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How to Write SEO Headlines That Rank & Get Clicked

Author: Gordon Donnelly
Last Updated: June 25, 2024 | SEO

The benefits of good SEO are numerous. “Free” visibility in Google’s search results. An expanded brand presence beyond traditional modes of advertising. A steady stream of qualified traffic via keywords for which your target customers are searching. And, as typically follows qualified traffic: higher conversion rates, and more revenue.

As for the method? The basics of SEO haven’t changed all that much, even with the volatility of ever-evolving search algorithms.

One such factor that has remained pretty consistent is the SEO headline, otherwise known as the meta title. Representing half of your page’s ever-important meta tags, the SEO headline plays a critical role in your content’s ability to generate organic traffic. In this post, we’re going to dive into precisely what an SEO headline is, explain why it is so important, and walk through how to write SEO headlines that generate real value for your business.

Contents

What is an SEO headline?

Before we dive into how to write impactful SEO headlines, we need to understand what exactly we’re talking about. There are two components of any piece of content that you may be thinking of as an “SEO headline.”

The first is your page header, or H1. The page header, typically, appears physically at the top of your web page. In this post on meta descriptions, for instance, the H1 is “The importance of Meta Descriptions for SEO”

example of on page h1 from wordstream website

H1 refers to the actual HTML that is marking up and can be seen on the page. Most of the time, when you create a page or blog post, your CMS (Content Management System) will, by default, set your meta title to be the same as your H1. This can be fine in some situations, but not all. To understand why, we need to understand the difference between an H1 and a meta title.

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What’s the difference between a meta title and an H1?

While your H1 appears physically on the page, your meta title is the element that actually appears in the search results. Here’s how the meta title element looks in your HTML markup:

html markup for title tag in backend

Here’s how it looks in the search results:

example of seo headline and meta description on serp

And here’s how it looks in a typical CMS (Shopify, in this example).

example of seo headline in shopify cms

At the top of the page, we entered our H1, which Shopify then duplicated by default to create the meta title. But as you can see, Shopify then gives the content creator the ability to edit the meta title to make it meaningfully distinct from the H1.

Both the H1 and meta title are ranking factors, in that they allow Google to understand what your content is about, how relevant it is to a given search query, and where to rank it in the search results. However, given the distinct purpose each serves, there are some key differences you should keep in mind when writing each.

Why your meta title and H1 might be different

Here are some key differences to keep in mind when thinking about how your meta title might differ from your H1:

  1. Length. As we’ll discuss below, Google truncates all meta titles in the search results after 60 characters. That means that your title has to be clear, concise, and not exceed that limit, or else you risk losing key aspects of it. Your H1, on the other hand, can be as long as you want, technically speaking. Once the reader is on your web page, a little added description in the headline can add important context that you may have had to leave out in your meta title.
  2. Tone. Your meta title often needs to stand out meaningfully from the other listings in the search results in order to generate a click from the user. That means that it might contain tone–thing like urgency, positive or negative sentiment, and even alarmism–that aren’t quite as necessary once someone hits the page.
  3. Structure. It may be necessary to remove or reorder certain words and phrases that are relevant to your content, but don’t do a ton of work in the search results.

The importance of your meta title or SEO headline

Now that we understand the key differences between a page header and a meta title, and before we walk through seven strategies to writing effective meta title, we need to hammer home the importance of your meta title, or SEO headline.

Your meta title acts as the gateway to your content. It is the first and most prominent thing a reader sees when deciding whether or not to navigate to your site. As such, each word has to be selected very carefully, and with the user in mind.

We’ve mentioned the fact that truly compelling and relevant headlines can increase your rankings. That’s not just anecdotal–it’s data-backed. According to one Backlinko study, the top-ranking result on a Google SERP has an average click-through rate (CTR) of about 27.6%. The link in position two has a CTR of 15.8%.

That means that one slightly more relevant or catchy title can gain you another 10-12 sessions per 100 users that see your listing. If 4% of your organic sessions convert to sales, well–you can do the math, and you can start to see how important that lift in the search results is.

seo headline examples of google

Consider the above search result, for the keyword “how to write a great headline.” All three of these headlines are powerful, and for different reasons.

  1. The first is the most relevant to the query.
  2. The second contains the highest number (73), indicating that it contains the most information.
  3. And the third contains a brand name that signifies prestige and credibility.

This ends up having a flywheel effect. These listings get higher click-through rates than their competitors because they rank higher. But they also rank higher because their high-click through rate, by virtue of their appealing titles, signal to Google that their listings provide the most helpful content for the user.

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7 keys to writing SEO headlines that rank and drive traffic

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of writing effective SEO headlines, and the benefits you can enjoy by doing so, let’s walk through 7 keys to doing exactly that.

1. Target a keyword

Your meta title and H1 both need to target a keyword. That keyword should be informed by keyword research, highly relevant to the search query, and, if possible, have strong search volume and low competition.

wordstream free keyword tool

You can use a tool like WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool to find relevant keywords.

This is where character count and structure come in. If your target keyword comes after the first 60 characters in your H1, you can and should move it to the beginning of your meta title. Generally speaking, your target keyword should always appear at or near the beginning of your meta title.

Because you only have 60 characters to work with, you want to make sure that keyword doesn’t get omitted. If it does, both your user and the search engine will struggle to understand what your content is about.

2. Stick to character count best practices

We’ve mentioned ideal character count a couple times, and we need to hammer it home here. If you want to double check whether your title is at risk of truncation in the search results, Moz has a great preview tool that you can use to see how it’s going to look to the casual searcher.

seo headline best practices - use character count preview

This is of course important in ensuring your target keyword doesn’t get removed, but doubly so if you’re including secondary keywords, calls-to-action, your brand name, or a vital piece of contextual information that your readers should know. You never want to exceed that 60 character limit.

3. Have a call-to-action

Whether you’re promoting a product page, your homepage, or a blog, a call-to-action is a great way to encourage clicks-through from the search results.

Calls-to-action are more typically seen at the end of meta descriptions, but you can double their effectiveness by including them in your headline. Titles like “Check Out These X” or “Find Out Why Y” can be incredibly seductive for users, especially when the majority of listings aren’t going to contain calls-to-action in their titles.

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4. Leverage your brand whenever possible

Whether your domain has been around for 10 years or 1 year, your brand has authority. Your homepage, product pages, and core page (i.e. your “core pages”) should all contain your brand name after the relevant keyword and a dash.

example of using brand in seo headline

This signals to users familiar with your brand not only that you stand by your content, but that this is a page or a piece of content produced by a brand they can trust.

When writing a meta title for a blog post, case study, or other piece of long-form content, you may not have enough space to include your brand name. But you will find instances in which your SEO headline contains, say, only 45 characters. When this happens, don’t be afraid to add your brand name for that extra piece of credibility.

5. Be bold and stick out from the pack

As mentioned above, your user may browse up to 20-30 organic listings before they click on the one they want. It certainly helps if you’re ranked at the top of the pack. But even if you’re at the bottom of page one or the top of page two, a bold headline can go a long way in increasing your click-through rate.

Using powerful descriptors like “absolute” (i.e. the absolute best), “essential,” and “crush” (i.e. crush the competition) show users that your listing contains powerful content that will in turn empower them.

example of seo headline with bold language

If you’re writing a blog post, try being incendiary with a title like “Here’s Why Everything You Know About X Is Wrong,” or conveying extreme urgency with a title like “Y Statistics You Need to Know Right Now” in order to stick out in a bland search results page.

6. Use numbers and lists to convey clarity of purpose

Numbers and lists tell users exactly what they’ll be getting if they click on your listing. If you’re outlining the top 5 coffee makers in the market, make sure your title contains “top 5 coffee makers.” If the bottom of your blog post contains 3 free templates, make sure your title contains the number 3 explicitly.

example of seo headline with number

If possible, use higher numbers. Readers love having a lot of options to choose from, even if the amount of content within each option needs to be somewhat limited due to length constraints.

7. Test frequently!

Testing is always a must when it comes to copywriting, and it’s no different for SEO headlines. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as adding in some powerful descriptors, a particularly positive or negative sentiment, or a higher number to your meta title, then logging into Search Console a week later to see that your click-through rate has increased by 20%, or your ranking has increased by 3 spots.

This also signals to Google that you’re keeping your content fresh. As such, you should always be tinkering with your headlines to see what works and what doesn’t.

Write better SEO headlines, get more traffic

There you have it! We’ve made the ever-important distinction between H1s and meta titles, described the importance of meta titles in depth, and given you some proven strategies to use to write better SEO headlines for your organic listings.

Stick to these tips and you’ll be seeing increased click-through rates in no time. Happy headlining!

How to write a great SEO headline:

  1. Target a keyword
  2. Stick to character count best practices
  3. Have a call-to-action
  4. Leverage your brand whenever possible
  5. Be bold and stick out from the pack
  6. Use numbers and lists to convey clarity of purpose
  7. Test frequently!

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Meet The Author

Gordon Donnelly

Gordon Donnelly is an SEO jedi who proudly honed his chops at WordStream for 5+ years. Today, you’ll find him at home in Boston, building Triple Whale’s world-class e-commerce analytics platform, or helping businesses of all sizes grow through SEO, advertising, and content marketing.

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