Blog Headline Writing Lessons from Mega-traffic Sites

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What’s one of the most simple traffic building tools that even most top bloggers don’t use? Surprisingly, few bloggers take advantage of the ability to target a separate headline for people browsing the site and people searching via Google, Bing, etc..

WordPress, now the most popular platform for blogs and small websites, has that functionality in many themes and SEO plugins. The title that appears in search engine listings will default to the post title, but can be easily changed by typing in a different title below the post. In the Thesis theme, used in publishing this blog, the entry is just below the post editing box. The field is called “Custom Title Tag” and it appears in the “SEO Details” section. Another blog I write gets the functionality from a plugin, Joost de Valk’s WordPress SEO – there, the entry box is labeled “SEO Title.” Many other themes and plugins offer a similar feature.

What Big Traffic Sites Do

Not that many years ago, big news sites were clueless about search traffic. They assumed, apparently, that everyone knew who they were since they sold truckloads of papers or attracted millions of TV viewers. Of course, that’s changed – now, most are SEO-savvy and get millions of monthly visits sent by Google and other search engines. One of the most obvious transitions has been their headline writing.

Traditionally, headlines written by journalists have emphasized clever wording. They are meant to grab the reader’s attention, either on the newsstand or while the reader is perusing the pages. Often, they might incorporate a pun, alliteration, or play on an emotion like fear. And, in the early days of online journalism, that’s the way headlines were written. They were clever and clickable. Then, SEOs came onto the scene with bad news: search engines didn’t understand cute plays on words. The SEOs wanted simplicity, relevance, and keywords. A headline, which usually appeared on the page and doubled as the title tag in the code, should clearly state what the article was about.

This advice created some consternation – cleverness was out, keywords were in. Fun and intriguing headlines were replaced by bland, informative text. Soon, the content management systems of major news sites were adapted to create a compromise – the on-page headline would be written for the reader, and a separate entry would create the page title for consumption by search engines. It’s not a perfect compromise, since readers do see the page title in their browser and when viewing search results, and search engines do consider the headline text in ranking. But, this bargain works reasonably well.

In addition to reducing friction between headline writers and SEOs, the dual approach gives us a window into how sites that hope a single content item will get hundreds of thousands, or occasionally millions, of views, ply their trade. While the early CMS modifications to permit headline/title variations were likely hacks, now this approach is becoming nearly ubiquitous. And, as noted above, it’s no longer just for big-budget sites. It’s even easy for millions of WordPress users to employ as well.

Browsers AND Searchers

The idea of crafting content that “appeals to Google” isn’t as important as in years past. There WAS a time when your page title might be carefully structured to fit a search engine algorithm – a specific number of words and characters, two instances of the targeted keyword in certain positions, etc. Now, though, the real appeal is to human searchers. The title content will be a key part of the what the page ranks for, but will also be the text displayed in the search results listing. So, while the visible headline is geared to people browsing the site, the page title must appeal to searchers. If it resembles a query that they might type into the search engine, so much the better – the page may rank for that query, and the link will have a good chance of getting clicked.

Here are a few examples I found on the biggest news sites: – The Wall Street Journal

Story Headline: “How Not to Blow It With Financial Aid – This is a solid title that plays on the well-established principle of fear of loss. Research shows that avoiding loss is a bigger incentive than achieving a gain (see How “Loss” Can Be a Winning Strategy), so the scary thought that one might “blow it” in the all-important college financial aid process is a great motivator to click and read. But, most people aren’t going to search Google for a negative concept like “how can I screw up the financial aid process.” Generally, they’ll look for a short, positive concept like “get more financial aid.” So, the WSJ staffer wisely chose a shorter page title: “How to Get Financial Aid.”

Story Headline: For the Fearful Who Have Everything… – Here’s another fear/loss driven headline that’s also kind of cryptic. People will click the link just to see what it’s about. The page title, meanwhile, is far more straightforward and keyword-based: “The Latest in High-tech Security Gadgets.”. That same phrase also forms the subtitle on the article page.

Story Headline: How Dangerous Is Your Couch? – Fear is the dominant theme again – who could resist clicking on this headline? But, the page title is far more specific, incorporating a proper name along with meatier keywords: Arlene Blum’s Crusade Against Toxic Couches.

Story Headline: How My Mother Disappeared – another intriguing, clickable headline. You don’t know if Mom was kidnapped, wandered off into the jungle, or was abducted by aliens. The page title tells the story: My Mother’s Struggle With Dementia. Needless to say, “dementia” is far more likely to be used in a search than “disappeared,” at least in relation to parent terms.

Even on these sites, not all titles are optimized – more often than not, they are identical to the headlines. In some cases, even rather cryptic headlines are carried into the page title. And, for many news stories, the title is a simple fact statement that works fine for both browsers and searchers. takes a different approach. I spot-checked some of their headline links and they take a really interesting approach to optimization: their article headlines match the page title, which is likely ideal from an SEO standpoint and is also friendly to the searcher who clicks on a link and finds exactly the expected article. But, they rewrite their link text. So, links to articles from the home page, section pages, etc., can be short, punchy, and clickable without seriously compromising the SEO aspects.

Do Bloggers Need Headline/Title Variants?

I took a quick peek at a handful of blogs at the top of the AdAge Power 150 Top Marketing Blogs. While I only looked at a few pages from the blogs I checked, I found that none appeared to regularly use separate page titles and visible headlines.

Since Copyblogger is my go-to source for catchy headline advice (e.g., How to Write Magnetic Headlines, How to Write Headlines That Work, 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work) I thought they would be more likely to craft separate versions for browsers and searchers. Surprisingly, all the ones I checked were identical. But, what they DID do was ensure that the titles were sufficiently specific AND interesting to serve both purposes. For example, posts like How to Write an Article in 20 Minutes and SEO Copywriting: The Five Essential Elements to Focus On combine both reader interest and searchable specifics – there’s no pressing need to tweak the two versions.

Similarly, Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land, who I’m sure understand SEO just fine, go with a unified headline and title. Those titles, though, are straightforward and searchable – no metaphors, puns, or wordplay. Same for Mashable and SEOMoz.

News blog Huffington Post uses matching titles and headlines, but, like, in some cases creates a shorter title for linking use around the site.

Do YOU Need to Write Special Titles?

If the most popular blogs on the Web don’t bother to write separate titles and headlines, do you need to bother? The answer: it depends. If your headline style is straightforward and factual, most of the time you don’t need separate versions. (Confession: 90+ percent of the time I don’t bother either.) Here’s when you SHOULD take the time to create a custom page title:

Your Headline is Catchy and Clickable, but Lacks Content. I must be a frustrated journalist wannabe – I tend to think of headlines that use puns or other wordplay, mimic famous phrases and sayings, etc. (I don’t always use them.) They may make a lot of sense to use on the site, but won’t tell either Google or searchers much about the content. In those case, like the WSJ and NYTimes examples, it makes sense to craft a more explicit title.

Your Headline is Long. A long headline on the page isn’t necessarily a problem. It may even be inviting and clickable on index pages. But, Google may truncate it for display in search results if it’s longer than 70 characters. So, writing a shorter title that preserves the main idea and relates to possible searches may be a good idea, particularly if dropping the last part of the post headline would make it harder to understand or less clickable.

You Can Make Your Headline More Search-Relevant. Sometimes a headline is reasonably good for both searchers and browsers, but you see that a variation on the order of words might make it better match what a searcher might type in. Or, the headline incorporates one word and you want to put a synonym of that word in a prominent position.

Do YOU take the time to craft headlines with both clickability and search in mind? Have you found some good examples of this practice? Or is this one issue that is just too much bother to think about? Let us know in a comment!

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