the need they’re expressing. You’ll want to research a combination of head terms and long-tail keyword phrases.

One easy way to guess potential long-tail keyword phrases is to take your cue from Google. When you search for your head term, what phrases does Google guess? What searches does it suggest you conduct next? These suggestions are based on other users’ behavior and can be a good clue for what people might type in.

Another valuable tool for content marketers is Google’s “People also ask” feature. This element of the SERP typically shows up for question queries, suggesting other potential search terms based on users’ behavior. 

Variations could be the key to success—remember: just because you refer to your product as something doesn’t mean that’s what your target audience calls it. Think outside of the box when it comes to this. Try reading your or your competitor’s reviews and see what customers say.

Once you’ve written down a list of possible keywords and keyword phrases, you’ll want to identify the ones that are both worth going after (i.e., have a reasonable volume of traffic) and that you have a good chance of ranking for (low competition).

3. Understand Your Users’ Search Intent

There are four types of search intent you need to consider when writing SEO-friendly headlines (and doing SEO in general). These are:

  • Informational
  • Navigational
  • Commercial
  • Transactional

At Silverback, we use SEMRush to differentiate between these types of searches to inform our keywords and write SEO headlines. Your headlines should reflect what kind of content you’re writing based on user preference for each type of search intent.

3. Narrow Down Keyword List Based On Opportunity

Look for data on search volume and competition, but also look for other opportunity indicators. You may consider doing a SERP analysis to answer questions like:

  • Does the current SERP have a featured snippet, or is that area up for grabs?
  • Are there local results?
  • Are reviews included on the SERP?

If you’re already tracking any keywords in SEMRush or Moz, it’s also helpful to check in on what you’re already ranking for (after all, there’s no point competing with yourself). If you have it set up, Google Search Console can also help identify SEO opportunities.

4. Write Several Headline Options Per Post

At Silverback, we generally write our content first, letting the keyword drive the on-page SEO, leaving headline writing for last. Some decide on a catchy headline first and then write a post to fit it. Whichever option you choose, you’ll want to give yourself options as you learn how to write SEO headlines.

Ogilvy said his most famous headline took him 104 different drafts to write. I’m not saying you have to write hundreds of options, but the headline is important enough to deserve a chunk of your time.

This comes down to headline-writing formulas more often than I care to admit. Google “headline swipe files,” and you’ll find some common SEO-friendly headline-writing formulas that work well. BuzzSumo has written some great articles on which headline phrases get the most social shares from B2C and B2B audiences, and HubSpot’s blog topic generator is a favorite for getting the juices flowing.

For SEO, the ideal perfect headline would be 60 characters or fewer, since this keeps it within the safety limits of metadata restrictions. This may not seem like a lot, so writing several drafts or different headlines is important to get you started.

5. Select an SEO-Friendly Headline 

At this point, you’ve got several good headline options. They all include your target keyword, they’re 60 characters or under, and it’s time to choose one to launch your content into the world. 

To give yourself some parameters for this, you can use a tool like CoSchedule’s Free Headline Analyzer. It gives each headline a score based on common headline types, character count, word type balance, etc. It’s not foolproof, but it’s helpful in learning how to write SEO headlines, as you’ll naturally develop a feel for what’s good (or not) the more you do it. Generally, it’s good to aim for a score of 75 or higher and throw out anything less than 60.

Tips for Writing SEO-Friendly Headlines

What makes a great headline? Since headlines are only as good as your users think they are, the rules are constantly changing, but here are a few constants.

Make People Feel Something

People engage with content that inspires strong emotions, both positive and negative. Engagement helps your content spread and gives busy readers a reason to stop and pay attention.

Set the Right Expectations

Many publishers use “clickbait” headlines to inspire people to click out of curiosity. In the long run, this tactic can harm rankings and reach. Due to negative user feedback, Facebook and Google have more or less declared war against clickbait. When clickbait brings people to your site, it typically results in high bounce rates — a metric that indicates low-quality content to both networks. A better tactic is to be honest with your readers. Build trust and set expectations about what they will find when they click through.

Keep It Simple

Use plain language and as few words as possible to get your point across without losing people’s attention or getting cut off by mobile views.

Cut the Fluff

I’ll emphasize that keeping it simple is the way to go—don’t use words you (or your customers) wouldn’t use every day.

Follow Proven Headline Writing Formulas

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Of course, you want to put your own spin on anything you write (and never, ever plagiarize), but great headline writers rarely start entirely from scratch. 

Write Headlines for the Content You Have

This may seem redundant, but write a headline based on the content you have. It’s ok to have a working title for the piece as you write it, but the final version should be chosen after the piece is written. If you write the headline first, you might end up with content that doesn’t fully deliver on the headline’s promises. By writing the headline after the content, you can ensure that your headline accurately represents what the reader will get from the content. 

The Role of AI in Writing Headlines

Might be beating a dead horse here, but headlines should read like they’re written by humans, for humans. Using AI to assist in headline writing is a great way to brainstorm headline ideas, optimize existing headlines, or refresh blog posts. Still, it shouldn’t replace an actual human doing the writing and final editing.

Good (and Bad) SEO Headline Examples

What do good headlines look like? And what do less-than-good ones look like? 

Let’s start with the good.

Why You Need Audience Research in Paid Media

The headline targets a specific audience (those involved in paid media campaigns) which helps attract the right readers who are most likely to be interested in and engage with the content. The title is also clear on what readers can expect from the article because it implies the content will provide reasons or evidence to support the need for audience research in paid media. This is relevant and intriguing to the target audience because it communicates a specific value in the article.

Internal Linking for SEO: How to Audit + Best Practices” 

Once again, there is a specific audience in mind. We know, just from the title, what this article is about, and we know that it will include plenty of helpful information and real-world advice. This headline promises a valuable article.

How to Improve Core Web Vitals

With just 30 characters, we know what the article will be about, who the target audience is, and what value we’ll get from clicking the link. This is an excellent example of an SEO-friendly headline that’s short, to the point, and reader-friendly.

Now, a few less-than-ideal SEO headline examples.

“Amazing Tips for Cooking Healthy Meals and Fixing Your Car’s Engine”

Why it’s bad: This headline suffers from a lack of focus and relevance. It combines two unrelated topics, cooking healthy meals and fixing car engines. This creates confusion for both search engines and users. People searching for cooking tips might be turned off by the mention of car engines, and vice versa. The headline should represent the central theme of the content to avoid misleading visitors and accurately target the intended audience.

“How to Buy the Best Clothes Online”

Why it’s bad: Who is the target audience? Parents buying back-to-school clothes for their children have vastly different ideas of what makes the “best” clothes than, say, a recent college grad preparing for his first job interview. And what value does this headline promise? Will it give readers stores considered hidden gems online offering quality clothes for a good deal? Or is this a link to coupons? This headline is all over the place and would likely attract few visitors to the site.

“Make $10,000 a Week With Cryptocurrency!”

Why it’s bad: Most people with any internet savvy would see that and realize that it’s unrealistic at best and a scam at worst. Readers are left wondering how this could be achieved, and this lack of information can make the headline seem more like clickbait than informative content. 

And this headline lacks a value proposition: it focuses solely on the financial aspect of cryptocurrency without addressing the underlying technology, potential benefits, or potential risks. A more informative and engaging headline would provide valuable insights or information about cryptocurrency investments, rather than just emphasizing monetary gains.

Final Thoughts on Writing Outstanding SEO Headlines

Whatever you do, don’t let your headlines be an afterthought. 

In today’s content-soaked world, readers have a million options (and even more distractions). Your headline has to give them a reason to choose your article over every other option, whether those options appear on a SERP, their Facebook feed, or their LinkedIn feed. Different digital marketing tactics no longer exist in silos, so your headline must work harder than ever. Use the tips and tricks above to stand out to readers without losing search value.

Talk With an SEO Expert

Search engine optimization can be challenging and time-consuming, but having SEO and content expertise is a key part of a digital marketing team. Don’t miss out on organic search traffic growth. Contact Silverback Strategies to talk with an SEO expert today.

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