Help Google find your page

Optimize web heads for search, humans

If Google can’t find it, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, can’t nobody find it.

Help Google find your page

Search me Write headlines for humans, optimize them for search engines. Image by Richard Tilney-Bassett

Indeed, one key role of web heads is to help Google find your page.

“If the story is about the dangers of salmonella in tomatoes in California, by golly, the headline probably needs to have ‘California,’ ‘bacteria’ and ‘tomatoes’ in it,” says Sara Dickenson Quinn, visual journalism teacher at The Poynter Institute. “Maybe ‘salmonella,’ too.”

How search has changed

But this ain’t your daddy’s Google. Back in the day, keyword stuffing and inbound linking — from anywhere! And in any way! — were the best paths to finding readers, or at least to helping them find you.

Those were the bad old days, when optimized webpages read like … well, like optimized webpages: There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.

But all that has changed — thank goodness — with the 20-year evolution of Google algorithms.

How Google algorithms have evolved
Inbound linksKeyword stuffing
75% of SEO success25% of SEO success
Not affectedQuality more important
Inbound linking schemes punishedPunished
Still punishedStill punished: semantic & long-tail search supported

What you don’t know can hurt you Google now punishes, rather than rewarding, keyword stuffing and inbound link schemes.

Now keyword stuffing and inbound linking schemes aren’t rewarded; they’re punished.

Plus, with semantic search, Google can now intuit (I believe that’s the technical term) what you’re writing about even without specific search terms. If you’re selling cheap tacos in Tucson, for instance, Google can help searchers find you, even if you don’t use the words cheap, tacos and Tucson.

Finally, there’s long-tail search. These days, web visitors don’t search for simple terms like “LAX flight delays.” Instead, they’re more likely to ask a longer, more conversational and more precise question: “Will Delta Airlines flight 457 be delayed out of LAX today?” That’s especially true of mobile voice search: When we dictate rather than typing our searches, apparently, we tend to be more free with words.

All of which means that now, your best path to SEO success is to write a good piece that people read and share.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: Your headline still gets a header (h1) tag on the portal, which means it can deliver huge SEO benefits.

“It’s an endorsement of headline writers by Google,” jokes Andy Bechtel, associate professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Include these elements in web heads.

To optimize your headline for search engines, consider including:

  • Keywords. These are the common words and phrases visitors would use to describe the subject of your webpage — “social media jobs,” “communication measurement” or “executive communications,” maybe. Learn to find keywords for your headline.
  • Proper names. The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten once called a column about headline SEO, “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga.” Names of people, places, organizations and things are common search queries. To match those searches, include commonly used names in your headline.
  • Full personal names. I know, I know. Your style guide calls for using your CEO’s last name only in headlines. But people are more likely to search for first and last names. Want folks to find your page? Use both.
  • Unique elements. Better to be found by the right searchers than by all searchers — or by none at all. So include elements that are unique to your webpage.
  • Geographic references. “Epilepsy treatment in Portland, Oregon,” for instance, will compete with only 399,000 Google results. But “epilepsy treatment” without the location will compete with 29.8 million.

“Strive for relevance to likely search queries,” advises Eric Ulken, assistant managing editor of digital at The Seattle Times, “not just popular ones.”

Leave these elements out of web heads.

To make the most of your headline, don’t include:

  • Extra words. Keep headlines short — about 55 characters or less, Ulken advises. Longer than that, and they can get truncated in search results.
  • Gobbledygook. Nobody searches for words like “world-class,” “cutting-edge” and “next-generation.” Gobbledygook not only clutters up your copy for real readers, it also dilutes your keywords for search engines, as well.
  • Obscure words. Back away from that thesaurus. Web headlines are no place to show off your vocabulary. Reach for the common word, not for the clever one. “There’s no reason to use ‘temblor’ when ‘earthquake’ will do,” Ulken says.
  • Journalese. Trust me: Your readers aren’t searching for “area man” or “local festival.”
  • Punny phrases. Feature heads work great in print. Online, they confuse search engines and readers looking at indexes of stories. So make web heads clear and explanatory. Think of it as “the pursuit of the literal,” Ulken says.

“Google has no sense of humor,” Bechtel says.

Make your headline your page title.

Multiply your Google juice by making your web head your page title. Google gives bonus points (yes, technical terms again) to webpages with the same headline and page title.

Make your headline your page title

Think twice Multiply your Google juice by repeating your web head in your page title.

But — and as PeeWee Herman says, there’s always a big but — here’s a workaround that allows you to use creative headlines online. Put the creative headline on the content page; use your page title for SEO.

Or, steal this trick from the BBC: Create a short headline for readers that you use in indexes and at the top of your content page, for readers. Then add a longer headline underneath — aka a deck — and pack that puppy with search terms. Here’s how it works:

Write it like the BBC

Write it like the BBC Here’s the index headline and blurb for a recent news item …

Write it like the BBC II

Write it like the BBC II … Here’s the page title, which helps with SEO …

US dog food recall after euthanasia drug found
A US pet food company says traces of a drug used to euthanise animals have been found in some of its products, leading to a large recall

Write it like the BBC III … And here’s what the head and deck look like on the content page.

Practice ‘proactive SEO.’

As you learn more about popular queries on your topic, you might also be able to develop stories and webpages to match those trending topics.

“Done right, this isn’t shameless hit-chasing,” Ulken says. “It’s finding out what your audience wants to know and giving it to them.”

Optimize for people, too.

“When things get tough, remember … You’re not writing for Google; you’re writing for people, with Google in mind,” Ulken says. “Sometimes headline writers get carried away with SEO. It’s counterproductive to put these goals ahead of clarity and common sense.”


  • Lift Ideas Off the Page

    Reach nonreaders with display copy

    Once you’ve written your headline, David Ogilvy famously said, you’ve spent 80 cents of your advertising dollar. That’s right: Display copy — headlines, captions and callouts, for instance — gets the biggest ROI of everything we write.

    Lift Ideas Off the Page in Dallas

    That’s why I’m often amazed that the same folks who spend hours polishing the analogy in the seventh paragraph of their message toss off a headline in the 17 seconds before happy hour on a Friday afternoon. Most of your readers will never read the seventh paragraph. But many more will read your display copy.

    People don’t read. So how can you reach them with words?

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on Oct. 2-3 in Dallas — you’ll learn how to put your messages where your readers’ eyes really are — to use your display copy to pull readers into your message, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.


Sources: Andy Bechtel, “Writing Headlines for Digital and Mobile Media,” Poynter News University, Dec. 5, 2013

David Wheeler, “‘Google Doesn’t Laugh’: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO,” The Atlantic, May 11, 2011

Kevin Allen, “Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over (because of SEO),” Ragan’s PR Daily, May 13, 2011

“Writing Online Headlines: SEO and Beyond,” Poynter News University

Eric Ulken, “Writing Headlines for the web 2010,” Poynter News University

Gene Weingarten, “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2010

Eric Ulken, “This headline not written for Google,” OJR: The Online Journalism Review, Oct. 20, 2009

Steve Lohr, “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google,” The New York Times, April 9, 2006

Steffen Fjaervik, “Headlines: Boring Is Better than Useless,” PoynterOnline, April 10, 2006

Steffen Fjaervik, “Please, Please, Please Write Informative Headlines,” PoynterOnline, Jan. 21, 2005

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