Is Clever Better? Witty versus Search-Engine-Optimized Headlines

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Is Clever Better? Witty versus Search-Engine-Optimized Headlines


seo clever headlinesA good goal for headlines is to evoke emotion in some way. Whether it is amusement, curiosity, joy or sorrow, intriguing a reader is the biggest responsibility of a headline. And there have been some good ones over the past few years:

Admittedly, these are amazing headlines. They are clever, intriguing, and evoking: Shame. Humor. Inspiration. These headlines get the job done.

So what’s the problem? Well unfortunately, this only works for print. That’s right. The headlines above do not have keywords and are not optimized for SEO. So if you want headlines to be found online, do you need to strip out all the fun? When search-engine-optimization is the goal, is witty not an option?

No more puns. No more wordplay. What a sad, sad world. The Atlantic, in its article “Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO,” said it best: “The death of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry.”

Benefits of optimizing a headline

By using keywords (likely search terms) in the headline, you make it easier for readers to find your content. That is a definite plus and can’t really be argued. People searching for say “the royal wedding” or “2012 world series” will definitely come across your content if the headline reads, “The Royal Wedding Top 10 Fashion Faux Pas” or “2012 World Series Tickets Going Fast.” 

Benefits of a clever headline

What a search-engine-optimized headline may fail to do is (1.) evoke emotion as mentioned above, and (2.) form a relationship with the reader. In The Atlantic article, David Plotz, editor of the online magazine Slate, said, “If you write a really clever headline that your most Slate-like readers love, and they think, 'I'm so in on this joke,' you will deepen that relationship with them.” 

But wait, you said Inbound Marketing is the New SEO!

Right you are! Inbound Marketing, and thus content, is the new SEO. Shouldn’t that mean that clever headlines are back? Well, sort of. Google frowns on keyword stuffing, and you do want to use a headline that intrigues readers to continue onto the article. So word play and puns are good.

However, you still need to get people to your content, which is where SEO comes in. So what is the right answer?

The take-away

Find a happy medium; do both! Try using a colon or hyphen to separate your efforts. According to Outbrain, a colon or hyphen in the title (which indicates a subtitle) has a 9-percent higher click-through rate than one without. So don’t give up on being clever; just add in a little SEO power, too. If it is good enough for The Atlantic, it is good enough for us.

What have been your best headlines? Let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Photo credit: Jayallen

brianne carlonWith a degree in journalism, Brianne Carlon has more than six years of professional writing and content marketing experience. Through web and editorial writing, she reaches target audiences for Fortune 1000 companies, as well as small businesses. She uses her content marketing powers to help Kuno and its clients build their brands. You can connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+


Well done. This dilemma challenges me almost daily. I'm currently going with a strategy to think SEO on my site where I need to build traffic... and fun, engaging headlines on sites where I contribute my articles, which already have a large audience. I'll toss this one out as one of my favorites: "Your Site is the Mousetrap and Your Content is the Cheese." 
I guess I used keywords, but didn't deliberately go for SEO. 
Posted @ Monday, February 27, 2012 10:26 AM by Barry Feldman
Thanks Barry! I love the headline you came up with, too. Good use of keywords while keeping it enticing.
Posted @ Monday, February 27, 2012 10:30 AM by Brianne Carlon
My favorite ever headline was a soccer report. Caledonian Thistle played (much better side) Celtic and won against the odds. The headline was: 
"Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious."
Posted @ Tuesday, February 28, 2012 9:40 AM by Ed Bottomley
Really great article Brianne and something that I have thought about lately since I'm writing more and this really helps me to know that I can write articles that meet the SEO side as well as the interesting human side. 
And thanks for the tip at the bottom! Love when I read an article and learn something new! 
Posted @ Tuesday, February 28, 2012 10:48 AM by RMSorg
Thanks RMSorg! It takes a little thought but writers can certainly accomplish both challenges. -Brianne
Posted @ Tuesday, February 28, 2012 10:51 AM by Brianne Carlon
Great post! 
Sometimes your title is the only thing people see to decide if they want to read your post. 
You better be creative in figuring out how to combine both into your posts. 
Better chance of getting shared also. 
Thanks for sharing :-)
Posted @ Wednesday, February 29, 2012 3:05 PM by AJ Perisho
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