I remember when SEO first “hit.” I had been at an online publishing company for about a year, and while there was always some attention paid to on-page optimization, I’d hardly call what we were doing a strategy.
It soon became clear, however, that this new focus on SEO would end up changing the way we did pretty much everything. The first shoe to drop? Titles needed to get better.
Now for traditional publishers/editors/journalists, writing titles and headlines for content is a learned and respected skill. You take lessons on it in college and labor over writing them as a professional. A good title needs to be catchy, clever, and draw the reader in. It has to clearly convey what the article is about, but not be so descriptive that it gives away the farm. It can’t be misleading, nor can it be too long. It has to follow proper style, but also project the correct tone of the content.
It…well, it’s just really hard to do on a consistent basis!
Then suddenly, all that was seemingly wiped away. A good title had to be optimized, and that was it. Of course, no one actually ever said this, but that’s what many
smart people concluded. The reality of search results couldn’t be overlooked (case in point). The title or headline has always been the most important factor in regards to getting people to read something, but it’s also one of the key determinants for page rank in search. If your title is poorly optimized, it’s probably not going to rank–it’s really that simple.
But what folks (and content marketers) sometimes forget is that SEO is simply a means to an end, not the end itself. In my experience, I’ve seen the urge to over-optimize things at times out of fear that if you don’t, your content will end up like a tree falling in the forest.
SEO is a choice, and writing super-optimized titles designed purely for search is still a poor strategy. I’ve said it before, but we are still writing for people here, not robots. And just because a search engine might like your title, that only gets you so far. You still need real people to actually click on it, and that’s where the headline tactics of old come into play–and can help put your company’s content over the top.
Keywords are still important, and always will be. But Google’s latest changes are all geared toward returning the best quality content, not just the best optimized. And the first step to creating content people like is enticing them to read it.
So with all that in mind, here are a few things I tend to keep in mind when writing titles or headlines:
- Some content can be optimized better than others. This is just a reality of publishing. Some topics have better search volumes than others, and competition varies. But don’t let the lack of that perfect long-term keyword phrase keep you from covering topics that would be of interest to your target audience.
- Don’t force it. If you find yourself trying to fit a square-pegged keyword into a round-shaped title, just let it go. You don’t want to write something that doesn’t make sense or confuses the reader just for the sake of SEO.
- Less can be more. I want to be descriptive, but not too descriptive. Using up to 90 characters trying to cover every point of the article in the headline is a bad practice (and poor SEO as well).
- Stay away from using too many big words. No need to waste space on “resplendent” when a simple “cool” will do.
- Context is everything. I always try to keep who the audience is in mind. Folks can spot a fraud a mile away, and the last thing you want is to look amateurish by posting a title that is way off base.
Now these are hardly best practices, just general concepts I tend to abide by as an editor and content marketer. There are tons of great articles out there on writing better titles (here are several via Copyblogger) and SEOmoz has some excellent tips for keeping them SEO friendly.
What are your tips for writing really good titles? What are some of the worst ones you’ve seen? Sound off in the comments below.
You can find more information on content marketing and editorial practices at the OpenView Labs website. You can also follow Brendan on Twitter @BrenCournoyer and find more from the OpenView team @OpenViewVenture.
Author Brendan Cournoyer is a Marketing Associate at OpenView Venture Partners. He is an editor, content manager and marketer interested in online publishing initiatives and social media. He is focused on using journalistic concepts and editorial content strategies to help make companies more visible in an increasingly “online” world. He joined the OpenView team in the spring of 2011 and is responsible for managing most of the firm’s online content initiatives. He was previously a senior editor for TechTarget, Inc., a publishing company focused on providing news and learning resources for IT professionals. Follow him on Twitter @brencournoyer.