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Winning headline strategies from news SEO experts
Headlines, headlines, headlines. SEO pros from top publications and agencies provide expert insight on writing headlines for every type of content (evergreen, Discover, Top Stories).
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Hello, and welcome back. Jessie here, back from a weekend full of yoga, yoga and more yoga. A hot room in early winter? Please and thanks.
This week: Headlines, headlines, headlines. Headlines are the single most important on-page SEO consideration.
For this edition, I asked SEO pros working at a variety of publications and agencies for their top tips and expert insight on writing headlines for every type of content. We’ve got tips for live blogs, evergreen content, Google Discover, using rank tracking data and more.
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Let’s get it.
In this issue:
What is a headline?
Common errors and best practices
Headlines for Discover, evergreen and more
What is a headline?
The headline is an entry point to a story. It’s the title of a story and should summarize, tease and accurately reflect the body copy.
Print and digital headlines are very different — but they haven’t changed that much, says Ben Dilks, homepage editor at The Times and The Sunday Times. He points to Sir Harold Evans’s 1972 comment that headlines are meant to capture readers’ attention. “In half a dozen words they have to inform them tersely and accurately of a shattering or confused event, or arouse their curiosity in a subtle manifestation of human behaviour,” Evans said.
That advice, Ben says, rings true today. With a limited number of characters, headlines need to communicate essential information accurately and also pique interest (to get the click).
Overall SEO best practices for headlines
Headlines are the first — sometimes only! — part of a story readers encounter. To make your headlines count, consider these tips:
Headlines should be at around 70, but not more than 80, characters in length. Headlines get cuff off by Google based on pixels. Depending on where a story ranks in the SERP (i.e., Top Stories or organic results), that pixel width varies.
For Top Stories, headlines should be between 55 and 80 characters. In organic results, headlines are cut off at 75 characters.
Be conversational. “Avoid fancy words that people do not use in day-to-day conversations,” says Candace Mitchell, an assignment editor for SEO at The Washington Post.
Words like “probe,” “mulls” or “amid” save space but are print relics. “Write how people talk,” she says. A good tip: If you read the headline out loud, does it sound natural?
Front-load keywords in the headline. Use keyword research to understand the relevant search terms, then ensure they’re at the start of the headline.
Louisa Frahm, the director of SEO for ESPN, has a useful mantra to keep in mind: Simple is not stupid. An explainer that answers reader questions about a new event (“What is the NBA in-season tournament?”) and indicates the secondary information (“Format, schedule, groups”) is a reader service. It’s clear, it’s accurate, it works.
Consider lower volume keywords — that are still a good audience fit — as they might be a better ranking opportunity. High volume keywords also have higher keyword difficulty (i.e., they’re harder to rank for). Consider secondary or rising keywords (“Tesla stock price” over “Elon Musk”) where appropriate.
Headlines should signal the format of the story (i.e., if it’s a live blog, map, gallery, recipe, review, etc.) in the headline. In a niche like sports, says Louisa, relevant signals might include "rankings," "picks," and "predictions."
Write multiple headlines — and make use of the five headlines Google considers. Those five headlines are: On-page headline (
H1), structured data headline, the
<Title>tag, the Open Graph Title (great for Google Discover) and the internal link headline.
However, these headlines shouldn’t be too different, says Becky Hendriksen, the CEO and founder of Green Hearted. It’s the same story (and should contain the same primary keyword); don’t confuse readers with wildly different headlines.
Louisa uses the acronym SCKT: Short. Concise. Keyword-targeted. “I'm always looking for ways to present complex ideas in more straightforward terms,” she says.
Helpful hacks for headlines
Numbers, dates, places and questions or W5 words are other useful headline hacks to consider.
Say no to clickbait, but yes to intrigue. Clickbait — which aims to attract attention but purposely omits key facts — is to be avoided. “It’s annoying for readers, damaging for your brand and can land you with a manual penalty from Google,” says Ben. Headlines with “Here’s how,” or “this is why” construction build intrigue and can improve the click-through rate.
A good headline is a service to the reader, says Megan Griffith-Greene, the service journalism editor at The Washington Post. “A reader should immediately understand what the story is and what they’ll get from it. It should excite curiosity and interest,” she says. Conversational language, she adds, “humanizes our reporting and lets readers know that we are people, talking to our readers as people.”
The most important headline hack is writing for readers. There's no point ranking in Top Stories, says Ben, if nobody actually clicks the story.
Start thinking about the headline when assigning a story
“True audience-first journalism means knowing what readers want to know before you commission,” says Ben. Newsrooms should encourage editors to submit a draft headline with the pitch.
And if you’re struggling with a headline, Candace suggests asking someone (a colleague, friend, etc.) unfamiliar with the story and describing it to them in one or two sentences. She says you’ll often say, out loud, a good headline.
Slack channels dedicated to workshopping headlines (maybe with the YESSEO app installed) are excellent, too.
Understanding and prioritizing reader needs — the questions they are asking and how they want the answers presented — are the twin audience pillars for Louisa. “If you prioritize the needs of your audience and speak in simple terms your audience can understand, you will set yourself up for search success,” she says.
The most common headline errors
Using special characters that are also HTML escaped characters — the ampersand (
&) and semicolon (
;) in particular. Google sometimes has issues with these characters, so they’re best to be avoided.
Lack of specificity. Google needs the main topic of a story spelled out, Barry says. Take care to include the main keywords or entities — even if it seems like overkill for your main audience (or use multiple headlines to cater to both audiences).
Headlines that are too long and get cut off in Top Stories.
Identical headlines — often for recurring news features or franchises — that don’t include important information (like the date). Every headline must be unique.
THE HOW TO
Headlines for Google Discover
Google Discover is a different beast from organic search. It’s a queryless (i.e., there is no ‘search’ functionality) feed of content that’s specific to a user’s individual interests. It’s more akin to a social platform than traditional search.
Since it’s based on reader interest, readers likely have a baseline familiarity with topics. As a result, headlines can focus more on creating “human, conversational tone and a curiosity gap that inspires readers to click,” says Jordan Mazza, an SEO specialist at Amsive.
Using compelling first-person quotes, vivid language, questions and well-known entities that build intrigue or surprise can boost click-through rates, Jordan says. This Slate column is an example: ”I’m 68. Here’s What Younger Viewers Are Getting Wrong About The Golden Bachelor.”
Highlighting the emotional component of a story, Bella Ruiz (also of Amsive) says, is another useful tactic (however, like every tactic, avoid overuse).
Timely, unique and insightful headlines, and headlines that withhold information or use “these tips” language tend to show up more in Discover, Lily Ray said at NESS. However, these headlines don’t tend to perform as well in organic search. Lily recommends using different headline fields to cater to specific audiences.
Google Discover and traditional search are different surfaces. Audit stories that performed well in Discover (but not organic search or Google News) and vice versa. “Different Google products may need different headline approaches,” says Joy Johnston, a news SEO strategist at Trisolute News Dashboard. Analyze your Discover headlines and traffic for patterns.
Headlines for evergreen content
Headlines need to be clear and understandable. “There’s no room here for convoluted conventions,” says Megan. She also looks for ways to signal E.E.A.T — for search, yes, but primarily, the audience. In the limited space of a headline and competitive SERPs, the headline needs to tell readers why this story is better than those surrounding it.
“What's the best vanilla ice cream? We tried 13 popular brands,” signals E.E.A.T (experience and expertise), sets clear reader expectations.
The most essential headline tip is good audience thinking, Megan says. What does the reader need, what are they expecting, and how do you signal your content has the best answer? These are the primary questions she considers when formulating headlines.
Headlines using ranking/tracking data
SEO tools to track visibility and ranking in search results have a ton of data that can inform headline approaches.
Google the top and rising search terms for a story, or use an SEO tool to monitor. The news boxes will reflect the angles of coverage Google is prioritizing. This data can feed into your headline decisions.
Joy also suggests reviewing headlines for your stories that are not ranking (what’s missing?) against competitors' stories that are visible in results (what’s working for them? Are there tactics to leverage for your own content?).
Pro tip: News Flashboard is a free tool publications you can use to monitor stories that are ranking, and the news keywords they are not ranking for.
Monitoring keyword ranking in breaking news is especially important. Use SEO tool along with Google Trends for further keyword research (how readers search changes over the course of a news event; this should be reflected in headlines).
Getting newsroom buy in
Communication is key. When sharing tips, underscore that these best practices change. “If the ‘rules’ are presented as unchanging canon that people need to memorize, it can be discombobulating when our guidance changes,” says Megan.
To avoid this shock, keep the training going. Host monthly SEO workshops or drop-in sessions that provide guidance on all things SEO: Headlines, Google Trends, keyword research, writing effective explainers. As a bonus, you’ll build better relationships across the newsroom.
Help tools for writing headlines
SEO Pro Chrome extension shows all on-page content in one spot.
Ryan Restivo’s YESEO for Slack helps follow SEO best practices and can make headline suggestions. Users report that the tool is helpful when stuck or need direction for which keywords to prioritize in a story. The tool is useful for suggestions — not the final call on a headline.
Headline Hero will provide five AI-written headline options from provided text, with options to include a quote, question or specific keyword. These suggestions can be a useful starting point but require further refinement.
If you have an overly long headline, ask ChatGPT to shorten it to 70 characters. This will not be publication-ready. It’s a starting point (but if you’re stuck, sometimes that’s all you need).
The bottom line: Headlines are hugely important. They must captivate readers' attention and provide essential information within a limited character count. Follow our SEO best practices and these expert tips to craft effective headlines for Top Stories, Google Discover, evergreen content and more.
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THE JOBS LIST
Audience or SEO jobs in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
The Wall Street Journal is hiring a SEO editor (New York City).
The Harvard Chan School of Public Health is looking for a contractor for a site migration project.
Google news and updates
Google released the November 2023 reviews update.
Google updated the page experience report in Search Console.
Martin Splitt: Five useful Search Console features.
Google: How to find holiday shopping deals.
Even more reading
Barry Adams: Article comments can boost audience engagement and loyalty site-wide — however, there are SEO considerations to keep in mind.
Barry Schwartz: Google's three pillars of search ranking — documents released hint at some of the ways the search giant thinks about ranking internally.
Trisolute News Dashboard: Google Discover analysis for the holiday season.
Aleyda Solis: An SEO assistant that helps you evaluate your web content helpfulness, relevance, and quality for your targeted queries based on Google's guidelines.
Search Engine Land: Is ChatGPT stealing Google’s search market share? No, not really.
Lily Ray on Twitter: Pinterest surged during the last Google Core update.
The Atlantic: AI search is turning into the problem everyone worried about.
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