The Secret to a Great SEO Headline

Published on February 10, 2021

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of getting your brand to rank highly on Google results pages – and a successful strategy is equal parts art and science.

If you pull off the tricky balancing act, you may hit gold. Brands who have implemented SEO strategies successfully boast higher rates of organic traffic, better conversion rates, and greater brand reach than those that have no such strategy in place.

On the other hand, getting SEO to take off can take time and patience – and if you’re not getting it right, your investment could amount to less of a result than you may have hoped for.

Here at Geek Chicago, we believe that the key to any great SEO campaign is a thoughtful and well-executed content marketing strategy. Creating your own branded website content - including blog posts, images, and other multimedia – is a surefire way to lure new audience members to your site, where they can become valuable leads with just a little bit of guidance.

And successful content starts at the top – with a great headline.

While many people believe that they know the secret to a successful title, you’d be surprised; getting it right for SEO purposes is trickier than most people think! But it can be done, if you understand how search engines – and searchers – work.

With that in mind, here’s the Geek Chicago guide to crafting the perfect SEO headline for your content, every time:

Research Your Keyword or Phrase

One of the most important aspects of writing a successful SEO headline is to understand the keyword that you’re trying to target with a specific piece of content.

A best practice for SEO is that every piece of content should be tailored to one unique keyword (or phrase). This keyword, broadly speaking, can be thought of as one topic within a larger category, which we refer to as a “content pool.”

For instance, a broad “content pool” that you might be trying to target could be “jewelry;” within that pool, you may create individual pieces of content designed to target specific keywords, in one or more categories. You could come up with keywords based on, say, varieties of jewelry (necklaces, bracelets, earrings, etc.), or types of metal (silver, gold, platinum), or even a certain market share (cheap jewelry, jewelry for special occasions, or so on).

As you dive into greater detail in each of these keyword categories, you’ll come up with more niche or specific headlines, which end up targeting what we call “long-tail” keywords (i.e., “gently used diamond necklaces for sale,” or “platinum bracelets under $30”).

Ultimately, a lot of the choices – what your content pools will be, which keywords you’ll target within them – will be up to you, based on your brand’s offerings/inventory, the consumer audience you’re trying to reach, and a variety of other factors.

Understanding who you’re trying to reach, and what keywords you’re going to use to reach them, are vital steps to crafting a working SEO strategy – both in terms of the big picture, and on a post-by-post basis. And you won’t come up with answers without putting in some serious research up top. This research can (and should) take a variety of forms, including:

  • Audience research (by way of focus groups, surveys, behavior tracking via analytics)
  • Keyword research (using tools such as Google Keyword Planner and Google Trends)
  • Competitor research (by seeing what your peers and role models are already doing to reach their clients)

Don’t pass over this step! You may think you know what your audience wants to read – and you may be wrong! You may think you’ve hit on a great topic – but is it one that people will actually be searching for? You may think you’ve got a great keyword in mind – but the most successful keyword may be the adjacent term that you’re not using!

We’ve seen too many brands lose sales because they were targeting, say, “lawyer” rather than “attorney,” or “retro” rather than “vintage” – and we don’t want to see it happen to you! Search engines may be smarter and more sophisticated than ever, but when it comes to nailing the right headline, the details still matter.

Little nuances add up when it comes to SEO success. Put in the research, so that you’ll better equipped to hone in on a keyword and then…

Think With the SERP In Mind

When you’re writing an SEO headline, it’s important to remember that you’re trying to reach users who will come across you on a search engine results page (SERP). You should always craft your headline with that fact in mind, because SERPS are unique beasts, with their own set of rules and best practices.

Your content will appear as one entry in a long list, surrounded by other search results and, most likely, multimedia elements, such as Featured Snippets, Google Ads, and Knowledge Graphs. This is a competitive environment, and a poorly written headline could severely damage your chance of getting clicks.

With this in mind, here are four crucial elements to keep in mind as you consider writing for a SERP; we call them the “four S’s:”

A truly successful SEO headline is direct and to-the-point. A great rule of thumb to keep in mind is the old adage, “What You See Is What You Get.” (Geek's pronounce "WYSIWYG" <wiz-ee-wig>.)

Focus on getting your targeted keyword in the headline early on, so that there’s no risk that it will be cut off on the Google results page. Tell readers what they’re in for, so they’re not confused or lost when they click through to your page, and make sure that you emphasize the value of your content. At the same time, don’t make any false promises about what readers can expect to see on your landing page.

Above all, don’t let flowery language get in the way of a clear message. Attention spans are short, and your prospective audience member will be analyzing the SERP in a matter of seconds. State your case, and let them make their decision.

There are a few tried-and-true formulas that have been proven to lead to SEO success. Sometimes it might pay to work within these established headline formats, and sometimes it may do you well to break with tradition.

In either case, it’s important to recognize what tends to work on SERPs. Popular SEO headline formulas include:

“The Secret To…” and “Everything You Need to Know About…”
Because who doesn’t want to feel like they’re getting privileged, insider information?

“How To…”
Because nobody turns to a search engine for more questions! With this set-up, you provide an easy answer and establish the value of your content right away. To target long-tail keywords, you can build on this headline by saying how to do something that will lead to a specific reward (i.e., “How to Use Online Reputation Management to Increase Sales by 15%) or that takes into account a common concern (“How to Start With Online Reputation Management Even If You’ve Never Had a Customer”)

“5 Steps to…” or “The 7 Best…”
Because listicles are scientifically proven to generate clickthrough and increase time on page! A rule of thumb? For whatever reason, headlines with odd numbers tend to attract more readers than those with even numbers, and lists that go beyond nine items may turn off searchers.

In addition to these proven structures, there are other tips and tricks that can help encourage clickthrough. For instance, research shows that readers respond to the “five W's” – who, what, when, where, and why – and tend to latch onto headlines featuring compelling adjectives, such as “proven,” “essential,” “surprising,” or “unbelievable.” Don’t overdo it, though! These bright, inspiring modifiers are the seasoning, not the stew! 

When it comes to standing out on a SERP, shorter is always sweeter! Most experts suggest keeping your headline under 60 characters. According to Moz, Google typically displays the first 50 to 60 characters of a title tag. With that said, Google seems to recognize that no two displays will work exactly the same way, and so there is no exact character limit, but rather a pixel maximum (600 pixels, to be exact).

The bottom line? Keep it concise. Say what you need to say – no more, no less.

Separate from Social
Remember, this is an article about SEO headlines. Social media headline writing is a completely different art entirely. In a lot of ways, the social media rules are much more relaxed – and may actually favor style over substance.

For instance, longer headlines tend to flourish on Facebook, generating likes and shares, even as wordy titles sink like a stone on SERPs.

With that in mind, it can be quite difficult to “kill two birds with one stone,” writing a headline perfect for SEO and social at the same time. But, fortunately, you don’t always have to try to do so!

Remember, some social networks – namely, Facebook and Twitter – have their own meta-tags, meaning that you can specify a social media headline different from your primary title. Today, many content management systems (CMS) recognize this, and make it easy to create a social headline that is distinct from your primary headline. Consider taking advantage of these tools, so that you can optimize one piece of content for two different platforms.

Don’t Forget to Optimize Everything Else

One of the most important things you can do to ensure that your SEO headline is successful at getting you clicks (and leads) is to… well, focus on everything else!

SEO is a holistic process, involving both on-page and off-page elements. As we mentioned earlier, search engines – and the humans who put them to work – are getting more and more sophisticated about analyzing, ranking, and understanding every aspect of your SEO content.

This means that they are now evaluating the big picture of your content, as well as the nitty-gritty details.

It follows, then, that to support one aspect of the SEO process, you need to be conscious of every other part – because Google and its peers will be looking both at how all of these elements work together, and how satisfied users are with their overall experience engaging with your content.

In other words, you can’t just write a great headline and trust that the clicks will come rolling in – because the clicks these days aren’t just because of the headline, but because of a ton of factors, ranging from mobile usability to time spent on site.

Everything adds up. So, to create a great headline, you’ll also want to create a great:

  • Meta-description (this is the brief paragraph that appears below your headline on a SERP)
  • URL (limit it to your targeted keywords for maximum search optimization)
  • Header and Body Image (make them striking, quick-to-load, and add captions, titles, and alt-tags to make sure that search algorithms pick them up)
  • In-article Heading (search crawlers will consider these when it comes time to evaluate the quality of a discrete piece of content)
  • Body Copy (is your writing entertaining and informative, encouraging readers to spend more time on the page or click through to other parts of your site?)
  • Link System (do all of the internal links within your body copy work? Have you secured backlinks from other reputable sources to guide Google’s bots to your content?)

Have any more questions about getting started with SEO for your brand? Curious about how we evaluate our own headlines, or otherwise grade SEO success? Want to run some ideas by an experienced, objective third party? Whatever you’re looking for, Geek Chicago is here and ready to help! Drop us a line today to get the conversation started!

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