59% of people share articles and blog posts without reading them. That’s good news for your social media metrics, but for marketing teams, it poses a challenge. If the headline is the only part of your blog many people will see, all the pressure is on that headline to convert impressions into an engagement.
It can feel like there are countless myths, tactics, and strategies around SEO headlines. They’re one of the most important aspects of SEO, so everyone has an opinion. Sites like Google don’t want people gaming the system, so they don’t tell anyone exactly how the algorithm works. But you only need to follow a few best practices to write much better headlines that will hook readers in and increase conversions.
Know your audience
As businesses start to use the same IPAAS (Integration Platform as a Service) for operations, it becomes even more important to compete on customer experience. This is called the “Request/Response” business model, defined by Chris Sperandio. And for bloggers and SEO marketers, it means knowing your reader better than anyone else is in town. SEO-friendly content must be tailored to user intent.
You need to convince your reader that you know what you’re talking about. Best practices for demonstrating authoritative writing include doing plenty of research and supporting your points with statistics where possible. But anyone can gather statistics.
To engage your readers in the opening, you should have a deep understanding of what they already know about the subject you're discussing. This allows you to pose an interesting question or challenge a commonly-held belief in the opening. Larry McEnerney, former Director of the University of Chicago’s writing program, gave a now-famous lecture on this tactic in academic writing.
As in the world of SEO content, the audience for academic writing is skimming the introduction and often moving on immediately. They’re busy people, and they’re making a split-second decision on whether or not a long and detailed paper is worth reading.
McEnerney recommends putting “tension-building” words in the introduction: “but,” “however,” etc. Like a great story, these establish conflict and hook the reader in with the promise of seeing a resolution.
This is just as applicable to your headlines as it is to your opening paragraphs. How many times have you seen a clickbait headline with “What happened next will shock you”? Without lowering yourself to manipulative clickbait, you can build tension into your headline with words like “unexpected” or “surprising.” But for this to work effectively, you have to know exactly who your audience for this post is.
Know your reason for posting
You need to know your reason for creating the post so you can put it front and center. What’s the value proposition? Why should your audience spend valuable time reading this?
Think of your headline as a hook, which only has the purpose of getting the reader into the first paragraph. Attention spans are short, so you need to use the one-two punch of your headline and the opening to make your content’s purpose clear and get the reader interested.
Take a look at this post about outbound lead generation. “What is outbound lead generation? A detailed guide” is a headline that mirrors the intended audience’s exact search term: “What is outbound lead generation?”.
The headline promises a detailed guide, and then the first paragraph goes about building tension. Once that conflict between inbound and outbound marketing is established, the author reiterates the point of the blog and offers a table of contents.
If you’re writing a blog on hybrid cloud integration, there are many angles from which you could approach that topic.
If you’re writing a listicle, you could write “5 best hybrid cloud solutions for remote businesses”. A how-to guide for a specific provider might read “How to choose the best cloud service provider for you.” You can pitch an opinion piece with a headline like “Hybrid cloud is the future of remote work, here’s why”.
If you clearly know your reason for posting and know your audience, you can pick a format and a matching headline that best suits your goal.
Write the headline before the article
It may seem counter-intuitive, but polishing up your headline before you’ve started writing the article is a great practice for writing high-quality blog posts. It focuses you on the “content goal” and keeps your pieces aligned to their reason for existing while you write and revise.
If you’re struggling to come up with a headline, there’s no harm in finding a reliable formula and sticking with it.
For example, there’s the “little-known” formula. This creates value by promising the reader that they’re probably about to learn something new by clicking on this headline. They could find out about something few people understand. They could get an edge on their competition.
An article with the headline “Best practices for choosing the best small business VoIP” is well-suited to readers who might need an introduction to the topic. They’re new to the idea, but they’re diligent, safety-conscious, and likely part of a small business VoIP with room to grow. If you’re a B2B software provider who helps with data integrity, they might be your ideal customer.
But if you’re targeting a more senior-level audience, such as the key decision-makers in an established business, something more like “6 little-known tips for maintaining data integrity” would be more suited to that audience who know their best practices inside out.
Another benefit of writing your headline first is that you can make sure your headline - and your whole post - is unique before you spend hours working on it.
Unique content is a key part of SEO, and just googling your headline idea lets you see how many other businesses have tried something similar. Try searching your headline with quotation marks around it to see if someone's published exactly the same thing before. If so, it might be time to rethink the whole post.
There are plenty of handy free automation tools for testing online that can help you evaluate your headline (and, by extension, your whole content idea) before you write it. Sites like Sharethrough give you a quick score on your headline and suggest ways to improve it. It’s no replacement for a deep understanding of your audience’s needs, but it can help you polish up your existing ideas for headlines.
Is “how to manage a small business” a good headline? It’s a sought-after search term with a valuable audience, but that’s exactly why it’s a bad idea to target so directly. If you look up that term, you’ll see much more specific headlines. These drill down into niches like finance, software, reducing headaches, and managing people.
The writers of these pieces know that if you want to meet your searchers’ needs, your headlines have to be specific and concrete. As with everything in marketing, the more niche your headline is the better.
If your article idea is quite a general one, but you know you need specific headlines, there’s no harm in rewriting the ideas under different headlines. This is a great strategy for guest posting and duplicate content, where you’re republishing the same blog post to different sites with slightly different audiences.
Your headline has to be as clear as possible - the more common words, the better; the fewer words, the better.
There’s a saying, mistakenly pinned on Einstein, that if you don’t understand something well enough to explain it to a child, you don’t understand it well at all. To come across as an expert in your field, you should be able to briefly explain the ins and outs of your industry to any newcomer.
For search results using Google snippets, there is no hard limit to how long your headline could be. But you’re limited by the user’s screen width, and practically, you should keep your headline under 70 characters long to avoid it getting cut off on search results.
To stand out in the search results, use emotive words that will stimulate a small but powerful response in the audience. If you’re trying to sell custom domain emails with just a headline, you’re not going to cram in all the nuances of your flexible pricing strategy or superior technology stack overflow in the search result link.
In the same way, many Global brands, like Nike or Puma, will focus on selling the story around the product rather than the cheap commodity itself. It would be a sound strategy for the email domain company to focus on the sense of professionalism and independence their product enables in their headlines.
If you’re starting a business, would you rather click on “20 budget custom email domain solutions” or “5 custom email domains that will impress your first clients”?
Using numbers in your headlines is a surefire way to get more clicks on your headlines - 73% more clicks and shares, to be exact.
This is why the listicle is still going strong many years after it became a common SEO tactic. A headline like “7 quick ways to improve your business processes” immediately suggests a more concrete, skimmable article than “How to improve your business processes.”
Headlines with odd numbers get around 20% more clicks, which may seem… odd, but it makes sense. 7 is not a nice, round number. So if you suggest you have 7 ways to improve business processes, it sounds more authentic than a neat even number like 8.
Put these tips into place and see how it affects your clickthrough rates across social, email, and search results. Headlines are easy to A/B test, so don’t be afraid to try new things and prune content. With these best practices to start off with, see what your audience responds to and keep detailed notes until you crack the formulas that work for you.