How Search Engines Changed Headline Writing Forever

Marketing is a multidisciplinary business. Among many other things, it’s emotional, analytical, visual, auditory, and, of course, verbal. In regards to that last item, copywriters are tasked with conjuring up the words that will move people and inspire them to take notice and, better yet, take action.

All manner of copy is required for an integrated marketing campaign, from display ads to brochures to blog articles. But, in virtually every case, one component of a written assignment should stand above the rest, both literally and figuratively: the headline.

Enticing Readers to Read On

Legendary ad writer Joseph Sugarman called copywriting a mental process, “the successful execution of which reflects the sum total of all your experiences, your specific knowledge and your ability to mentally process that information and transfer it to a sheet of paper for the purpose of selling a product or service.”

In other words, you have limited space and time to boil down a possibly quite complicated thought into an easily digestible format. That process underpins all copywriting, but doubly so for headline writing.

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your advertising dollar.”

In just a precious few words a headline must get inside the reader’s head, grab their increasingly fleeting attention, pique their curiosity, and prompt them to investigate further. In a way, a headline is like the top of a conversion funnel. It’s where your potential audience is largest and the goal is to attract as many as possible to examine your claims.

Sugarman put it this way: “The point of the headline is to get your reader to read the first sentence. The point of the first sentence is to get your reader to read the next sentence.” Over the years, copywriters have relied on several tips, tricks, and hacks to do just that.

Headlines for the Digital Era

With the advent of search engines, social media sharing, and metric analysis, the headline writing game has changed drastically. Notably, Google and other engines scan headlines for keywords, so a clever turn of phrase might appeal to your readers but fail to improve your exposure in search rankings. Including the one or two main keywords you want associated with the article directly in the headline is all but mandatory now.

Thankfully, the digital era has also provided some free tools to hone your headlines for maximum search engine optimization. Google Analytics’ Content Experiments lets you test up to six variations of a headline to determine which audiences are engaging the most with.

The Advanced Marketing Institute, a marketing research organization, provides free access to its Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer, which provides industry-specific forecasts for the motivational effectiveness of a given headline.

Despite the new restrictions on headlines, creativity and inventiveness were prerequisite skills for copywriters anyway and most have adapted. Here are five of the most commonly recommended headline tips and hacks today:


It’s no coincidence that listicles, short-form articles comprised of annotated lists, are so popular on social media. Lists are an easy way to break complicated topics down into bite-sized pieces.

Readers may gloss over an article about developing a business plan, thinking it too dense to get into, but readily click on one with the headline: “7 Problems Every Business Plan Must Solve.” Both articles could conceivably cover similar material, but one had an inviting headline and the other will scare some people off.


In addition to being short, punchy, and easy to read, headlines, like all good copywriting, should always be written with the target audience in mind.

The language of a headline should match and include everything from their commonly used slang, industry jargon, the level of formality they expect, and even their reading level. Don’t speak down or up to your audience. Show that you think and communicate like they do.

Likewise, it’s not enough to promise a solution to any old problem for them — offer insights into their specific challenges.


The use of interrogatives in headlines was also common. When a headline asks a question the reader wants answered it shows that the author is aware of his or her audience’s needs.

There is a second advantage to this technique in that it is also beneficial for search engine marketing (SEM). With the increasing competition for single words and short phrases in keyword optimization, lengthier long-tail (less competitive) key phrases like questions are an under exploited avenue.


As mentioned previously, because Google and other search engines parse headlines, the task of coming up with the perfect heading for an article has become that much more difficult. Not only must you include your keyword or key phrase in the headline, but keeping it short has taken on new importance as Google only shows 55 to 60 characters (about 5 to 10 words).


If you want your reader to read on, you need to get through to them that this is their best and possibly only chance to learn something vital. You can do that by teasing them with headlines like “Don’t Plan Your Next Trip Until You Read This!” Or, you can use time sensitive language like “Tax Day is Coming! 5 New Changes to be Ready For.”

But, don’t fall into the clickbait trap. If you tease your audience or imply they have a limited time to act, you better follow through with the goods. Don’t over promise and under deliver or mislead. You may win your readers’ clicks today, but if the article itself is a dud, they won’t be back.

Final Word

A lot of percentages get thrown around to describe the importance of headlines. Some say headlines do 90% of the work in any particular piece of sales copy. After all, it’s the first thing the reader sees and in many cases, it might be the only thing they read.

David Ogilvy, who is often called the father of advertising, famously said “On average, five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your advertising dollar.”

With that much at stake, copywriters need every trick they can think of to craft headlines that grab attention, arouse interest, and motivate people to read on.