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SEO: putting headline writing in reverse!

Headline writing is something written about ad nauseam, especial in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) circles. But as I was reading my way through a few SEO articles, one headline stood out, for all the wrong reasons…

Headline writing is something written about ad nauseam, especial in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) circles. But as I was reading my way through a few SEO articles, one headline stood out, for all the wrong reasons…

When SEO hits the headlines!

There I am, doing the electronic equivalent of leafing through the various unboring pages of the web, when I come across a headline from a SEO blog that made me smile. I’ll spare their blushes and instead use a faux headline to demonstrate my point.

“What’s the real benefit of Ingredient X?”

For those familiar with SEO principles, the power in this headline lines in the keywords and the order of those keywords, or in this case, the key phrase: “Ingredient X”, which could be substituted for anything else you can think of.

Problem is, the key phrase is right at the back of the headline. And, factoring in the impatience of the search engines, the more filler words up front, the less likely it is your key phrase will be detected right at the back.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the search engines are very, very, very, very fussy readers! So keeping them happy is essential.

How do we fix the problem headline? It’s actually very simple. Think of all those political headlines you see in newspapers: “Barack Obama: did you go to school with him?”

So to make this wrong from an SEO point of view, it would read: “Did you go to school with Barack Obama?”

It’s a small change to headline with only a subtle shift in readability, but it’s a powerful way of shoving all of your keywords right up to the front of the headline where they’re going to get noticed by the search engines.

Instead of the colon (:) you could also you an em dash (—) as a delimiter. As far as I’m aware, it’s a purely preferential thing, but those with a more formal grasp of English might choose to correct me.

In terms readability, it’s possible there are advantages, too. Since you’re placing the keywords at the front, for any left-to-right language like English, the headline may well be more eye-catching.

Headline writing — what’s in a name?

While discussing blog articles specifically, there’s a duality at work; the headline and the actual article URL name, which is the part the search engines are most interested in. By way of an example of what I mean, here’s where I’ve had reason to criticize headline writing practices before:

“The title of the article is: ‘Opening up the Social Network Graph’ but the actual HTML file name is: ‘opening_up_the.html’ which totally lacks the real meat & potatoes of the title: ‘Social Network Graph’, killing a key aspect of the search relevance of the web page.”

However, the actual headline is quite separate to the name that’s generated for the database record or file that encapsulates the article itself, which is mostly where the problem is to be found, as is discussed above.

If you’re using the latest version of WordPress as I am, you can have an entirely different visual headline to the physical name of the article itself.

Sometimes, it makes sense to keep the URL name keyword rich for the benefit of the search engines, while maintaining a more readable headline for the likes of thee & me!

So when it comes to writing long headlines where you think all of the keywords are going to be sat at the back, start your headline at the back and not the front!

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

1 reply on “SEO: putting headline writing in reverse!”

I’ve been a journo for almost twenty years and have through print, new media, and now blogging stuck to the principle that you should write an eye-catching headline and the readers will follow. I rarely write SEO-oriented headlines or think about linkbaiting or anything like that, I just write a headline that I’d expect a sub-editor on the equivalent publication to use for my article.

Using that approach means you’re building on a century’s worth (at least) of editorial experience. I doubt I get it right every time, but I must do something right on most occasions to get the readership…

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