The Importance of Being Optimized: SEO Headlines and How They Work

The amount of news related information and content that is available to the Internet audience is almost immense and limitless. With affordable and user-friendly digital technology almost every Joe is able to create news and thereby seize some space and create his spot on the web. The web is also occupied by citizen bloggers, small and independent media outlets, news web-only media publications and last but not least traditional and large media organizations that are present both offline and online. The amount of news content is increasing on a daily basis making the Internet a busy, crowded and chaotic place.

The content available on the Internet is different in quality: some is good and deserves to be easily accessible to the Internet audience, whereas the same is not the case with some other. This cacophony of content that comes from less reputable sources, and is of a less quality creates what is in the communication theory known as “noise”. Noise is anything, in our case any content, that disrupts or interferes with the communication process between the sender and the receiver of the message, i.e. news in our example. (Collins, 2008:6). Another very important issue we have to be aware of is that all this content is competing for the same reader/audience at the same time. Bloggers, small, medium and large, old and newly established media organizations and publications are in the same position when it comes to the Internet.

In such seemingly chaotic environment the question that arises is how to separate news content that is high quality from the one that does not deserve the time and the attention of an Internet reader. Here is where the Internet comes to help by sorting the content using search engines (SEs) by sophisticated algorithms. Those algorithms are unique formulas that crawl the web content like spiders looking for certain criteria that are different for every SE, but there is one element that all SEs have in common and that is relevancy. “Whether it is just scanning for keywords, or looking at how these keywords are used, the algorithm will determine whether this web page has any relevancy at all for the particular keyword.” (Brick Marketing) And whereas search engines can do one part of the job relevant to discoverability of the content, the other part is left to content producers who have means to create and position their content on the Internet in a way that it reaches its audience successfully. This method is called search engine optimization (SEO). Due to the world limit of this essay the author will focus on SEO of news headlines.

In a modern world when the news is happening now as you, the reader, are reading this paper, the Internet is the first port of call for everyone looking for the news with an access to the Internet at the reach of one’s arm. In the Internet era readers are actively searching for the news, whereas in the old days of the print media, the news was coming to the reader, packed, selected and sorted in a certain order by someone, that person in charge being an editor. In the old times of the print, when newspapers and magazines were sold mostly at the newsstand, headlines were of the outmost importance for grabbing attention of a reader and for selling the paper. And it is the same today, a headline is there to make a reader stop as she leafs though the paper and make her read an article.

Attention-stopping Headlines

Good headline has always had to be attention grabbing, punchy and able to convey the message in a concise way. Headline-writing is a journalistic skill that provokes strong feelings – and of course it is meant to. A sub-editor writes a headline to grab attention, to compel readers. It’s also considered something of an art form, which will often see clusters of journalists poring over headlines at length, in the knowledge that the eventual choice could spell the difference between people reading the article or not. ( Since it has become a legitimate media channel the Internet has introduced a set of different rules for both readers and news creators. The news content does not necessarily come to the reader all pre-packed anymore as now reader often has to go to the web and get it. The imposing question in a situation like this is:

a) how can a reader find valuable and relevant information online in such a crammed and disharmonized jungle of content and

b) how can a media organization reach its readers with news related content it produces.

In our scenario the reader goes to the Internet, to one of the major search engines and types in the term of phrase that she is looking for. What happens next is that the search engine produces lists of relevant results that the reader can click on. SE task is to organize the information that exists on the Internet and make it accessible and useful for the reader.

Before we move forward let us explain better how this process works. “On the back, a search engine is a piece of software that uses applications to collect information about web pages. The information collected is usually key words or phrases that are possible indicators of what is contained on the web page as a whole, the URL of the page, the code that makes up the page and link into and out of the page. The information is then indexed and stored in database. On the front end, the surface has a user interface where users enter a search term – a word or a phrase- in an attempt to find specific information. When the user clicks a search button, an algorithm then examines information stored in the back-end database and retrieves links to web pages that appear to match the search term the user entered.” (Ledford, 2007:5) Vast majority of readers will check only the first page of the results that the search engine has produced. Majority of that majority will check the first four results that are ranked most highly, at the top of the list. The attention of readers is short and with competitive and large amount of content available online news outlets have to compete for attention of the readers and for their news to be clicked, opened and read.

“One of the key survival tactics for news providers is to make sure their stories are picked up by search engines, aggregators, bloggers and anyone else who can send traffic back to them.” (Kaye and Quinn, 2010:42) Some of the methods for achieving it have remained the same from the old times of the print, and some have been newly established and been changing since as the web technology and semantic web are evolving. Writing or better to say crafting the headline carefully choosing words and the order in which they are going to be lined up has become an art and a specialization on its own. One of the most popular tool for checking keyword trend is Google Trends. (For a good resource on trend spotting tools read How To Spot Keyword Trends.)

Headlines written according to those rules are optimized for search engines. “Search engine optimization is the science of customizing elements of your website to achieve the best possible search engine ranking.” (Ledford, 2007:18) Very often carefully crafted headline that is SEO will make a difference between the article being read or not. “ (…) a headline is a one-shot first impression that stops a mouse-moving, page-scrolling, attention-deprived users in his pixels and makes him wonder, “What is this?.” ( The headline has to create a wish for the reader to read an article. That is why having a headline that is SEO is crucial for success in the world of online news. As it is stated on “Someone’s content may be great, but if it has that magic of being SEO for search engine spiders that crawl the web, than it is really awesome, as those spidery algorithms deliver a third or more of traffic to websites.”

The traditional news organizations were rather late to embark on this trend, but now they have their journalists trained in SEO skills. As one of the SEO trainers at BBC has explained it: “(SEO) is about meeting the essential needs of web users to find the information they are looking for; it’s about bringing new users to the site, possibly for the first time in their lives; it’s about securing long-term promotion for your journalism that is not contingent on the few short hours of exposure it’ll get on a web index.” Since the BBC has started optimizing for the web search hundreds upon hundreds of different story headlines written every day by their teams across the UK and the world there have been achieved significant results in an increase of the number of visitors to the news section of their website: between the second half of 2009, pre-SEO, and the first half of 2011 visits to News from search increased by 57%, and overall visits were up by 34%. (

A search engine reads from the top down just like humans and information at the top of the webpage has the most importance and that is the headline. This is why it is important to use keywords in a headline.

Here is the BBC four-point checklist for their headlines as the most effective way of making that happen.

  1. use words that people would use in search in order to find the information being provided
  2. avoid words that people would never use in search to find that content
  3. put the most searchable elements at the front
  4. proper names are often used in search, so – following rules 1 and 3 – names should be included in the headline and if appropriate at the front.

The journalists are given 55 characters (including spaces) for the headline, which is a length that equates to the space allocated for the page title on a Google search results page.

The difference between the print and the online headline of the same publication

Here are examples of a 2010 Washington Post print edition headline and its website headline on a story about a talk show host Conan O’Brien refusal to return to late night after Jay Leno went back to NBC’s Tonight Show. The print headline was “Better never than late” whereas the web headline read “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.” A reader searching the web for Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno or “Tonight Show” would not find this story if it was with the “Better never than late” headline. When writing s searchable headline these elements are always good to include as they are key/searchable words that will attract audience:

a) well-known name and

b) news “hook” of topic.

In this example the well-known names are: Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno and the news hook or topic is “The Tonight Show” which made the whole article more searchable. (Kolodzy 2012:137)

The other side of the coin

Newspapers and other online news providers have become more sophisticated at utilizing SEO to attract users to their stories and sites in order to increase their audience dramatically. But chasing web traffic can also have editorial consequences and as writers and editors adjust their headlines and writing and even the topics they write about to be search engine friendly. Search engines give higher rankings to online content that has for example users’ search key words in the headline or high in the story. The search engine also gives priority to stories that have embedded keywords that match the search terms people type into the search engine. Online news creators can use a number of SEO tricks to ensure they include the keywords that web users are most likely to use for their search. “This can lead to online news stories sacrificing individual writing flair for the sake of search engine visibility. More controversial is the growing trend among news organization to track the most popular search terms at any given time and then create content that uses those search terms.” (For more on that topic see Kaye and Quinn, 2010:43)

From the above said we can see why the headline is the most important element in news writing, whether for an online audience of a magazine, newspaper or a media outlet. The reason why the headline is so important is that it helps a reader to decide whether to read the news or not. There is a visible good practice in media organizations for journalists to craft SEO headlines for their news to gain more visibility. Those headlines are search engine friendly and created with key words in mind that are relevant to the subject of the news article. Therefore this practice of incorporating key words and crafting SE friendly headlines will be of outmost help to both news producers and their audience.




1. Asser, M. Search Engine Optimisation in BBC News. [accessed January, 2013]

2. Collins, S. D. 2008. Interpersonal Communication: Listening and Responding. South-Western Cengage Learning.

3. Da Vanzo, P. How to Spot Keyword Terms. [accessed January, 2013]

4. Kaye, J. and S. Quinn. 2010. Funding Journalism in the Digital Age. Peter Lang Publishing.

5. Kolodzy, J. 2012. Practicing Convergence Journalism: An Introduction to Cross-Media Storytelling. Routledge.

6. Ledford, J. L. 2007. SEO:Search Engine Optimization Bible. Wiley Publishing.

7. Rick, J. “How to Optimize Your Headlines for Google and Humans” in Mashable. [accessed January, 2013]

8. “SEO basics” in Yahoo Style Guide. [accessed January, 2013]

9. “What is Search Engine Algorithm?” in “Brick Marketing. [accessed January, 2013]


  1. I agree that the content on the web is different in quality and that it is important to optimize headlines for search in order to stand out from the competition and the noise that exists on the internet. I learned from reading this paper that the vast majority of people searching for content will only check the first page of search results and that a percentage of those people searching will check only the first four results that are ranked most highly. The idea of using trends to optimize content discoverability, in combination with analytics is something I would not have considered had I not read this paper.

    I absolutely love the quote that was utilized here, “a headline is a one-shot first impression that stops a mouse-moving, page scrolling, attention-deprived user in his pixels and makes him wonder, “What is this?.” I think to further elaborate on this quote, content creators who write headlines for the web or any other form of publication have to incite curiosity in the reader and it has to be more than just a general curiosity. Publishers have to pull the reader into something that is both new and interesting, something that builds on content that already exists, rather than simply providing them with the same nugget of information as another content creator or simply saying something in a different way. The content needs to have an element of originality to it, it needs to also have an element of freshness. We need to not only be creating content for search engine optimization, but we need to be creating content for the humans that are using the SEs to access the content we’re creating and providing them with a new experience. I know that this paper is focused primarily on headlines, which are the gateway into content, but it’s important to remember that exposure isn’t the only goal of content creation. You definitely want someone to click on your headline, but you also want them to stay on your page once they have done so instead of bouncing off onto some other page within a matter of seconds once they arrive. A headline is only as good as the content to which it’s attached. A good headline is definitely the first step toward better content creation, however.

    I also didn’t know that search engines read from the top down, which is why it’s so important to include keywords in the headline of website. I think if you were to take one thing away from this paper, I’d recommend looking at your site headlines and seeing how well they represent the rest of the content on the page. And writing 55 character headlines is another important tip worth remembering. I think there definitely needs to be a differentiation between print headlines and web headlines, but I also think that print headlines need to convey something about the story, rather than just be a clever play on words. The example Jelena gives here is the article on the Tonight Show, which had a print headline of, “Better never than late.” While this is clever, as a reader, if I’m scanning print headlines in a newspaper and there isn’t an image next to this (which I’m assuming there would be), I’d have no idea what the article was about if I didn’t bother to read the opening paragraph. And if we live in the same world where people only bother to look at the first four results from a web search, there’s many people who are just headline scanners and will not bother to read the body copy of an article, whether it’s online or in print, if the headline doesn’t speak to some sort of specificity that resonates with them. I think too, that it’s important for print headlines, and their web counterparts, to include a well-known name and hook or topic because it is often the case, especially with smaller news organizations, that headlines will wind up on the website just as they appear in print, so it is better to start off with a web-ready headline instead of having to do the work to create two separate headlines. Though, there is one problem with this—creating a more search-friendly headline can also result in a headline being less interesting to the reader, so it becomes the challenge of content creators to not only use the tools discussed in the article to write headlines that are more optimized for search, but to also make those headlines more interesting to the reader once the headline shows up on that first page of results. You will not get the desired outcome if you’re on the first page of results and the average reader clicks around your headline.

    Great paper Jelena! Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. Thanks Jelena, you present some great tips and examples, especially concrete examples from BBC and the Washington Post.

    As you and Kimberly mention, there’s a need to write a headline for clarity and discoverability within search engines while still capturing the reader’s attention.

    As Kimberly mentions, this can be abused, and has been. Newspapers, knowing that articles get shared blindly through social media, often based on a catchy headline alone, are able to drive traffic to their site but not necessarily retain that traffic when there’s a disconnect between the promise in the headline and the actual news content. I’ll call it “clickers remorse.”

    Here’s an additional article from Mashable with further examples of what makes a strong news headline.

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