To Write Killer Headlines, Appeal to Emotions, Not Google: Here’s Proof

Write Headlines for Readers not Search Engines
Every blog post has a primary job: To be read by real people. Specifically, to be read and valued by the kinds of readers you want interacting with your site and your brand. It doesn’t matter if you published your own blog post, a guest post, or a sponsored post, the point is reader engagement. There are a lot of powerful ways to make that happen, but writing blog post titles for SEO is not at the top of the list. Here’s the logic (and the supporting evidence) to free yourself from the shackles of optimization overload.

Emotions Make People Click

A recent article in Fast Company titled, The Link Between Viral Content and Emotional Intelligence, Drake Baer explores how some superstar writers score many times the pageviews as their peers. While the article focuses on the most viral of viral content, it’s lessons are applicable to the more pedestrian topics we marketers deal in daily. Deciding what to click, to read, and to share, regardless of topic, is a highly subjective experience. According to Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, Baer explains, what makes a post sharable boils down to a handful of essential characteristics:

  • Social Currency: We share things that make us look good (even if that means pictures of our cat).
  • Triggers: Easily memorable information means it’s top of mind and tip of the tongue.
  • Emotion: When we care, we share.
  • Public: Built to show, built to grow.
  • Practical Value: News people can use.
  • Stories: People are inherent storytellers, and all great brands also learn to tell stories. Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.

My own article, In an Opt-In Culture, All Content is Branded Content, makes a similar case– that content represents a choice, and that choice reflects on us as individuals. In other words, we all have personal brands– we want others to view us in a certain way– and what we share is a clear expression of our brands. We don’t share boring stuff, because we don’t even want to be seen as reading boring stuff. Which is why emotionally-charged headlines matter so much.

Sure, your SEO-related tasks may not revolve around getting a post to take off on Facebook, especially if your content is highly specialized, which makes it anti-viral in nature. That doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as an ideal search engine optimized headline!

Exact Match Titles Don’t Rank Best

This should be obvious, because it can be verified in the 0.42 seconds it takes Google to run a query. Google anything and you’re likely to find many variants on the theme of what Google figures is your intended topic. You might even see semantic results where Google attempts to answer your question directly, without deferring to the sites listed below it. If it were true that an exact match in the title is a top ranking factor, you’d see exact match phrases for pages and pages, but you don’t.Blog Post Headline Google Search

Many highly variable headlines beat out exact matches. When I Google “how to write blog post headlines,” for example, there is no perfect exact match until the third page.

I looked as deep as page 18 and still found exact matches only here and there, while other versions of the phrase ranked higher, including three of the top four listings that didn’t even use the word “headline.”

Further, only seven of the top 30 listings contain at least part of the keyword phrase at the very front of the headline, with Google pulling out the remaining words from the rest of the title, or from within it’s descriptive text. That kinda blows up the whole “front-load your keywords” tactic.

Other SEO techniques like words in the url, descriptive text, site relevance and title tags certainly contribute, too. But those are just the mechanics.

A lot of people read the sites listed and link to these articles. Chances are, a big chunk of their traffic comes from existing readers who receive email updates, revisit the sites, share the content, and link to it because it’s valuable stuff. That leads me to my next point.

Deeper Content Provides Many Paths

Brian Clark’s top-listed page is really just a portal to ten other posts on his own site. The Hubspot post links to related posts at least five times, and the About.com article provides over a dozen internal links.

Most articles don’t perform well in search as stand-alone search targets. They have to fit into a deeper set of resources that readers find useful. You hear a lot about Google seeking deeper content, but that doesn’t just mean 800 word articles instead of 500 words. That means pages of content, because readers want deep resources.

What does this have to do with headlines? Simple: Readers should find many paths to your content because it’s highly integrated into your site. Compelling headlines do their job in all the other places readers find them while navigating through your site, from links on other sites, your email newsletter, through social updates, content discovery links or wherever they find you. So, if your headline is only optimized for SEO, not only is it likely not to perform in search, but it won’t do a good job in all the other places readers click.

In the two links I shared above, I used the article titles as the anchor text because I think that’s a lot more interesting than “click here.” My job, after all, is to get the click, not just build the link.

Effective Headlines Encourage Snap Judgements

Blog Post Headlines are Not Card Catalogue Entries

Remember those? Yeah, don’t be like that.

When readers are looking for what to pay attention to next, it’s not always (or even often) a slow, deliberate, rational process. Readers aren’t hunting through a card catalogue at the library, they’re surfing. Avoid using your headline as a dry label of your topic– that won’t work.

Titles that evoke a feeling of curiosity fare better. I published a 2800 word article about how to do exactly that. You’ll get about all you need to know to write better headlines, including a curated list of some of the best resources available.

Or, you can skip all that and notice that every top search result listed above, in addition to being great content on authoritative blogs, uses at least one emotional modifier that’s designed to trigger curiosity:

    • magnetic
    • kick-ass
    • secrets
    • scientific
    • popular
    • bitchin’
    • irresistible
    • ultimate
    • incredible

Every single headline is about getting the click, if not a share and a link. Like we showed above, many other factors influence search rank more than the title text itself. More importantly, search is just one way readers will find any given page on your site. That’s why headlines must be written for readers. People have to feel good about reading them– like they’re discovering something important, or helping their friends by sharing it.

And if you aren’t yet convinced that SEO factors make for fruitless headline construction, you’ll find further proof that appealing to emotions work in The Dark Science of Naming Your Post: Based on Studying 100 Blogs. It’s one of the best evidence-based pieces of research on the topic, and shows just how much words affect engagement, which helps a post gain more readers.

A Cool Tool to Measure Your Headline’s Emotional Impact

I completely understand if you find advice about headlines a little overwhelming. I’m prone to ignore it myself. There’s just so much good advice that the process can bog you down, especially if an SEO focus informed your headline choices to date. But the best bloggers and content marketers understand that word choice is a tiny, no-cost feature of your content that can determine whether it captures attention or remains completely unseen by your audience. So, what’s the cost of not getting your content seen by your target audience? More than the effort it takes to put some extra thought into it, no doubt. Here’s an easy way to ensure you at least give it a shot.

The Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer

Headliner Analyzer ToolThis thing is a ton of fun to use. It draws on decades of language analysis to process your headline text according to the emotional impact of the words it contains.

Notice the 54.55% score we received for this article’s headline. That wasn’t my first choice. In fact, I didn’t even think of it, our CEO Dan Ripoll did, but I couldn’t beat it with a better title, even though I was partial to my own.

Not only should you take a moment to review your headline choices against a tool like this, but it’s worth gathering ideas you may not have thought of, being so close to the content yourself.

Upworthy famously tests 25 headline choices before picking a winner, and many other bloggers and content marketers simply tweet potential titles to see what their followers retweet or favorite. Popular tweets = new articles.

Remember, in content marketing, what you want to say is never the point– to work like you want it to, your content has to give your audience what they want to read. And it all starts with a headline.

Image By Stuart Caie from Edinburgh, Scotland (Indexed) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Mike is Co-founder and CMO of Content BLVD, a marketplace where product companies and YouTubers meet to get more products into more videos. He's written for, been quoted in, and kicked out of many fine establishments.

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Posted in Blogging and SEO, Content Marketing, Creating Content, Social Media Marketing, Writing Better Content
3 comments on “To Write Killer Headlines, Appeal to Emotions, Not Google: Here’s Proof
  1. Angela Tague says:

    Great insight. I’ve always heard that powerful, emotion-based words get the click–and now you back it up. But, I’m not sure if I’ll work bitchin’ into my next headline. HA! I gave the headline analyzer a try and was happy to see a 60% score for the post I’m working on right now. Nice! Fun read. Thanks! Angela

    • Mike Sobol says:

      Wow! A 60% score is really good. Clearly you know how to produce emotionally compelling content!

      • Angela Tague says:

        Sometimes! I was pleasantly surprised too! The headline is “Beyond Content Creation: 9 Things Bloggers Must Do to Survive”. It just posted on Web Writing Advice today! 🙂 ~Angela

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