SEO Title Tags vs. Witty Headlines: Is There Room for Puns in Online News?

Elisa Gabbert
Last Updated: November 17, 2021 | Marketing Ideas
HomeBlogSEO Title Tags vs. Witty Headlines: Is There Room for Puns in Online News?

Rhythm & BoozeYou know I can’t resist commenting when the mainstream media talks about “S.E.O.” (as the New York Times would have it). This week, The Atlantic is throwing its hat in the ring with a piece called “‘Google Doesn’t Laugh’: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO,” and subtitled “If online searches are literal, what happens to headlines that involve word play? Copy editors* fear they’re going the way of the classified ad.”

Unsurprisingly – since this is a mainstream magazine we’re talking about – the topic is nothing new. Journalists have been wringing their hands over the supposed loss of the clever headline since SEO first started, well, making headlines (making waves? making hearts go pitty-pat?) five or six years ago.

According to David Wheeler at the Atlantic, headline writers often find that their “funny headlines” have been “re-written by the online desk to be more search-engine-friendly.” Matthew Crowley, a copy editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, says, “I understand the shift toward search optimization, but I think we’re losing something when we take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing.”

In addition to indignant copy editors, Wheeler quotes a couple of SEO consultants speaking up for keyword- and information-rich headlines, including Ian Lurie:

“Readers need more information when they’re browsing content on the Web — it’s a fact,” says Ian Lurie, president of a Portent Interactive, a Seattle-based Internet marketing agency specializing in SEO. “Depriving readers of valuable information in an effort to make them click will backfire every time.”

In a follow-up to the piece, Lurie told journalists to “stop crying” and “start writing.” In other words, it’s harder to be creative when SEO is in the picture, but quit your whining and just do it! (Another great response: this hilarious poem in The Awl called “This Is Why We Can’t Have Funny Headlines“: “Your title might be funny / Forcing chuckles from the chest / But Google sits there stone-faced / Resolutely unimpressed”)

My favorite part of the Atlantic article was this surprising breakthrough in self-awareness:

At one point, San Francisco Chronicle copy desk chief Andrea Behr raises her hand to speak what she calls “a little bit of heresy.”

“I was once showing my brother, who lives in Washington, D.C., what I thought was a really fabulous headline,” she says. “It was a really clever play on words. I was so impressed. And he said, ‘Why do you people do that?’ He just thought those puns were stupid, and he hated them.”

I’ve often wondered why “funny” and “clever” in the world of headline writing always equate to puns. In the real world, puns represent a tiny sliver of the many possible ways to make people laugh. In newspaper headlines, they make up 99% of the pie – the other 1% being rearranged clichés like the “Better Never Than Late” headline quoted in the article. This isn’t to say I personally dislike puns or don’t use them in blog titles myself – but it’s a little sad that the right to pun is pretty much all the anti-SEO camp is fighting for.

Anyway, it’s a longstanding myth that you can’t have it both ways. There are several options at your disposal if you want to show off your cleverness and optimize your articles for search:

  • Use different headlines for your print and online versions. This only works for newspapers and magazines that put out a print version, but why not use your clever headline in the print edition and an SEO’ed headline online?
  • Optimize your meta title and make the H1 tag clever. Google will crawl and display the meta title in search engines, but visitors will see the clever title on the page.
  • Use your clever headline on Day 1. This will give your regular readers a chance to appreciate your hilarity. On Day 2, go in and edit the title to a more search-friendly version. After day of launch, most people will probably be finding the story through search rather than your home page.
  • Use the clever headline for social media promotion. You can use it when you link to the piece from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so forth, but use your SEO title on the page itself.
  • Use the clever headline as a subhead. People will read the joke, but it won’t be taking up space in your most important SEO field.
  • Cram your pun in first, then SEO the rest of the title. This won’t always work, but sometimes you can begin a headline with clever wordplay and then get your real keywords in after that. Picture something like “Hello, Kitty: Dedham Cat Takes Phone Calls” or “Monkey Business: Illegal Chimp Breeding Ring Uncovered.” (You get the idea.)

A final option would be to try some testing. Proving to writers that SEO-friendly headlines get more traffic/readers might convince them to give up the wordplay. On the other hand if your audience responds better to clever, you can keep on keepin’ on.

How do you handle your headline writing? Is SEO the only consideration, or does humor sometimes win out?

*Since when do copy editors write the headlines?

More Web Marketing Highlights

Tom Critchlow’s Guide to Innovative Content Types is a great source of ideas if you’re looking for ways to build links and drive traffic that go beyond the simple blog post, including Q&A’s, interactive infographics, video, photojournalism and more.

Amen to BloggingBookshelf’s list of blog posts we all see “way, waaay, waaaaay too often.” Death to shallow analogies! (Unless they’re so bad they’re good…)

Shed a tear, RSS fans: Twitter and Facebook are both taking steps to prevent RSS subscriptions of their content.

The Daily Beast reports that Facebook has been caught trying to smear Google on privacy. A Facebook spokesperson has admitted they hired a PR firm to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers. #soclassy

Blogging machine Lisa Barone creates an SEO checklist of seven items to check before publishing your next post. (Notice she also advocates writing two titles in some cases.)

In non-search news, check out this insanely awesome real estate coup: An artist bought this building on the Bowery in New York City in the ’70s and has been living in it with his family ever since. The propery is now estimated to be worth something like $40-50 million.

Have a great weekend!

Photo: Gareth Simpson

Meet The Author

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream’s Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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