Search-engine optimization sometimes gets a bad rap from journalists (more on that later). But I always thought a headline’s job was to attract eyeballs, to get someone to read the story.
That’s the job of a digital headline, just like it was when I wrote print headlines as a copy editor for the Des Moines Register 35 years ago.
What’s changed is how people find our headlines. Instead of having the newspaper delivered to their door, and browsing pages for a headline or photo that catches their eye, many people find our stories in answer to the questions they ask search engines. Just as I tried my best to catch the browsing reader’s eyes, now I try to catch the search engine’s eye.
But it’s a two-step process: I need some keywords (utilitarian and sometimes dull) so the search engine will find my story and I need an enticing headline, so people will click on it (getting onto the first page of search results only gets me the chance to compete with nine other headlines for your click).
Susan Steade has a great metaphor for the SEO headline: Business up front, party in the back. In other words, start with some keywords, so the search engine will find your headline, then have some fun, so people will click on your headline rather than the others the search engine presents.
Susan sent me a collection of SEO tips and examples from her emails to colleagues:
The mullet model of SEO headlines (“business up front, party in the back”) can be broken down to three best practices:
- Know what people are searching for
- Get those search terms up front
- Play up the hot angle
A few specifics and examples of those practices:
Know what people are searching for.
The right search term (Rim Fire? Yosemite fire?) can be a moving target. One place to look is google.com/trends/explore, which you can use to compare searches as well as get ideas for related items. It doesn’t show absolute volume, but it’s good for seeing what terms are on the rise.
The threshold for what constitutes a “headline name” is much lower than it was just a few years ago. Readers are really savvy about searching for specifics.
Before: 49ers’ star linebacker faces possible criminal charge
Sports stories particularly benefit from names (teams, coaches, players) in headlines.
Get those search terms up front.
Yes, sometimes it seems that half our headlines use a colon construction, but that’s a good way to get your search term in the first few words.
Example: America’s Got Talent: And the winner is … If they’re searching for “America’s Got Talent” or “America’s Got Talent winner,” you’re right there. Plus, we make them click to get the answer, and we don’t get dinged for a spoiler.
Example: Kentucky Derby post time, and five other things to know. We posted an AP short on Derby morning and gave it our own head with ‘Kentucky Derby post time’ up front. It got 93,966 page views, and that was on a Saturday.
Play up the hot angle.
You know what gets clicks for you. On MercuryNews.com, we’re sure to get it in the head if a story has a mention of Steve Jobs, the iPhone, Google or the 49ers.
Features headlines are particularly suitable for a little bit of a tease. You can put a twist on them without being misleading.
Example: Digital features editor Ann Tatko-Peterson, an SEO maven, wrote a column about the delightful relationship between her two daughters, ages 16 and 2. Instead of bluntly stating that angle, she went with this: How did my 2-year-old become a One Direction fan? Grabbier, and probably pulled in some random One Direction searchers.
Example: Every fall, people write our traffic columnist, Mr. Roadshow, about the number of deer on the road. The standard watch-out-for-deer headline probably draws a lot of ‘yeah, yeah.’ So the last go-round we changed “Drivers beware: Deer are on the prowl this time of year” to the more specific How do I get deer to move off the road?
Example: Our pets/wildlife columnist Joan Morris is a master of leaving just enough ‘huh?’ to make someone click. Among her recent efforts: Bunny head puzzles San Jose family, Strong smell sends cat into a frenzy and What the eep is that bird doing?
The detailed nomination of Susan by Bert Robinson for the DFMie for SEO headline writing (she won) shows the results of her approach. I edited the nomination slightly for this blog. She rewrote eight of the headlines below, boosting their web traffic notably:
BANG producer Susan Steade has a special knack for taking a flat web headline and applying some SEO magic that gives an almost immediate boost in search engine ranking and traffic. A few of her tricks: SEO headlines are like a mullet – “Business up front, party in the back,’’ which simply means get the words people search for at the front of the headline, and don’t be afraid of using a colon. : (Credit for the mullet line goes to producer Kimberly Chua). Play up hot angles (and look at Google, Twitter and Yahoo to see what is trending and the words being used). And just use common sense – if you wanted to find the story, what words would you use. Get them in the head.
Here are some of her winners:
Original: The Harlem Shake craze jolts the Internet and beyond
Original: Stanford abuzz over link to make-believe leading lady in Notre Dame football star’s love hoax
Original: Civil-rights groups assail FBI tactics as San Jose man set to be in court for Oakland bank bomb plot
Original: Monte Sereno slaying: Alleged prostitute facing murder charge appears in court
Page views: 17,343 total; story had original hed for only about 30 minutes.
Original: Atlantic Aviation appeals proposed private jet facility at San Jose airport
Page views: 291 in first two hours, 5,465 after revise
Original: Environmental, animal welfare groups move to ban lead bullets for all hunting in California
Page views: 761 with original hed (about 9 hours); 4,416 with revise
Original: Common document could have prevented Bakersfield CPR drama
Page views: 2,064 with original (about 12 hours); 3,858 with revise
Original: Ex-girlfriend of man accused of killing Google applicant during Oakland robbery continues testimony
Page views: About 4,000 with revise; hadn’t been posted to MercuryNews.com with original
Original: See a ‘dirty snowball’: Night skies to light up with a comet show through next week
Page views: 6,838 with original, 17,677 with revise
A final point on SEO: Relevance is critical to helping people find your stories when they search. You want to use the keywords people might use if your story would have the answers to your questions.
Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, one of the funniest people in journalism, wrote a column in 2010 mocking SEO, mentioning “Lady Gaga” in the story and headline, as though that were the secret to attracting search traffic.
It’s not that simple. I just Googled “Lady Gaga” and got 547 million hits. So your headline with a gratuitous mention of her can beat out 537 million other web pages mentioning her and you’re still just in the first million pages of search results. I clicked through the first five pages of results (can’t remember the last time I did that) and didn’t see Gene’s column.
The only example Susan cited where she used a celebrity name in a headline was the mention of One Direction, but it was directly relevant to the column.
Just as writing good headlines for print is an honorable and valuable journalism skill, so is writing good SEO headlines. The point of each is to help people notice the story if they might be interested in it.