I’m a reporter. What do I care about SEO? The answer should be “plenty,” if you care whether anyone sees that story you worked so hard on once it’s posted online.
The digital audience is made up of seekers and scanners. People seeking information about a particular topic will search for it online. At NPR, for example, almost 70 percent of the traffic to the website comes from just two sources: social media and search. Typically, people aren’t coming to the NPR home page and browsing. They’re looking for something specific. If your headline, story URL and metadata include the same key words people are searching for, your story has a better chance of being found and read. That’s what SEO (search engine optimization) is all about.
Writing headlines with SEO in mind should help capture the scanners, too. People who land on a page they’ve found by searching will take a quick look at other headlines in the sidebars. To grab them, your headline needs to attract attention and inspire the reader to want to know more.
Keep in mind that a headline must work alone. It will be seen in lots of channels, including social media, without the context of the rest of the story. It may not even be connected to an image. A headline also has to be clear and accurate. Headlines should not promise something the story can’t deliver. You’re not writing click-bait (I hope). You want people to read the story and feel that it was worth their time, so they’ll come back.
So do some research. The simplest way is to search for yourself. Type in what you think the key words for your story might be. At the bottom of the first search page on Google, you’ll often find a list of “related searches” that will tell you what other people are searching for, either validating your choice or giving you better alternatives. Another option: use CoSchedule’s headline analyzer, and download their list of “power words” for grabber headlines. (Thanks to Chris Newmarker’s column in the latest SPJ Quill for the suggestion.)
With SEO in mind, keep your headlines short. Google will only show the first 55 to 60 characters, so eight words should be enough. Short headlines work better on mobile, too. See what I mean?
A few additional thoughts about headlines:
A headline is not a tease. Headlines need to convey specific information about the story, so readers know at a glance what it’s about. Don’t be vague and don’t try to be clever.
Beware of tired formulas. Questions in headlines are overused, and often raise a question the story doesn’t answer. Don’t do that. And don’t write a question headline that can be answered “yes,” or “no.” Why would anyone bother to read the rest of the story?
For more on headline writing, here are some helpful tips from Colin Dwyer and Stephanie Federico, digital editors at NPR.