Your 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.