How to Write SEO Headlines That Bots (and People) Will Love

by Herbert Martinson | May 24, 2022

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 attention of the reader 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 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, but 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.

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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 in turn, 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 headlines that please people as much as they do search engines:

1. Know your audience

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

Even if your headline is the most perfectly constructed, SEO-optimized headline ever written, if it’s not fluent to a human reader, then it’s not going to reach its full click potential. 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 you can market to them better. Recently, Katelyn Bourgoin joined our Digital Marketing Troop podcast and shared what motivates people to buy:

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 at 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 serve as 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 normally 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 reviews or your competitor’s reviews and see what customers have to say.

Once you’ve written down a list of possible keywords and keyword phrases, you 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), which leads us to the next step…

3. Narrow down keyword list based on opportunity.

Look for data on search volume and competition, but also look for other indicators of opportunity. 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.

I generally write my post first, letting the keyword drive the on-page SEO, and leave headline writing for last. Some choose to 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 honestly comes down to headline writing formulas more often than I care to admit. Google “headline swipe files” and you’ll find some common 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.

5. Select an SEO headline. 

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

To give myself some parameters for this, I like to use CoSchedule’s Free Headline Analyzer tool. It gives each headline a score based on common headline types, character count, word type balance, etc. It’s not foolproof, but it’s useful for learning how to write SEO headlines. Generally, I aim for 75 or higher and throw out anything less than a 60.

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

Great headlines..

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 be harmful for 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 everyday.

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 completely from scratch. Here are 13 blog headline examples to get you started.

How to Write SEO Headlines for Readers and Rankings

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 or on their Facebook feed or LinkedIn feed. Different digital marketing tactics no longer exist in silos, so your headline has to work harder than ever before. 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 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.

Herbert Martinson

Herbert is a Paid Media Copywriter whose experience includes writing content for search and social campaigns. He enjoys completing the “puzzle” of paid media marketing by finding the balance between the technical & creative sides of marketing.

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