The Secret to Writing the Perfect Headline

I might have used some link bait with that title. I don’t think Jim Dougherty, the author of this post, or I know the secret to writing the perfect headline. We simply bumble and hope that we write a better headline the next time.

What is the secret to writing the perfect headline?Headlines are pretty important. More people will read your headline than will read your content. Some people will comment on your headline if your blog posts circulate in social media circles. But most importantly your headline is the reason that people will choose to read your writing or not.

For most people, this probably isn’t a huge revelation. But for me, it was.

Emotionally compelling headlines

When I first started blogging, I read someone’s advice to write emotionally-compelling headlines. A resource that they recommended was the American Marketing Institute’s headline evaluator. Armed only with that tool, I wrote headlines for many months using it as the judge and jury about the effectiveness of my headlines.

What was strange was that I wasn’t getting a lot of click-through. People that I know online have been extraordinarily kind with their attention and oftentimes gave me the benefit of the doubt, but when I look back I cringe at how irrelevant my headlines were to my content.

Det er ikke meget godt.

How headlines house hows

It wasn’t until a few people pointed out to me that my headlines weren’t accurately describing my content that I doubted the headline evaluator (In all fairness, in the hands of a better writer it is probably a solid tool.). In any case, because of a few considerate souls I understood that my headlines were muffling my content. Something had to change.

About this time I chanced upon an interview with Mike Stelzner, founder of Social Media Examiner. He described the basic philosophy behind his site. Cliff’s Notes version: he started by sharing his insights on writing compelling white papers and then decided that the biggest target market for his content were people interested in understanding how social media tools worked and how to become better at them. SME was born.

This made a lot of sense to me. All of a sudden, my site became the “how network” and it worked. Not only were my headlines more descriptive, but my traffic doubled in the first month of implementation. While there are a lot of variables that go into that, social sharing per post increased by about 30%. A well-crafted headline clearly communicates what content is there and draws the reader in.

All was right with the world until I benchmarked my site against similar sites. I saw that I was getting 5% of my traffic from search engines and similar sites were getting 20% or more. So I started thinking…

El pensamiento es el diablo…

SEO is the residual income of blogging, so…

I started digging into some tactics that I could use to increase referrals from search engines. My content was pretty good and my headlines were compelling enough for people to click, so what gives? As it turns out: a lot.

The quality of links to your site are pretty important so far as search engine ranking goes (the SEO world just sighed a collective “duh”). A site like mine that has 20K unique visitors a month may have some pull with Google, but without a lot of quality links even less trafficked sites could rank higher. That’s part of the game.

So an SEO strategy for a less established site (one with lower Page Rank) is to target keywords further down Google’s long tail (i.e. “Facebook’s distressing IPO” instead of “Facebook”) and to optimize each post for the keywords.

I was listening to a talk by Rand Fishkin on SEO where he showed that higher ranking posts used keywords at the beginning of each headline and the beginning of each post. The point was driven home even more by the exceptional Yoast SEO plug-in for WordPress, a plug-in I recommend highly to anyone using the WP platform.

“How” was out and keywords were in…but now what?

Where is the sweet spot?

That leads me to where I am today. I can say with confidence that due to the extended social reach afforded me through Triberr, a compelling headline will get me far more traffic than an SEO-optimized headline. But they can’t be mutually exclusive, because 20% (or even 5%) is a big chunk of traffic.

The trick is to make a heading so compelling that people will want to read a post, and to make it so obvious (but not too obvious) that search engines think that people may want to read your content. You wouldn’t think the two would be so disparate, but they kind of are.

What do YOU think? What makes for a good headline? How do you appease people and machines? What’s most important to you?

Jim Dougherty is a blogger and chief of miscellany at Leaders West.

Photo: Peter Rukavina (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


  1. My best headline ever, and I knew it would be and Clicky traffic validated my hunch — Should Video Be Like A Nude Beach? With the accompanying nakedness of a hot couple on an enticing beach.Yep, the traffic soared and the comments bordered on sexy and stimulating. Look at what a headline can do, but that practice shouldn’t be done every day b/c the content has to match somewhere. 

  2. Thank you, leaderswest, for writing a guest post for Write Right!

    • Erin F. leaderswest Ha! I missed the fact that Jim wrote this. But after reading the first sentence, I thought “that doesn’t sound like Erin.” Erin, you have a distinctive voice. I mean, I like Jim’s voice just fine, but… 

      • barrettrossie Haha! This scenario has happened in the past, which led to the writing of intros for my guest authors. Where, oh where, is MSchechter? He should tell this particular tale, not me. A distinctive voice? I suppose I do have one. It’s taken time and effort to cultivate it, although I’d like to think I sound somewhat the same in person. I think I laugh and giggle more in person. 😀 Oooh, you may have caused me to stumble into an idea for a post. I love it when this happens.I think leaderswest will understand what you mean. I believe that may be one of the reasons he asks people to contribute to his blog – so that he has a variety of voices. 

        • leaderswest says:

          Erin F. barrettrossie I TOTALLY understand… I would prefer to read Erin’s stuff any day over my own!!!! 

        • leaderswest barrettrossie I’m not sure that’s what Barrett meant, either. He’s just gotten used to the presiding voice at Write Right. 🙂

    • leaderswest says:

      Erin F.  On behalf of myself, thanks for letting me write it AND for accepting my lame excuses for delay!  🙂  You’re so awesome, Erin.  I want to be half the writer you are someday!!!!

      • leaderswest Erin F.  Jim, I wanted to add:(1) I’m also a big of Michael Stelzner. I read his excellent book on writing white papers… only later I found out he was the guy behind Social Media Examiner. Wow! (2) Just installed Yoast SEO on your advice. (But what I really need is a new theme, right Erin?) 

        • barrettrossie I think you’re the driving force behind a new theme. I’m only the one pushing for you to switch to Genesis. :)My real opinion? Both the SEO and the appearance are important. Form and content are indivisible, even if they sometimes can be broken into their different parts. leaderswest

      • leaderswest Thank you for the kind words! Oh, no worries. The party didn’t get into full swing until you arrived. 

  3. Jim, your description of the “trick” is right on. A little style and intrigue is a good thing, but so is clarity. I come from an ad agency background from way back — when outrageous headlines won awards. Some of those lines would just kill a blog post.I have changed blog headlines when I thought a good post just wasn’t getting the traffic it deserved. Sometimes I can see the difference immediately. 

    • leaderswest says:

      barrettrossie Thanks Barrett, great insight!  As I thought more about this post (after submitting it to Erin) the SEO stuff can stifle people’s interest and I’m almost convinced that (especially for blogs) SEO may not fulfill the promise that we want it to.  Especially when you can reach people with outrageously good copy!  Cheers!

  4. Any thing that has the audience going “What!!! I need to check this out” makes for a good headline. Though it can be tough to come up with a perfect headline all the time, it sure can be fun figuring out how people do it. Like I read a post titled “100 things about me” and someone who did a follow up to that post titled it something like this “100 little secrets…” (though I can’t find the links right now). They both were well written, nicely compiled and just as interesting; but the titles made the difference. 

    • Hajra  Yes, word choice is key. “Things” doesn’t do a whole lot. “Secrets” pulls in a reader. It’s a specific word with a specific connotation.


  1. […] Jim Dougherty on September 26, 2012 I recently wrote a post for Write Right Words bemoaning the difficulty of writing good copy and writing content that will be received well by search engines.  It turns out that this […]

  2. […] recently wrote a post for Write Right Words bemoaning the difficulty of writing good copy and writing content that will be received well by search engines.  It turns out that this […]