Headlines and Titles–Writing for Reader AND Search Engines

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In this quick SEO (search engine optimization) discussion, I want to talk about how the headlines of your posts and articles relate to search engines along with the URLs of your posts and the Title tag.  As far as SEO goes, we’ll keep it simple and only address these three subjects in this post, but they are three elements you can pretty easily use to your advantage. I’ve provided links to more info on SEO for each of these elements if you’re interesed in learning more details.

The Headline

Best Headline Ever?

Best Headline Ever?

You should be thinking, “What is this joker going to tell me about writing headlines?” Not much–I’m not even going to begin to assume I have anything new or insightful to tell journalists about writing headlines that grab readers’ attention. In fact, I don’t have much to tell amateurs about writing headlines that hasn’t been written by other people. Keep doing what you do here.

Just know this…

The basic SEO rule is to use keywords that are directly related to your article. I don’t think that necessarily applies in every case, especially for news related sites. There has to be something to grab the reader’s attention, and this is your best shot at that. In the long run, my goal would be to have readers showing up to my site either directly or through references from other sites, and I’d want to grab their attention once they arrive. It’s a little bit of a tradeoff–your call though. It sure wouldn’t hurt to find a way to attract readers AND use keywords related to your post whenever possible. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this post.

The URL/Permalink

This doesn’t get the emphasis it used to, but I think it still matters. Looking at the URLs below, it’s pretty clear which one tells you more about the article you’re reading, even though both URLs will get you here:


Google used to have a tough time spidering dynamic urls like the first one above, but not anymore. However, I think it is still important that you change your permalink structure so that you can have meaningful keywords if people link to you using the URL as the anchor text. In essence, you’ve dictated to these people the exact terms you want them to use when linking to you.

In WordPress the setting to change this is under “Settings”->”Permalinks” on your dashboard. One thing to note here is that I’ve changed the Permalink to be a little different than the headline in this post. I did this mostly to demonstrate it could be done, but also because the keyword “URL” may not work as well for humans (the headline) but I wanted to include it for SEO purposes.

Of course, your domain name plays into this as well, but chances are you are stuck there unless you haven’t purchased a name yet. It’s no coincidence that our domain name contains both of the terms “news” and “tech”.  The “zilla” we threw in because we already had the logo designed.  😛

The Title Tag

The Title tag controls what shows up in the Title Bar of your browser.  See how the Title of this page is different than the headline? That’s done for SEO purposes.  Most people won’t pay attention to the Title tag, but search engines do! I think it’s probably the most likely of these three elements to be underutilized. If you’re building your site from scratch it’s pretty easy to control the Title tag on a page by page basis, but most people are using some type of content management system (like WordPress) these days. The “Title” tag is located in the header of a web page, before any content, and most CMSs will use the same header for every page in a site. Again using WordPress as an example, the default setting for each page will list the name of the website followed by the Headline for the post. If you change nothing at all, your headline, title, and permalink terms will all be the same.

Not bad, but we can do better. Since every single page on our site is going to include the web site name, it helps our SEO to use the title of the post and then the website name. It makes things more “differenty”–a little sense of variety if you will. And that’s what we’ve done here. The problem is, that’s not very easy to do without some help. Luckily there is the great All In One SEO plugin for WordPress that lets us take care of these things.

It’s a must have plugin for anyone running WordPress, and if you are running WP 2.7 it does everything for you right out of the box–almost. There is one key setting you should make however, and that is to specify your Home Title and Description.  These are easy to find–they’are are the first two options when you go into the plugin settings. There are several other things we can tweak with this plugin, and we’ll cover those in separate posts. For now, this is a good start. If you are using another CMS, chances are there is something out there in the form or a plugin or extension to help you with this issue as well if the functionality isn’t already built in.

I’m sure there are plenty of people with way more SEO expertise than me out there who would like to throw in some other helpful tips an info regarding headline writing, URLs, and the Title tag, so feel free to let it fly in the comments.

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  1. Frank said January 9, 2009 | Permalink

    I’ve meaning to change my permalink structure but this article made me a little less afraid to tinker with it. Thanks!

  2. Dave Barnes said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    1. Google pays the MOST attention to the title tag. Everything you wrote about it above is correct. I would add that Google only displays (to potential human readers of your article) the first 66 characters in its results.

    2. You can learn a lot more about SEO by visiting–and perusing– these sites:

    3. You comments/instructions about description and keywords tags are spot on. I have a couple of comments about them:
    a. Don’t repeat the title in the description tag. When Google displays the description tag as the snippet below the title tag you want to give your prospective reader (victim) additional information.
    b. Keywords should be unique (i.e., don’t repeat them). The tag for this page
    *meta name=”keywords” content=”seo, search engines, headlines, titles, urls, google,google,headlines,search engines,titles,urls,writing” /*
    violates this rule. I would have added: description tag, keywords tag, meta tags

    4. This page has one significant boo-boo from my perspective. The H1 tag.
    a. In theory, there should be only one h1 tag per page. You have met that restriction.
    b. Google heavily weights this tag.
    c. Your h1 tag is: *h1**a href=”http://www.newstechzilla.com/”*NewsTechZilla*/a**/h1*, but your “real headline” is an h2 of
    *h2*Headlines and Titles–Writing for Reader AND Search Engines*/h2*
    You should fix this.

    P.S. I have replaced all the greater than and less than characters with asterisks due to the limitations of the comment system here.

  3. Dave Barnes said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    Some comments about headlines.

    1. Print and web are completely different.

    2. Clever headline writing (witty and full of puns) is perfect for the printed page AS YOUR READER HAS ALREADY COMMITTED THEIR EYEBALLS TO THE PAGE. The goal of the headline is to get them to read the article. The human brain is very good at absorbing a clever headline, making sense of it and deciding whether or not to proceed. This headline (taken from http://www.fark.com/) “Burglar gets beaten off by 94-year-old man, now knows how all those choirboys feel” is great for print and not for the web (unless you are Fark).

    3. For the web, there are actually three (3) “headlines” for an article (aka, a webpage that is about a single subject)

    a. The visible headline on the page. This should an h1 tag and the only h1. This will be seen by humans when they are on the page and semi-committed to reading the article. Clever (e.g., Moose using helicopters to stage airborne invasion of Colorado) would be OK here EXCEPT that Google uses this tag when indexing the page. So, what to do?
    i. Make your visible headline = Wildlife biologists use helicopters to move moose from Utah to Colorado
    ii. Make a visible sub-head (h2) = “Red-state moose to stage airborne invasion of Colorado” or something else clever. (I, for one, do not write headlines as I am a engineering nerd.)

    b. The invisible title tag (but, which is visible in the search engine results page (SERP). Google pays a lot of attention to this tag so it must make sense to a STUPID ROBOT who is indexing your page. But, at the same time it needs to be interesting to the human who will read it when looking at the SERP. Just remember, you write it first for Google and then for humans. 66 characters. Don’t be clever and no puns.

    c. The invisible description tag (but, which it visible sometimes, but not every time, as the 2-line snippet in the SERP). You are writing this to help Google index your page. 155 characters (including spaces). Don’t make it a list of keywords as Google hates that. Use different, but relevant words from the title tag.

  4. Dave Barnes said January 11, 2009 | Permalink

    Crap! I forgot a 4th headline. Hate not being able to edit my posts.

    3. For the web, there are actually four (4) “headlines” for an article (aka, a webpage that is about a single subject)

    d. The headline on your homepage. This headline is designed to be read by humans and get them to click on the link to read the article. Don’t write at all for Google. Clever is good here. Remember, you are trying to get prospective readers to move deeper into your website. See Fark.com for great examples. “Joe Biden visits Afghanistan, surprising Afghan and US officials who didn’t know Amtrak goes there”

  5. Trace Sharp said April 10, 2009 | Permalink

    This explains things much better to me. By jobe, she’s got it. :0

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