Three tips to write effective SEO headlines for news

Why are news headlines important for search? 

According to David Ogilvy, “five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” If the only thing a person is going to read is your headline, you want to make it count. 

Headlines are captured in the <h1> heading tag in your site’s HTML. A web page should only ever have one H1 heading tag, containing the most important piece of information. 

A title tag is the number one element that Google looks at to rank your page. If your title tag is Your Headline + Your Brand (most content management systems will do this for you), then your headline — by default — is the most important thing you can control. 

Headlines tell Google the purpose of the page, and conveys to readers the context and meaning of the story. A well-written headline convinces readers to click and tells Google what your story is about. 

Three tips for crafting effective SEO headlines

1. Headline length 

Headlines should be under 70 characters. However, on the search results page, Google will cut off a headline based on the pixel width (at 600 pixels).

Headline examples:

  • YES: 81% of Canadians say Canada-U.S. border should remain closed: poll  
  • NO: A new poll shows a majority of Canadians think the US-Canada should remain closed

2. Front-load your main-focus keywords

Based on the character and pixel limits, try to front-load headlines with the main-focus keyword or phrase — but don’t overload or overwhelm your headlines with target keywords. This is called “keyword stuffing” and it’s a no-no for Google. Identify your main search phrase and maybe one secondary key word/phrase, and get them in at the beginning of the headline. 

When readers scan your homepage or search results, they will often only read part of a headline. Make the most of the first few words. 

Headline examples:

  • YES: Data shows 54 Florida hospitals out of available ICU beds as COVID-19 cases surge
  • NO: Some intensive care units are running out of beds

3. Hacks to help your headline 

Here are six helpful hacks to consider when writing a headline: 

Numbers: Numbers are a concrete way to let readers know what they can expect in a story, especially if your article has clear action items or takeaways. Odd numbers seem to do better (the human brain is a mystery!), and common figures (5, 7, 9, 15, etc), are great — though something unusual (79? Why not!) can catch someone’s eye, too. 

Dates: Useful both for search and for conveying a particular, specific moment when something will happen. People will add the date (March 11, 2021), days (Monday to Sunday), or a recency (today, now, etc) when looking for recent or current news. Use those same phrases in your headline.  

Questions/W5 words: Who, what, where, when, why. These trigger words are the bedrock questions your story needs to answer, so tease that information by asking a question in the headline itself. This can help set a reader’s expectations, so be sure your story delivers whatever question you set up in the headline (otherwise this is clickbait). 

Synonyms: Consider variations of a name or place, especially if you need to trim for length. 

Top keywords and related keywords: Look at the phrases that send traffic to your site or story. Be sure to use those terms in related reporting.  

Places: Where a story is happening. If the story is about a specific place/physical location—those words should be in the headline. Specificity is your friend here. 

BONUS: The most important headline hack

The most important headline hack: Write for a person. As important as headlines are for search, readers should remain your first priority. Ensure headlines are descriptive of the article while considering SEO. Clarity over tricks. People first, search second. 

Action item: Look at the top headline(s) on your website. Run it through a headline preview tool. Ask yourself:

  • Is the character count under 70?
  • Are key search terms cut off? 
  • Would you click this headline?

If the answer to the above is yes, you’re good to go.

Here’s how to use keyword research for news

Imagine this for a moment: you’re laying on the couch with your spouse, and they ask you if your toe, which is looking a little weird these days, is alright. You say, “yeah, babe, it’s fine.” But secretly, you’re consulting Dr. Google, wondering if you should maybe call the clinic tomorrow.

Everybody lies. It’s natural — we find ways to tell white lies every day. It’s called social desirability bias, a social science theory that says we tend to answer questions based on the chance they will be viewed favourably by others. We overreport “good behaviour” and underreport seemingly bad or undesirable behaviour — how many sexual partners, how much money we make or how long it took our kids to use the potty.

But why would we lie to Google? Search engines can help us answer the questions we’re asking, but don’t want the world to know. 

Google can tell us a lot more about what people really want to know than most crowdsourcing avenues. 

Read more: Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a *must* read on this topic. Strongly recommend it.

THE 101 

Using search for research

When beginning your research, start with an idea. Is there a topic you want to explore a little more? Did an editor ask you to check if there’s any interest in a topic? Basic income was trending on Twitter — is there a broader interest in search? We can take that topic (basic income in Canada) and perform keyword research.

In marketing, keyword research is usually one of the first steps in a strategy — you want to find out:

  • What keywords do I rank for vs. my competitors?
  • What keywords will convert customers?
  • What do people search to find my product? 

In a newsroom, keyword research answers a lot of these questions, but with a different lens:

  • What are other publications writing on this topic? Can we write a more engaging story? 
  • What underreported story ideas could bring in a new audience? (New readers to add to the top of our audience funnel or become paying subscribers.) 
  • What would I search to find my story?
  • What has my publication already written on this?

In order to effectively use search to help our content, we must first understand why people search.

Regardless of where they end up, people search based on a particular intent.

  1. Transactional: The searcher is actively looking to spend money. This could be anything from buying a cheap camera to a New York Times subscription. They want a conversion (buy a camera) at the end of the search journey.
  2. Local: The searcher wants to find something within the area — whether that’s a hip new coffee shop, somewhere to get their hair done or maybe that late-night burrito after one too many quarantine beers. “Near me” is a common phrase added to the query. 
  3. Navigational: These people are lazy and put “Facebook” into the search bar and then click the link in the search results. Don’t worry. I do it, too.

These intents, while useful to know, are not so relevant to journalism. The informational intent is the need most journalism falls into.

  1. Informational: The user wants to fill in a knowledge gap about a topic. They often search with the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why and how. 

Read more: 3 steps to better content by using audience understanding

Now that we know about search intent, we can use this to perform research that will inform our content strategy.

Read the rest of WTF is SEO? here.

In the news

And one more thing… 

You can register now for RISE, the inaugural Canadian conference for racialized journalists. 

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