Write for people, refine for Google.
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).
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.
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:
If the answer to the above is yes, you’re good to go.