SEO Tutorial For Copywriters: Headlines That Please The ‘Bots, Reach The People

For the majority of the time I’ve been producing content for the placement on the Web, I have not cared a click for optimizing my headlines, or body copy, for search. Why? Because I write for people, not machines. Of course, online, you need to please the machines, in order to reach the people.
David Carr does an excellent job describing the process some writers, editors and publishers go through today.

Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, has ridiculed witty as the new dumb in his memos to staff, saying, “If you want to indulge yourself with Onion-style headlines, work for The Onion.”
As a reader, I see his point. When I scan my list of aggregated articles in an RSS feed, looking for information that I seem to need to know right now, I am ruthless: the obscure, the off-beat, the mysterious, frequently go unclicked.

Thankfully, there’s someone with a bigger view of the practice than Denton.

“We reject the idea that there are only two options, between a really creative and a boring headline. There is a lot of sunlight between those two options,” said Jim Brady, general manager of Politico’s coming local Washington site called “The headlines don’t have to be boring, but they have to be descriptive and direct so that they show up in mobile and RSS feeds in a way that lets people know what they are being asked to click on.”

Here, let’s compare and contrast two headlines, one from and one from
Both headlines were written with search engines in mind. Yet, both have some punch, a legacy from our print heritage. And I think that’s the trick. With no smile, or twist of language, headline writing and reading loses all its charm. With no search terms in place, the poetics of headline writing becomes another lost art.
I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Please begin your comment here with a better headline (creative- and search-wise) than the one I deployed for this post.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.