Title Wars: Attention Grabbing vs. Optimization

The average person reads around 120 words per minute, or about .5 words a second. The average human reaction time is about 0.2 to 0.25 seconds. That means it’s more likely someone will pass you by then read your title. That is, unless something about your title catches their attention, piques their interest, or ignites their imagination. That’s a tall order for less than a dozen words.

But without the readers in the first place, we’re never going to get what we really want: the recognition and the links.

So you sit down to write, ready to be inspired, and like a tiny angel and devil feuding on your shoulders your sense of search engine optimization (SEO) begins to go head to head with your creativity. So the battle begins, should we write to capture attention or to write for SEO value? There seems to be a constant struggle between these two foes, but in the words of Shakespeare: “The more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.”

The Art of the Title

In order to have what would be considered a great title, a reader should feel immediately drawn in. The best way to make that happen is to play on the human psyche. We hold a magnifying glass to the human response for a million reasons.

Whether it’s measuring reactions to specific colors or particular buzzwords, we want to understand the way people think. We study it to understand it, we study it to improve it, and we study it to exploit it. That’s why some people think marketers are evil. But in our own way we’re scientists, too. Through an understanding of what motivates people we can aspire to create those crucial motivators.

The emotions we play on are effective for different reasons. As readers, we seek the unusual, the horrifying, the entertaining, or the personally relevant. That’s why “if it bleeds, it leads” in the news game, because the rules of pathos say that we will be riveted by a story of devastation.

Does that make us bad people? Or how about the people who write the lead stories are they wrong? No. It makes us people with an understanding of how to reach into the spinning centrifuge of the masses and stop the momentum of daily life, even if only for a moment.

The things you want to focus on for writing gripping titles are specific to each story. What about these pieces is compelling, and please, say there’s something that is? Or else you’re better off moving on to something with actual potential to get links.

The first step is to find that guts of the piece and figure out how to capture that, and then use it to hit your potential readers in their guts with it. From there, you want to craft something that is meant to evoke a specific reaction. Why will the reader be pulled in by this story? What should their expectation be going in? Because if you set that expectation you need to be prepared to deliver on it in some way once they give you the chance.

There are a ton of specific techniques when it comes to writing the title. Many of them are tried and true: shock (Elvis is Alive!), humor (Elvis is an Alligator!), alliteration (Elvis is Evil), puns (Elvis is Elvish), controversy (Elvis was a Woman!). But the Internet world and it’s proliferation of blogs and articles has spawned a whole new crop of link bait clichés. Words like “best,” “top,” and “ultimate” still sell, but they may also illicit a tiny groan thanks to the over-saturation of “Best Top Ultimate Resources” spread around the web.

Lists are still good because they’re easy to ingest visually, but the 10 “best,” “worst,” “scariest,” “most” repetitive stuff is damn near jumping the shark if it hasn’t already landed on the other side. So if you really want to stand out from what everyone else is doing… don’t do exactly what everyone else is doing.

The SEO of the Title

So you’ve decided how you’re going to grab the reader by the face and pull them into your story. Awesome, now what?

The other voice in your head says that, even if it picks up a ton of links a “Woman Killed with Own Car Keys” story isn’t going to do much to help your steering wheel cover website rank for its keywords. I get it. Even though I’m a huge advocate of creative thinking when it comes to article topics, I’m not blind to the importance of bringing it back to business.

Let me point out a few things. First, article titles don’t have to equal title tags. Your title tag should include the words that will help searchers find your story, but it can be a truncated version of the article title, for example “Woman Killed with Keys” will suffice and allows you to add “Woman Killed with Keys — News from Jerry’s Steering Wheel Covers.” The title on the page wouldn’t necessarily include the addendum about Jerry. But the title tag remains relevant to your ultimate purpose.

When you’re writing about a subject that is dead-on relevant, know this: colons are your friend. For example, Jerry has some info on how steering wheel covers increase re-sale value on a car. So his title can read “Spend $10 to make $10,000: How steering wheel covers can help you get full re-sale value on your car.”

The opening is meant to grab attention, while the second part informs the hyperbole. From an SEO perspective now the full title actually includes a primary keyword so that as this story hopefully spreads around social sites and blogs at least a few times the entire title will be referenced. Hopefully as the anchor text on links going back to your site.

So the entire point of these link-worthy articles is the links. So now that you have links to a page on your site, albeit not a main page, you’ll want to take as much of that link power and push it back to your primary target pages.

No, the main nav doesn’t cut it. For two reasons. One is that you’ll want to use in-content, links, with specific anchor text, to differentiate them from the site wide links in the nave. Second, you want to draw visitors further into your site, and if you rely on them to interact with your nav, you’ll lose a lot of them.

But, you can direct your throng of visitors more forcefully with calls to action, and invitations to read more, learn more buy more. These tactics increase engagement as well as spreading link love.

If SEO and Creativity had a Baby

Like an Aries and a Cancer, these two powerful but conflicting archetypes will have to compromise to be together. But when they manage to balance their egos they will often discover that a life together can be harmonious and fruitful.

By balancing these two seemingly opposing forces, you can both attract links and make the most of them. It’s like having your cake and shoving it in the face of someone you love, too.

Save up to $250! Register now for SES Chicago 2010, the Leading Search & Social Marketing Event, taking place October 18-22! Early Bird rates expire Oct. 1!

Related reading

steps to deliver better technical seo to your clients
search reports for ecommerce to pull now for Q4 plan