Great Headlines, Poor Rankings – Why Clever Headlines Don’t Beat Optimized Title Tags for SEO

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Headlines can be powerful.  I think most marketers would agree that a strong headline can be both intriguing and enticing, and can help drive a surge in short term traffic.  However, I’m also sure that most SEO’s would question the long term impact of using creative headlines on their search engine rankings.  There are times I work with a client’s editorial staff to explain and clarify aspects of SEO, including the importance of keyword research, content optimization, the power of inbound links, etc.

It usually doesn’t take long before a shoe is thrown at my head from across the conference room.  That happens when I tell people that creative and clever headlines aren’t great for long-term sustained traffic from natural search.  If I’m lucky, the flying shoe is coming from someone with bad accuracy (or with small feet).  🙂

Great Headlines, Poor Ranking

Being an avid blogger, I completely understand the power of a great headline, however, the SEO in me knows how important search traffic is…  Most SEO’s, including myself, recommend creating descriptive titles based on keyword research.  For example, if you are writing about the features of Google Wave, you should make sure that the keywords Google, Wave, and Features are in the title, even though you could probably come up with several clever titles based on Wave.  For example, Surf the Google Wave, a Tsunami of Google Proportions, Hang 10 with Google Wave, etc.

The reason SEO’s recommend descriptive titles based on keyword research is because many have analyzed traffic across numerous sites and know how important optimized title tags are, which are often pulled from the title of the article or blog post.  I said “often” and not “always” and I’ll explain more about that later.  When natural search can sometimes be a majority of a site’s traffic, it’s hard to ignore optimizing content to attract longer-term, sustained traffic from organic search.  Sure, the clever headline can produce a spike in short term traffic, but it might not generate the long term effect that a well optimized title can.

My SEO Headline Test, Let’s Conduct Some Searches

Going back to the shoe throwing incident mentioned earlier, someone (usually the person championing SEO) calls off the bombardment long enough for me to start showing some examples.  Conducting searches and compiling results based on a client’s industry and focus typically provides some great data that’s hard to ignore.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a big fan of backing your recommendations based on data and not opinion (unless you want to sit in a conference room debating all day).

I decided to conduct searches on several topics and see which pages rank highly in the SERPs.  Specifically, we’ll look at article or post titles to see how well optimized they are.  After which, we’ll reverse it and check the rankings of some posts that I know used clever headlines versus optimized titles (although I won’t show you the actual posts… I’m not here to point out editors who chose to use a creative headline.)  During the test, I checked Google, Yahoo, and Bing, but in order to keep this post manageable, I’ll include notes below from just Google.  In case you are wondering, I didn’t notice any major differences in Yahoo or Bing for the searches I conducted.

Quick disclaimer: There are obviously a number of factors that go into high search engine rankings and optimized title tags is just one of the factors.  Other factors, such as domain strength, on-page optimization, inbound links, anchor text, internal linking, etc. all influence rankings.  For this post, we’ll just focus on analyzing the titles of each article (and title tags). With that out of the way, let’s begin.

For each query, I will provide the number of listings in the top ten organic rankings (excluding blended news) that I believe have creative or clever headlines versus optimized titles.  And yes, “creative” is subjective, but I’m referring to a headline that’s catchy, amusing, funny, shocking, etc. that isn’t necessarily optimized for the keywords the editors would want to rank for.  Note, you might see slightly different results when testing these searches, as rankings are always changing.

iPhone 3GS Video

  • The only two listings that didn’t have all three keywords in the title were from Apple!  But, those two listings were for a guided tour of the new iPhone and the technical specifications.
  • The other seven organic listings all had the keywords in the title tag.
  • The two video results in universal search contained target keywords in the title.
  • The three blog posts listed in universal search also had the keywords in the title.
  • None of the listings would be considered creative or clever.

Sotomayor Supreme Court Nomination

  • All ten listings had at least two of the keywords in each title tag.  Most of the listings had all of them in the title.
  • None of the headlines or titles would be considered clever or creative.

Facebook Privacy Settings Changes

  • Eight of the top ten listings had the target keywords in the title.
  • The two listings that weren’t perfectly optimized were from Facebook! (Similar to what I listed above for Apple.)
  • None of the top listings had titles that would be considered creative or clever.

Michael Jackson Dead

  • All eight of the organic listings had optimized headlines.
  • None of the top listings used a creative or clever headline.
  • Both video results showing in universal search had the keywords in the video title.
  • The three blog posts listed in universal search also had the keywords in the title.

Google Wave Features

  • Seven of the top ten listings had the keywords Google, wave, and features in the title.
  • There were three listings in the top ten that were creatively written (although not too far off from being optimized).
  • However, the three pages with less than optimized titles are all major players in covering online marketing and technology.

Obama Healthcare Reform Plan

  • All ten listings contained target keywords in the title (and were at least partially optimized).
  • The only title that wasn’t heavily optimized was for the official health reform website.  Go figure.
  • Still, none of the top listings could be classified as using creative or clever headlines.

Compare Bing Versus Google

  • All ten results contained target keywords in the title.
  • There were definitely a few headlines that mixed creativity with optimized titles.  It’s part of a combo approach that I’ll explain later in my post.

Iran Election and Twitter

  • All ten listings had the target keywords in the title.
  • None of the listings had titles that would be considered creative or clever.

OK, I think you get the picture.  Not every article title tag was perfectly optimized, but you can clearly see how important title optimization is.

Let’s Reverse It and Check Some Creative Headlines. And yes, there are exceptions to the rule…

During my research, I chose ten articles that clearly used creative and clever headlines versus optimized titles (and they were great headlines.)  Most were on relatively powerful sites from an SEO standpoint.  I analyzed each article and checked its rankings for what I determined to be target keywords.

8 of the 10 articles did not rank in the top listings in Google, Yahoo, or Bing, although they were great articles about the subject at hand (and on powerful sites from an SEO standpoint).  My guess is that if they would have better optimized each post, including writing optimized title tags, the posts would have ranked much higher.  Unfortunately, if you go with a creative title, you risk low rankings… I’m not saying to always go down the path of using an optimized title, but you should understand the risks involved if you don’t.  For example, if a killer headline is important for the task at hand, and long term traffic from search is not critical, then run with it.  However, if you are looking to build sustained traffic from search, then rethink your approach and use optimized titles (or use the combo approach I explain below).

A Few Exceptions to the Rule

There were two articles out of the ten that ranked highly even though their titles weren’t optimized at all.  Both articles were on ultra-powerful sites from an SEO perspective that focus heavily on the verticals covered in each article.  Interestingly, each article didn’t build up a lot of inbound links.  It looked like each site’s SEO strength enabled the articles to rank highly.  Both posts rank in the top ten listings in Google for competitive keywords, while hundreds of other pages that are better optimized for those keywords fail to reach page one.  I’m sure every SEO reading this post has several examples of webpages that they are trying to beat out that also aren’t optimized well!  Welcome to SEO.  🙂

Striking a Balance With Title Optimization, What Can You Do?

By now, you are probably wondering if there is anything you can do that strikes a balance between great headlines and optimized titles.  There are definitely a few things you can try out.

1. Separate Your Headline, Kicker, and Title Tag Using this approach, you can ensure your headline and kicker are creative, but also have a well optimized title tag.  For example, check out the link below.  The headline is Clunker Confusion: MPG Figures, but when you hit the page, the title tag reads EPA Changes fuel economy numbers ahead ‘Cash for Clunkers’.  Your CMS will just need to support breaking apart the post title and the title tag (which not every CMS can do).  Then your editors can have their creative headlines and your SEO manager can have an optimized title tag.

    2. The Combo Approach – Using a 2-Part Title For Your Headline and Title Tag This involves starting your title tag with a creative headline, but ending it with your optimized segment (or vice versa).  Using this approach, you can grab someone’s attention while still having target keywords in the title tag.  A good example is my post about Twitter Account ownership.  I titled it Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter – Who Owns your Twitter Account.  Another example would be a recent post from TechCrunch titled Search Smackdown: Bing Vs. Google. Both are good examples of using a creative first segment followed by target keywords in the second part of the title.

      So there you have it. A rundown on how important title optimization is, along with a few recommendations for your own articles and posts.  There’s always a balance between creativity and SEO, and you need to decide if long term, sustained traffic is more important or if a potential short term surge in traffic would suffice.  Based on heavily analyzing website traffic for clients, I’d go with an optimized title or the combo approach I mentioned above.  Search engine traffic is too important to ignore.  🙂

      Glenn Gabe is an online marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Media Marketing, Viral Marketing and Web Analytics. You can read more of Glenn’s posts on his blog, The Internet Marketing Driver and you can follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects, news, and updates.

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      • Alysson

        I couldn’t agree more, Glenn…it’s important to find a balance between properly optimized title tags and attention grabbing headlines.

        A good solution to help people take the “Separate Your Headline, Kicker and Title Tag” approach – for those using WordPress – is to employ a plugin like “All-In-One SEO Pack” or “Platinum SEO Pack”, which separate title tag and headline of the page/post, allowing you to specify each one individually. Very useful in addressing the issues you mention in your post!
        .-= Alysson´s last blog ..Choosing The Website Audit That Is Best For YOUR Needs =-.

        • Loren Baker, Editor

          Hi Aly,
          If you get this, it’s reese testing out the reply to comments function on new search engine journal.

          • Loren Baker, Editor

            a test of comment nesting.

      • brian fidler

        how sad. Google killed the headline!

      • Glenn Gabe

        Thanks @Alysson. I’m glad you brought up those WordPress plugins. If a site is using WordPress as their CMS (or just for their blog), then using a plugin that separates headline and title tag can be a viable solution.
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..New Features in Keyword Discovery – Also Searched, Successful Search, Core Search Engine Information, and Competitors Search =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        @brian, to some degree you’re right, but you can still employ the combo approach I mentioned above to include a creative segment in the title. Then I guess you can say that Google wounded the headline versus killing it. 🙂
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..New Features in Keyword Discovery – Also Searched, Successful Search, Core Search Engine Information, and Competitors Search =-.

      • Seth Goldstein


        Having been a journalist and having had to come up with clever titles in the past for those articles, often times the headlines are clever and fun but don’t really get to what the story is about. It works for newspapers and magazines because it entices readers into the article. But I agree with you for SEO people have to keep things literal.

        This doesn’t mean not clever, but sometimes you just can pull the clever card and the functional card.
        .-= Seth Goldstein´s last blog ..How To Blog Without Killing Yourself =-.

      • Joel Gross

        Intriguing post Glenn! It is hard for many (myself included) to sacrifice creativity for traffic. It just doesn’t seem right that the author should not be rewarded for their creativity, but that’s just how Google works unfortunately. How do you get the best of both worlds creativity and traffic?. How can people bring traffic to their sites through SEO but at the same time avoid sacrificing the quality of their material? Is it worth catering to Google’s needs in this case?

      • Patricia Skinner

        Glenn this article should be essential reading for all online businesses. Can’t tell you how many times I have to try and explain these concepts: I’ve even considered abandoning SEO because of it. Title tags are ‘it.’
        .-= Patricia Skinner´s last blog ..Hacking, Cyber Crime, TechCrunch & You… =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        Thanks @Seth. Having been a journalist, I’m sure you can appreciate both sides of the debate. It’s a tough balance for many, but it’s hard to ignore the long term and quality traffic from natural search. And I agree about balancing clever and functional (it’s part of the combo approach I mentioned above).
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Guest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        Thanks for you comment @Joel. There are some things you can do to balance creativity and SEO. I would try the two approaches I included at the end of my post. Test them out and track your results. I’d be interested in hearing how that works for you.
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Guest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        I definitely hear you @Patricia! It’s sometimes hard to walk through how important it is to optimize content, however, that’s why I try and base all my recommendations on data and research. It really helps make a good case for how to proceed. And I’m glad to hear you didn’t abandon SEO. That would have been a loss for our community! 🙂 Thanks for your comment.
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Guest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Tag44

        Nice post, very resourceful info….keep it up…!!

      • David Rosen

        This was a very informative and convincing presentation, especially for an old journalism/communications guy like me whose spent most of his 40-year career focused on print and broadcast where catchy headlines were what attracted readers and viewers. Well written, well reasoned.

      • Joshua

        Wow Glenn, What a unique angle to an age-old topic. The real examples are just perfect. I personally have always opted for creative over SEO but now that I see how easy the balance can be using WordPress (which I already use), there is no excuse.

        I need to start utilizing the All in One SEO plugin with my next post. I’m excited to see the results.


        .-= Joshua´s last blog ..Hey, Pet Sitters, Your Price Is Too High! =-.

      • Karon Thackston

        It has been proven (via Marketing Experiments and other research orgs) that clarity trumps cleverness almost every time in copy. Whether you’re dealing with SEO headlines & tags or not, people generally respond better — on the web — to clear benefits, provoking questions and end results more than so-called creative quips.

      • Scott Ellis


        Great article. I wrote a similar post a while back, though admittedly not nearly as informative or well researched, and battle this with clients all the time who think they need to be clever and often do so at the sake of SEO.


      • Glenn Gabe

        Thanks @David. I appreciate it (especially coming from a veteran print and broadcast person!) Search has definitely changed how writers should think about headlines. I also like catchy headlines, but the long term traffic from natural search it too important.
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Latest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        I’m glad you liked my post @Joshua, and I’m also glad you learned about the seo plugins mentioned by Alysson. You should start tracking how the changes to your title optimization impact rankings of your posts. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. 🙂
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Latest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        Great point @Karon, and something you realize when you start heavily analyzing conversion. If you start utilizing split testing or multivariate testing, you start to realize how important clarity is!
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Latest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

      • Glenn Gabe

        Thanks @Scott. I’m glad you liked my post. Regarding your battle, the good news is that you can use data to back up your side of the debate! Add the actual traffic levels from what you know is ranking and you can make a pretty darn good case. 🙂
        .-= Glenn Gabe´s last blog ..Creative Headlines Versus Descriptive Titles – Why Optimized Titles Tags are Still Important for SEO, My Latest Post on Search Engine Journal =-.

        • Loren Baker, Editor

          this is another test reply to show that threading is working.

      • Homer

        keep it up,I like it very much

      • Toni Anicic

        Before writing a title, I usually decide if the article is more likely to receive a strong short term traffic or a long term search engine traffic and write the title accordingly.

      • Paul Hancox, copySnips

        Thanks, Glenn. I neglected SEO for quite a while with many of my earlier blogs, but with my latest one I’ve made a particular effort to optimize many of my posts and titles, and even though it’s only 3 months old, I’m already noticing some of my posts are in the Top 10 for keywords I optimized in the post and title.

        Still, I’m not optimizing ALL my posts, and I think your post has inspired me to do this will all of them.