Content Marketing

Your Headlines Suck. Here’s What You Can Do About It

Your Headlines Suck. Here's What You Can Do About It

badge-guest-post-FLATTERYour headlines suck.

They’re boring, they’re formulaic, and they’re so jammed with exact match keywords that even black hat SEOs are rolling their eyes and mumbling, “Seriously?”

Oh sure, you’ve read all the content marketing blog posts that tell you to use exciting words, or that you need to use the very precise keyword combination that matches your Google Analytics, and that the keywords need to fall within the first four words, and yada yada yada.

And they’re. Just. So. Boring.

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

It starts with bad headlines.

Sometimes it’s just better to get back to the basics and do headlines the way journalists are taught. I don’t mean the Buzzfeed-style headlines either — “The Five Absolute Worst Headlines of 2013,” “You Won’t Believe What These Journalists Are Wearing,” “Seven Lies We Tell Our Parents About Being Buzzfeed Headline Writers.” I mean informative, interesting headlines that make people want to read your articles and posts.

Here are a few ways to keep your headlines fresh and compelling, and to catch your readers’ attention. And none of them involve SEO and Google bots.

1. Headlines Need to Deliver Their Promise

Don’t lie in your headlines. Don’t promise one thing only to fail on the followthrough. A common complaint of those “Five Secrets Your Doctor Doesn’t Want You to Know” or “X Versus Y Smackdown: Who’s Better?” headlines is that they often don’t deliver on their promise. The secrets are so basic there that even the most remote Amazonian tribes knew them.

Or, the author weenied out and never actually picked a winner in their so-called smackdown. Instead, it ended with “It’s hard to pick, because both solutions have their advantages and disadvantages,” which is about as meaningful as a participation trophy.

If you overinflate your headlines often enough, you’ll soon be known as the marketer who cried wolf, and people will quit paying attention. If you have to trick people into reading your stuff, then it must not have been very good to begin with. So make sure the content matches the headline. (tweet this)

2. Headlines Should Not Be Clever and Abstract

Don’t use your headline as some secret code for the reader. Don’t make it a final punchline where people flip on the “a-ha” lightbulb when they reach the end. Write a headline that immediately tells the reader what the piece is about, so they can decide whether to read it.

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

3. Don’t Obsess About Exact Keywords

Google has stopped telling us what keywords are working, so you can stop obsessing over exact matches — “USB Microphones” versus “USB Microphone,” “Marble Polisher” versus “Marble Polishing Tools.” Instead, they’re focused more on larger topics. As long as you’re talking repeatedly about USB mics or marble polishers, they don’t care what exact keyword phrases you use.

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

(They stopped counting keywords in headlines, I think, because they hate us. When Skyenet goes live and the robots rise up against humanity, Google will order a priority directive to kill all online marketers.)

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

4. List Posts Still Rule

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

Don’t care, don’t care, blah blah blah, don’t care.

Do you know who likes them? Your readers.

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

Pay close attention to the teaser copy on Cosmo magazine the next time you’re at the supermarket checkout. What are those mini-headlines? 5 Tricks He Wants You To Know In The Bedroom. 3 Surprise Foods For Weight Loss. 57 Awkward Breakup Opening Lines.

Why has Cosmo been doing them since at least the 1960s? Because they work. Because they make women (and some men) buy the magazine. Because they know what drives impulse buys. I’ll quit making list posts when Cosmo finally decides it’s no longer an effective strategy. Until then, I can give you Five Solid Reasons Why I’ll Keep Writing List Posts. (tweet this)

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

5. Your Headlines Need to Inform AND Hook Readers

Take a quick perusal of your local newspaper website(s). What headlines catch your eye the most? Is it the one about the early morning fire? Or your local sports team? Or a charitable event? Maybe it’s the business news, the features, or the op-ed.

What was it that caught your eye? Did they use words that clicked with you? Did they talk about a situation you’re involved with? Maybe it was about a product you use or business you favor.

Your own headlines need to follow some of those same patterns. That’s not always done with keywords, it’s done by answering questions or giving information that the reader cares 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, start sharing it in the headline. “Over 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, not features you 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 This Tiny Nebraska Town.”

Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm is now forcing content marketers to adopt this kind of writing. They want content that answers questions and provides value, rather than follows some secret keyword formula. And since people are asking more and more questions of 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 have been for the last several years, being twisted and contorted to make Google rank content higher than it deserved to be. They’ve become useful tools once again, and maybe, just maybe, we can see some creative, informative headlines that doesn’t shock, titillate, or over-promise and under-deliver.

Also, maybe Keanu Reeves will win an Oscar.

Article Name
Your Headlines Suck. Here's What You Can Do About It
Your headlines suck. Here are a few ways to keep your headlines fresh and compelling, and to catch your readers' attention. And none of them involve SEO and Google bots.
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  1. Mike Myers says

    Great post. Although I hate #4. I’m sick of #4 (…can you tell I don’t like #4?) I’ll give you 12 good reasons not to use lists in headlines, but you will anyway, won’t you?

    I know. I know, because they work.

  2. Peter Odryna says

    What a great post Eric! We see so many bad post titles in our SocialEars analytics process that it would make you cry. Thanks for making us laugh… and spelling out the truth.

  3. Cynthia Fuhrman says

    Very useful post…although you sort of missed the opportunity to call it “5 things you can do to stop writing headlines that suck.” :-)

  4. says

    I think it just comes down to having the right balance of elements. Personality, formatting, wittiness, SEO and likability are attributes a piece of content should have. I still hear from people that they would like re-write an article 25 times for “good seo”. I more people need to watch the Matt Cutts videos to learn!

  5. says

    “The secrets are so basic there that even the most remote Amazonian tribes knew them.”

    I chuckled on this line! I always enjoy reading a well-written post.

    I think the same thing when I encounter articles with misleading headlines. I hate when I’m suckered into an article that doesn’t exactly answer my question or provide me new insights like it promised.

    The only thing I don’t necessarily agree with you on is clever headlines. I think they can work as long as you clearly state what you mean by the clever headline in the beginning of the article. Otherwise, I see it as a waste of time then.

    Other than that, great post!

  6. says

    Great post, Erik! Really valuable information that I’m sure I’ll be referring to when writing my next blog post.

    I usually get more hung up in the creativity of the headline than keywords, but I love the examples you provide in #5. They make perfect sense as to why a reader would actually dive in as opposed to skimming. Love that Google is looking more at overall topic than savvy, well-placed keywords. Should allow for quality to win.

  7. says

    Indeed a great post, although 2 of my most recent posts use the exact headline methodology that you cover in #1…a third utilizes the same one used in this post. But all of them deliver on their promise, to your point.

    Nonetheless, a great read that’s rooted in tons of truth and a headline that in itself is built-in social share-ability and instead click bait! :)

  8. says

    Number 4 is so true people love numbers and lists. Some of the most successful blogs are based simply on lists and blank number ways to whatever.
    You mean Keanu did not win an oscar for the matrix? Wheres the justice….

  9. says

    I still like list posts, but hate the ones that promise 50 or 100 tips or steps. Can’t imagine anyone has time for that. Regarding SEO, I wonder at what point tools like Yoast will catch up with the new “rules,” and not score your page or post low for not having exact word matches?

  10. Mark Peters says

    Excellent post, thanks for summing these thoughts up in one place, Erik. Can add one more point:

    6. Analyze Your Data and Find the Headlines That Work for Your Audience

    As you know, anyone’s advice, no matter how great, may not hold true for your specific audience – depending upon your niche. Track the metrics that align to your business goals and find (test) what works on your platform.

  11. says

    3 Reasons Why I Love This Post:

    1. I am clueless when it comes to SEO so I can just worry about making relevant headlines that tell my reader what they are about to read.
    2. I have a lot of lists. And I’m not afraid to post about them.
    3. I can’t stand when I click on a post hoping to read one thing and waste my time reading 500 words about cats.

    Nothing against cats. OK, everything against cats.

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