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03 Oct 2011

The Best Headline Writing & Title Optimization Tips of All Time

Best Headline Writing Optimization Tips

“Titles change the destiny of your posts” ~Darren Rowse. Headlines matter for a variety of reasons, most importantly of which is more traffic, more reads, and probably more links. Headlines are what entice a user to click through and read more.

But writing headlines for web content can be a bit tricky. Let’s see, you’ve got character limits to think about, SEO keywords, and then the actual creative copy to entice clicks. And oh ya – about 8 out of 10 of those savvy online users, on average, will only read headline copy and 2 out of 10 will actually read the rest!

Quite a few components to keep in mind, but I’m here to share with you 30 different headline tips. Have a tip you’d like me to add to the list? Feel free to add to the comments below.

Stand Alone

The headline you craft, in the end, must stand alone and for that matter – stand out! Ask yourself, does my headline allude to what’s contained in my post? If it stood alone, without a byline, could the reader immediately understand what they’d be reading upon clicking?

Size Matters

The length of your headline is crucial. Think about how someone might share your post – on Twitter? Well don’t make it too long that it’s untweetable or unretweetable; remember the 140 character limit.  A title with eight words performed the best, according to Outbrain, so try to stick with eight as a max and you should be fine. Unless of course your headline has the longest word in the English language in it….

Creativity is #Winning

Using punctuation and interesting characters that draw the eye may prove to increase click through rates and interest in your post. Some are using special characters in meta titles, so why not headlines? Try these on for size.

  • Media Type – [PHOTO], [VIDEO], [INFOGRAPHIC] – when of course the post contains those items
  • Exclamation Points – !!
  • Question Marks – ? ?
  • Hashtags – #
  • Quotes – ‘ ‘
  • Special Characters ?
  • Or these miscellaneous symbols.

Make Promises & Deliver

Deliver what is promised in your title. If you say there are 10 tips, make sure there are 10 tips. If you say there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, make sure it’s there! The last thing you want to do is start a blog commenting riot by not delivering what your headline says you will.

Lists Still Work

Lists work, really – they do! Odd numbered ones seem to work out better than others, as reported by the Content Marketing Institute. The ones I tend to enjoy the most are those that are impressive, just in sheer volume of data. Examples: “Top 100+ Link Building Resources“, “The Ultimate List of Niche Social Media Networks“(sure, it doesn’t list a number – but the list is truly massive!), “Let’s Try to Find All 200 Parameters in Google Algorithm“.

Teach

How-to posts are notorious for being extremely helpful and share-worthy. Try to shy away from talking down to your readers in posts like “How to Brush Your Teeth” or “How to Walk, Talk, and Chew Gum at the Same Time”. These might not be the best use of your time, but others like “How to Build the Perfect Facebook Fan Page, 2011 Edition“, “How to Properly Optimize Your Content“, and “How to be a Badass” are indeed worth it. Use keyword tools to figure out what “How To” phrases are searched the most in your industry to get oomph out of your headline.

Become a Reference or Resource

Ever try to Google something and find parts of the answer you were looking for but never the one true post that would answer all your questions on the topic? Use those unfortunate circumstances to your advantage – write a post, with an accompanying awesome headline, that answers the questions you couldn’t find on that topic.  Those posts, you’ll find, are the ones that are resourced, linked to, and shared years down the road.

When researching for headline resources to write this very post I found some good sources like Copyblogger, SEOBook, and Marketing Pilgrim, but there were still some elements missing. And look – I even linked back to those sources. Use these elements to become a reference or resource within your industry and to craft an awesome-tastic headline.

Present a Problem & Solution

Getting the most out of a headline can be done quite easily if you focus on problems and solutions. “Top 10 Solutions to Real Life’s Most Annoying Problems” on LifeHacker has been liked on Facebook 917 times and viewed 535,828 times since March. Pretty nice little post for a simple concept. Try to find a similar concept within your industry and develop a short but concise headline that identifies the problem and solutions.

Make Readers Aware

Enlighten readers of the ways of the world, industry news, or dirty little secrets. Craft a headline around awareness and you’re bound to get some clicks. “Are you aware of Facebook’s dirty, little secret?” is a good example of an awareness headline.

Myths

Pointing out the myths in your industry or in life in general can prove to be an effective and eye catching headline. “36 SEO Myths That Won’t Die But Need To”, “Four Horribly False Credit Score Myths” and “Some Bankruptcy Myths Proven False”.

Call to Action

Telling a reader what to do before they click on your headline has been successful for some. Just like a call to action on your website is important, using urgency words is important such as: Call, Buy, Register, Subscribe, Donate, Click, etc…

Question

Preparing a headline that asks a question is useful in many senses. For one, it tells the reader what to expect – an answer to this particular question. In addition, it creates interest for the reader, makes them think, helps them relate to the question and to visualize all before clicking – why don’t I know the answer to this question? What is the answer to this question? Read, “The Power of a Provocative Question” and you’ll understand a bit more. Add some SEO power to your question by finding out which questions online users are searching for the most with Wordtracker’s keyword questions tool.

Give The Answer

Might seem simple enough, but have you ever crafted a headline with the answer in the headline? Sure, someone might not click through, but if you write it in a creative way that alludes to the answer you just might have a winning headline! An example from headline writer extraordinaire TheBloggess.com, “And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles“- pretty clickworthy right?

Seasonal

Having a seasonal reference in your headline may decrease the immediate lifecycle of your post, but think about the future potential of the headline. Next winter, summer, fall, or spring the post may resurrect itself. Example: “10 Halloween Costumes for SEOs“.

Cultural Reference

Everybody likes a Jersey Shore reference right? Okay so maybe that’s just me, but other cultural references can jazz up your headlines. Use events like celebrity news, TV shows, movies, sayings (#Winning!), and –isms to add cultural references and appeal to your headlines. Did you read our recent post? “How Justin Bieber Can Boost Your Blog’s Traffic“. Adding Justin Bieber to your headline worked for our very own Michael Schwartz on his blog ValleyoftheSuns.com, and actually drove traffic to his wrap up post on the VM blog too.

Learn From Tony Robbins

Use inspirational headlines to attract links, traffic, and good karma too. Using a few Tony Robbins quotes you can come up with some good headlines. “Make Your Life a Masterpiece in 3 Easy Steps”, “5 Decisions That Will Shape Your SEO Destiny”, “Concentrate Your Power to Master Sewing”.

Give Insider Info

Crafting a headline or blog post idea that involves telling a secret, giving insider information or little known information has shown success. Example: “50 Life Secrets and Tips” – Over 25,000 likes, 427,000 stumbles (generating over 1.3 million visitors), and 1,730 tweets.

Scare the Reader

Scare tactics to entice clicks has worked for some writers. Crafting a headline with the words mistake or fail can make a reader wonder – am I making these mistakes? Am I a failure?

Facts

Simply using the word facts in your headline, or actually stating a proven fact, can transform your headline into a clickworthy and linkworthy masterpiece. “Do You Know These 5 Brutal Facts About Building a Successful Website?“, “Women Are Smarter Than Men and Other Facts About Life”. Okay that last one isn’t a real headline, but it should be!

Quotes

Whether inspirational, funny, famous or otherwise interesting – quotes as headlines can add interest to an otherwise dull topic. “I Have a Dream Too“, “Let Them Eat Cake or a GF Chocolate Torte“, “I’ll Be On You Like a Spider Monkey … Bread“.

Case Study

Everybody loves a case study. Well, maybe not everyone – but you get the idea. Most traditional case studies, like those shown here, have long complicated headlines. Notice anything missing? Almost all of the headlines/titles don’t say what they are – case studies! Sure, some of the headlines are pretty interesting and clickworthy, but why not end (or start) with the words “case study”? Example: “The Bystander Effect: A Case Study“, “Case Study: 5 Factors Behind One Startup’s Rapid Growth“.

Appeal to the Fiscally Responsible

Giving readers ways to save money, make more money, or get something for free can produce great results. When crafting a headline make sure you entice the user to click by letting them know what they’ll receive when they do. DumbLittleMan.com used this appeal in their headline, ““30 Easy Ways to Save Money (and No, you are not doing them all!)“. Sure the title is a little long, but effective: 156 tweets, 1236 e-mail shares, 282 comments, and 28,600 shares on Facebook.

Urgency

Using strong and urgent keywords in your headline is a commonly used technique. In the post “Grab Attention with Headlines“, the writer discusses overuse of certain terms having lost meaning to readers today. Be careful with your choice of urgent and strong keywords in headlines, “readers encounter the same words repeated to the point of the word losing its meaning”.

The writer suggests using a Thesaurus to find alternative words to replace the overused. Use impelling, momentous, paramount, or vital in lieu of overused words like urgent. Keep in mind your target audience, however. Some experts suggest using easier to understand words, due in part to some studies showing that the average U.S. adult reads at the 7th grade level.

Verb it Up

As suggested earlier in this post, headlines with a call to action are a good idea. The use of present tense verbs, or verbs in general, is often against the rules of newspaper headline writing. But with writing web headlines most experts suggest its usage.

Use Superlatives

This tip is often applicable to writing headlines for social media. Pumping up your headline with superlatives like super big, best ever, the coolest, most bizarre, etc… are an easy way to attract attention.

Controversy

This tip comes with a bit of warning. The use of controversial headlines may have negative effects on your own personal brand or corporate identity. If you do indeed make the decision to go controversial be prepared for the possible outcomes. Here at Vertical Measures a few years ago we tried this out with Arnie’s post “An SEO is Not a Link Builder” which received over 100 comments. In crafting your headline and post you can do so in a way that is controversial but won’t overly tarnish your reputation with a bit of careful creativity and planning.

Tips from the Experts

Use a Formula

CopyBlogger.com’s post “10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work” can help you out if you’ve hit a road block and can’t come up with a catchy headline.

Stick to the Three Main Classes (self-interest, news, curiosity)

SEOBook.com offers up “How to Craft Kick-Ass Title Tags & Headlines” by playing to self interest, announcing something new, and appealing to curiosity seekers.

Appeal to Two Audiences

Andy Beal at MarketingPilgrim.com offers up his suggestions on optimizing blog post titles. Develop headlines for your initial blog readers, and think about your Google readers too.

Gain Inspiration from a Table of Contents

Sarah Moraes, VM’s Marketing Manager, attended one of Ryan Lee‘s webinars. He suggests searching through Amazon to find a book on a topic you want to write about. Look through the Table of Contents for inspiration on headlines and topic ideas too.

Do (or Don’t) Use These 1,000 “Headline of the Day” Examples

Last but certainly not least these 1,000 headline examples may help you conjure up a great headline idea. Get inspiration from what others are doing well, or what they do horribly. With so many example headlines listed you’re sure to find one that will fit your needs.

Well there you have it, 30 headline writing tips. Did I miss some (I’m sure I did…)? Leave your additions to the list in the comments below.

8 Comments

  • Nick Stamoulis Oct 03, 2011

    All great tips. Many people think it’s hard to write headlines creatively for readers and strategically for the search engines. It’s possible, it just may take a little bit of extra time to think of something that will attract both. Always make sure to get some keywords in there.

  • Kristin Oct 03, 2011

    Kaila –

    Fantastic list of helpful hints! Thank you so much for these! Quick question for you, do you write your headlines before or after your blog post? I’ve heard a lot of back and forth on that so was curious as to how you would write it.

    -Kristin

  • Kaila Strong Oct 03, 2011

    Thanks Kristin, and good question! I usually come up with a decent list of headlines before writing the post – about 4 or 5. I do some keyword research to help inspire me and go through a list of possible headline types. Then after I’m done writing the post I usually go back and make changes to the list of 4 or 5. I have someone in the office proofread my post then I will make the final decision on the title. That’s just the process I go through, others might find it more efficient to cut out the middle man and to write the headline after they write the post.

  • Kristin Oct 03, 2011

    Kaila –

    Thanks for the quick response! That’s a more detailed version than I usually hear and it was very helpful! Thanks!

    -Kristin

  • Cyndi Papia Oct 03, 2011

    Everything I try to tell my clients in your great post! I’m bookmarking this and also emailing the link for them to read. Thank you!

  • Kaila Strong Oct 03, 2011

    Wow Cyndi thanks, glad I could be of assistance. :)

  • Karen Loomis Oct 03, 2011

    Headlines for blogs are no different than those for print ads or newspaper articles. Interestingly enough often headlines aren’t written by the designer or the authors. Why? Because as you say in you blog it’s not easy to do so much in so few words. It truly is an art form. Having someone who didn’t write the blog write the headline is cool because their not too close to the work and can be more objective? Good stuff in your article!!!

  • Ellie Kurz Oct 05, 2011

    Aaaaaagh! Now to figure out something to write about that will immediately go viral. ;)