The Importance of a Good Headline

At Embryo Digital, much of what we do is built on great content.

We pride ourselves on not only writing excellent, well-researched and valuable long-form content for our clients (and ourselves!), but ensuring it’s SEO-optimised by implementing a range of tactics, from using a mix of keywords and ontological terms to linking to both internal pages and authoritative external sources within the copy. (I’ll stop there before I give away all of our secrets.) We specialise in striking that delicate balance between quality content and superb SEO.

Our strategic, ahead-of-the-curve approach to content (which is continually honed and refined, as I’m reminded every time James informs us of a “NEW GOOGLE UPDATE!!!”) has a very specific goal: to help our clients rank higher on Google and other search engines. This, in turn, will attract more organic traffic to their website and drive more conversions and enquiries for their business. Or, at the very least, provide value to potential customers or clients who may not convert immediately, establishing their brand as a trusted source on the subject in question.

But we can’t forget about those key words (pardon the SEO pun) that sit atop all that beautiful, in-depth, SEO-optimised content. I’m talking about headlines, of course. If a piece of great content has a poor headline, is it really a great piece of content?

A brief history of the headline.

The headline has been an important part of the content puzzle since long before SEO, Google or even computers came into existence. Front-page headlines as we know them today came into effect in the 1800s, when increased competition between newspapers led to publications using large-type headlines on the front page to grab peoples’ attention and win readers.

In some ways, headlines (like most everything else) have evolved since then. As competition for our attention has intensified and technology has transformed the way we consume information, shifting our eyes from print to pixels, new headline tactics have been adopted in an attempt to cut through the constant stream of content, conversations and controversy that flood our digital feeds every single day hour minute waking moment. Look no further than the wonderful tactic known as clickbait.

“You’ll Never Guess How Disappointed You’ll Feel After Clicking On This Stupid Link!”

However, in other ways, headlines have remained the same. The method of using BIG, LOUD WORDS TO GRAB PEOPLES’ ATTENTION has rung true for centuries — and no doubt will do for many more, depending on how much longer our desperate planet can sustain human civilisation.

What constitutes a “good” headline?

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a good headline. The quality of a headline largely depends on the context in which it’s being used. In other words, what the content is about, what its purpose is and where it’s being published. For example, a good BBC headline isn’t the same as a good BuzzFeed headline. A better way to think about headlines isn’t by asking whether it’s good, but whether it’s effective. Does it achieve its desired goal?

However, there are common headline-writing rules and principles that apply across the board, regardless of the context.

Inform — First and foremost, a headline needs to provide an accurate and succinct explanation of the content.

Entice — A headline needs to grab peoples’ attention and encourage people to read on — or at the very least, click through. This is all the more important in today’s crowded digital age. However, be careful of wading into clickbait territory.

Concise — Headlines aren’t the place to waffle. Keep it short and sweet. In print, there are obvious physical limitations that require editors to be frugal with their word count. But the same goes for digital content; no one wants to read a headline that looks like a tweet (even before they extended the character limit!)

Entertain — Making your reader laugh is always a guaranteed way to get them engaged, so what better place to do this than at the very start of your content? A headline presents a perfect opportunity to be funny and creative. It’s long been a playground for puns, and while tabloids tend to go overboard with them, there have been some truly brilliant pun-infused headlines over the years. Here are a few of my favourites:

“IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS” — a story about the President of Iraq trying to acquire weapons.

“FARMER BILL DIES IN HOUSE” — a story about agricultural legislation being defeated in the United States House of Representatives.

“6,000 RIM JOBS ON THE LINE” — a story about the company Research In Motion (RIM) facing mass redundancies.

Keep it simple — Don’t confuse your audience with convoluted language or sentence structure. By all means, be clever and creative with your headline, if the content calls for it. But don’t do it at the expense of getting your message across clearly.

Target your audience — Like with the content itself, knowing your audience is key to writing a good headline. You need to understand who they are, what language they use, their tone of voice, their tastes, their desires and their sense of humour. Basically, what makes them tick (or should I say click). This allows you to get inside the mind of your audience and come up with a headline that will appeal to them.

How does SEO affect headlines?

When it comes to writing headlines that are optimised for search engines, many of the rules above apply. However, there are few extra things to keep in mind to ensure that your headline game is up to scratch from an SEO perspective. The quality of a headline can influence traffic by up to 500%, so getting it right is essential.

Include keywords — This one’s a no-brainer. If you’re trying to rank for the term “good seo headlines,” you sure as hell want to include those keywords in your headline.

Be accurate — Again, this one’s obvious, but it’s even more important after Google’s January core update. Google has explicitly stated that headlines and/or page titles need to provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content. If it doesn’t, then Google won’t reward it with prime ranking positions on its search engine results pages (SERP).

Use NumbersNumbers have been proven to be effective at increasing click-through rates. They provide clarity and let readers know exactly what they can expect from the content. Therefore, use numbers in your headlines where possible, preferably towards the beginning. And be sure to use numerals — for example, “10 Ways to Write Killer Headlines” instead of “Ten Ways to Write Killer Headlines.”

CTAs (Call-to-Actions) — Using powerful, emotional and urgent language (particularly commands like “Try These…” or “Why You Should…”) is a tried-and-tested way to increase your click-through rate and, in turn, improve your SEO ranking.

Avoid clickbait — Don’t overpromise and underdeliver with your headlines. Enticing readers only to disappoint them will only increase your bounce rate (where a user leaves your site without visiting another page), which signals to Google that your content doesn’t contain valuable and reliable information.

Keep it short — Keeping it concise goes a long way. This is especially true when it comes to SEO. The optimal length of an SEO-friendly headline is between 50 and 60 characters, or around six and eight words — which is typically what Google displays for their title tags. Titles around this length receive a 21% higher click-through rate on average.


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