Headlines are lifelines to our readers. They grab attention, build trust and help time-pressed consumers focus on the stories they care most about. They link readers with our content, giving us a chance to reach our audience across a sea of information.

Headlines also help search engines decide whether our offerings match what users are looking for. Most search queries are two to four words long and consist of proper names and keywords. The best headlines will match the most common relevant search queries. Here are some guidelines for choosing your words.

  • Keywords. Common words and phrases that describe the subject of your story: “earthquake,” “city council election,” “starting lineup,” “benefit concert.”
  • Proper names. Search terms tend to contain proper names. Names of people, places, companies and organizations are all common search queries, either by themselves or with other keywords. Including commonly used names in your headline will help you match such queries.
  • Full personal names. Users searching for information on a person are more likely to use both first and last names in their searches, but print headlines have traditionally only used last names. An SEO-friendly headline will use both names. (Also: If the author of the article is well known and likely to be searched -- an opinion columnist, for example -- you might want to use the author's full name in the headline.)
  • Unique information. What is it about your story that people might be looking for that other websites don’t have?

A word of caution: You are writing for readers, not search engines. Sometimes headline writers get carried away with SEO. It’s counterproductive to put these goals ahead of clarity and common sense.

Taken from Writing Online Headlines: SEO and Beyond, a self-directed course by Eric Ulken at Poynter NewsU.

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