Writing Headlines for Regular Readers, Search Engines, and Social Media

When writing headlines for an article there are three different kinds of readers that you can optimize for:

  1. You can write for regular readers.
  2. You can write for search engines.
  3. You can write for socially driven sites.

In an ideal situation you would be able to write a title that fits all three categories but that is rarely the case. There is a marked difference between the different kinds of readers and that’s why you need to market your content to them in different ways.

Let’s take a look at each of the three categories:

Writing Headlines for Regular Readers

Although ultimately you are writing titles for human readers in each case, what I mean specifically is writing titles for your subscribers and regular site visitors. While your headlines must always pique interest, these readers don’t necessarily need to be ‘baited’ and will read your content as long as it is unique and fresh. This is where you can get creative and have fun with your titles or just be succinct. More often than not, these readers will continue reading your content because you have already created a rapport with them.

Do keep in mind that most readers will look toward the headline to see if the content of the post is relevant to them. Make sure that your title makes sense to the reader and makes a promise about the content of the post.

Writing Headlines for Search Engines

Search engine traffic on the other hand is looking for something very specific and will not click through unless given a good reason too. When you are writing a title for a search engine, your goal is to be the top-ranked result for a particular query because the assumption most searchers make is that highest rank result is the best result and will get the most clicks. Here are two things that you need to do in conjunction with each other to make your content most appealing to search engines.

  1. Writing good post titles.
  2. Writing good titles for subsections of your posts.

Writing good post titles in this case doesn’t necessarily coincide with a good title that may be applicable to the previous case though there will be some overlap. You need to keep several things in mind.

  1. The page title should be short and to the point. Titles lengths should average between 60 and 80 characters (I’m using 65 characters for the title of this post).
  2. Your keywords must be in your title, but the trick is doing this without making the headline unattractive and boring.
  3. If possible, use your key words in the beginning. Because these readers are scanning the search results for keywords they will want to see certain words pop out from the onset.

Now moving on to writing subtitles, first of all let me mention that no matter what you are writing about and how engaging your content is, your readers do not want to have a chunk of text forced on them. The way you present your content has a big effect on your readers’ opinion by the time they get to the end of a post.

If you are covering several different topics within a post, or are covering one topic from several different angles, break up the action by separating each subsection of your post with a title of its own. As you can see, I am using three specific subtitles for this article, which serve three distinct purposes.

  1. By using subtitles I am breaking up the action between the text and making it easer for all of you to consume all the text.
  2. As a reader, if you already know some of these techniques and want to skip ahead to the one you don’t know, its as easy as looking for the bold text.
  3. Subheadings reinforce the content of your page when it is being indexed by a search engine.

Writing Headlines for Social Media

Somewhat similar to search engine traffic, while social media traffic is not looking for something specific, these readers need an incentive to click through to your site. Just like in the previous section, these users also need to be baited, hence the usage of the term ‘Diggbait’. I thought the best examples for this section would be to show you some titles that I had taken from the actual posts and changed them to make them more appealing to the Digg audience and then explain what exactly I did.

There are several degrees to which you can change a title.

  1. Additional Information
  2. Simple word rearrangement.
  3. Simple word omission.
  4. Presentation as Fact.
  5. Digg bait word addition
  6. Sensationalism.

In the first category you just remove certain words that will be superfluous. You want to make your title as short as possible, because these readers don’t have a lot of patience and you have mere seconds to get their attention.

In the second case, you drop a few words from the actual title to create a title that isn’t as restrictive as the original. By removing a few key words you can make the title appeal to a much larger audience.

Here’s a perfect example of 2 and 3 used simultaneously:

Original post title: Google’s New ‘Animated’ Home Page In Korea

I simply rearranged the title to bring ‘new’ to the front which immediately makes the title attractive because the people get a look at something ‘breaking’, ‘new’, ‘exclusive’, ‘this just in’. Then, I omitted ‘home’ because I assumed the readers would implicitly understand that I am talking about the home page. And last I dropped ‘in Korea’ because that could make some users feel like its inapplicable to them and therefore completely useless.

Of course these changes were only made to the title and in fact the summary reflected complete information so as to not make the submission inaccurate. But this is a first step in getting the reader’s attention

Optimized post title: New ‘Animated’ Google Page

The result? 2,500 Diggs.

Now let’s take a look at 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 working together:

Original post title: Better than Google? Creator thinks so

Now if you excuse the superfluous and misplaced comma there, you will note that first I dropped the latter half of the original title simply because that makes it the opinion of the founder and essentially a useless claim. Who would claim that they were making a product that was inherently inferior? Secondly, I removed the question mark to make it a statement not a question. Then I added new information to the title and pushed the existing information to the end. The result is automatically sensationalized.

Again, although the changes are made to the title, the summary in fact contains complete information about the article so as to not make the submission misleading.

Optimized post title: A Search Engine, Better Than Google

The result? 2102 Diggs.

And finally a look at number 5.

Original post title: How to make Tetris ice cubes!

As you can see the post is largely Digg bait as it is, but of course it could use some help. Because it was good to begin with I opted simply to add ‘Pictures’ right before the title and it worked like a charm.

Optimized post title: Pictures: How to make Tetris ice cubes!

The result? 736 Diggs as of this writing.

What we see here is that the original posts were fine in all cases – for readers and perhaps for search engines – but not so much for social media. And since I submitted the posts I altered the titles which ended up helping the content producers a lot. But the average Digger wouldn’t have changed the title and would probably not have gotten the posts to the front-page.

As a content producer you can use a Digg submit button with a pre-populated title to ensure that if submitted, the post is submitted with the optimized title.

As you can see, none of this is ‘gaming’ the system and neither is it misleading the reader by presenting something that is inaccurate, especially since you give all the relevant information in the submission summary. However, by performing certain alterations you can make your post more appealing and more effectively bait the readers. One important thing to keep in mind is to do everything in moderation, because if you take these steps too far you can get yourself in trouble.

Conclusion

I can’t stress this enough: while it’s certainly possible to optimize for two out of the three kinds of readers and sometimes for all three, you should still rank your regular readers first and choose the second and third on your priorities. With practice, you should find that you’re able to write headlines that work across multiple channels.

Read more from Muhammad Saleem at Pronet Advertising.

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Comments

  1. What are your thoughts on the use of the SEO title tag wordpress plugin?
    Would this help the titles be more useful for readers and search engines without re-writing them?

  2. Muhammad – Great article, thanks!

    My experience has been that with Digg, no matter how good the title or topic, it seems that someone with a large readership (like Brian’s CopyBlogger) must cover an article to take it over the hump.

    Do you find this to be true?

    Mike

  3. Michael,

    Digg is a socially driven media site. You’ve got to be connected… so need either a large readership, or enough friends on the site.

    Good luck!

  4. Very nice and descriptive post, thanks!

    But I really liked your conclusion. I also think it is possible to write thinking about all three channels, although very difficult to do. But after all, all three are needed, right?

  5. As Tyler mentioned above, the SEO Title Tag WordPress plugin allows you to write headlines for (#1) regular readers and (#2) search engines by allowing you to name posts as you wish & use a custom title tag for search engines. The plugin also allows you to change the title tags of categories and pages amongst other things.

  6. Tomas,
    Thanks for putting the link to the Plugin up there.
    I was too lazy to go find it again. I just started using it and I think that it has some benefits. However, I wish I had been using it right from the beginning.

  7. This is a great article! Headlines are so important and it is quite possible to write one that reaches those 3 categories.

    As for Digg, even with only a few Diggs, you can still get a bit of traffic – more people visit than Digg. However, the readership is rarely loyal. Even if you get a big Digg. Then again I’m a girl and we all know Digg is for 20-something boys.

    Seriously, though. I agree with the comments above about the SEO title tag – i also recommend getting a Meta Tag plugin for those WordPress blogs!

  8. I think the biggest overlap is with posts for regular readers and for search engines, something informative containing the keywords is the easyest and safest…

    With the Digg titles, are do you mean you only change the title of the Digg post or change the title on the blog post too?

  9. This was a very helpful post. Thanks for writing it with such clarity. Quick question though. Do you think regular readers would ever become frustrated if the post titles always catered to the search engines and social media?

    I imagine they wouldn’t really care too much. You’ve already proven to them that your content is worth reading.

  10. Very profound article, I translate it into Chinese

  11. Some very good tips in that lot.

    A question however, writing headlines for the url, does that change anything??? I think it would….

  12. Jermayn, whether hand publishing a page or blogging, you can control what the URL (or “post slug”) is by hand, without regard for how the headline reads.

  13. really good post.
    i also always spend lots of time on choosing post title, which is really important for SE and SN.

  14. I tried to add that to our social site (linkuj.cz). Of source transleted to my native language. I wonder if would it be sucessfull.

  15. Yes I agree you must try to use good headlines and keywords for search engines and also make the article or post interesting for the reader.

  16. It’s tough to please everyone, usually when you try to please everyone you wind up pleasing no one.

  17. My friend just tell me and I can’t believe it, Mike’s daughter are dead so tragedy and so sad. I am a big fan of him, he is a great guy, best boxer – crazy little bet but every body know him and like him.

  18. great article. going to follow your tips on my future sites..

  19. Writing titles for social media is not so cut and dried as getting traffic from Digg. Depending on your target market, Digg traffic can actually be a negative drain on your site resources while adding little or nothing to your bottom line. For me, the self-winnowing of StumbleUpon seems to work best. When I Stumble one of my better posts, traffic takes a nice blip for several days and I may even get a track-back. Works for me.

    I write a gardening blog.

    I’d rather have 100 people interested in buying garden seeds than 1,000 Diggers who aren’t. The thousand aren’t going to do much for my bottom line and any clicks they might give would be ‘cheap clicks’ that don’t result in a sale. I’d rather have adsense (and advertisers) see that the 3-4 who clicked through from my site on a particular day were ready to spend cash. Preferably plenty of it. That raises the value of the ad space on my blog. 1,000 views and only a few clicks with no purchases deals my rep as an ad host a death blow. Next thing you know, I’m hosting PSAs for the USDA on the same page where I rip ‘em a new one. Sucks to be me.

    I recently got a bunch of mis-directed traffic (not from Digg) and my bounce rate went through the roof … nearly 90% when I usually run 15-18% (which I still consider high). What use is this traffic? It’s not even good for word of mouth. I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t have to explain where those numbers came from to continue earning a paycheck.

    The only time I’ve seen that number higher was when two plugins conspired to send all my traffic into the bit bucket. There for a few days I had 100% bounce rate … everything was 404′d.

    On another one of my sites, growth is up nearly 500% (month over month) and the bounce rate is .68% — less than 1%. And this is almost all organic growth. No Digg there, either … it’s an appliance repair site. Just good SEO and useful writing. When I got fired, my posts were starting on page two of the SERPs for our chosen terms … one started on page one at #7 … counting the paid ads and that !%&?(*&%$!! Google map. I hope whoever follows on behind me is an effing genius because if he isn’t, my new terms will be considerably more generous (to me) than previously.