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How to Write Headlines for SEO and Google Adwords

How To Write Good Headlines For SEO and Pay Per Click – Plus – Five Tried and True Headline Tips

Before I dove into other aspects of marketing as an occupation, I was a headline writer. I enrolled in Drake University’s Advertising program JUST to learn how to be a great headline writer. I didn’t care that much about writing long copy, or journalism, or writing short stories. First and foremost, I wanted to write headlines for ads. That is what I wanted to do.

Turns out, just being able to write headlines wasn’t really a career path on its own, so I had to learn how to do other things in business as well. But in the beginning, the thing I was primarily interested in was the art of the headline.

My first job after college – was selling direct mail advertising for sizeable businesses. In direct mail advertising, being able to write effective headlines was important. I was selling post cards – so there wasn’t any room for long copy. Basically we had room for a headline, a sub-headline, and one short paragraph. I sold a lot of direct mail, and even though as a sales rep I really wasn’t supposed to be involved in the creative part, I wrote a lot of the headlines for my clients anyway – partly because I wanted to, and partly because I wanted to make sure my clients remained clients. In direct mail, you are only as good as your last mailing.

Today, I find myself in the Digital Marketing game (Co-Owner of Stay Wild Digital Marketing). One of the things the first things I noticed in the digital game is the complete lack of attention given to headline writing when it comes to SEO and Google Ads. People just throw any old keywords into their title tag, page description tag, and Google Ads. It is apparent to me that very little thought is put into the words they choose. There is little evidence of creativity, and even less evidence that companies are testing to see if one headline is better than another (split testing). Never in the history of direct response marketing has there been so little attention paid to the art of the headline.

I suppose this is partially because Google Ads (pay per click) have been so effective that it hardly mattered what words you use. But that is changing. The cost per click is going up every day. People have noticed Google Ads, and small businesses in particular are starting to use them. Where you used to see a couple ads at the top and bottom, now sometimes I see FIVE ads at the top and FIVE MORE at the bottom. What does this mean? It means that just “being up there” isn’t going to be good enough any more. You are going to have to stand out from a packed crowd. People are going to have to figure out good headline writing, and split testing.

David Ogilvy said:

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

This was David Ogilvy’s way of saying that nothing counts as much as the headline when it comes to getting people to respond to your ads. Everyone who writes content for direct mail or any kind of direct response advertising knows this. People who spend a lot of time e-mail marketing do a lot of testing to figure out what subject lines convert the best. But for some reason, when it comes to SEO and Google Ads, most people seem to forget headlines all together. Just do a Google Search on any topic, and this will become all too apparent.

Have you ever thought about your Page Description Tag (meta description tag) as being a critically important headline? Most people don’t. They just load it with keywords. When people perform a Google Search, and they get their results, what they get back is usually some kind of headline followed by a URL, followed by a short paragraph. This short paragraph is your Page Description Tag. An EFFECTIVE use of that tag might go something like this: First – Make sure they know they are in the right place (with a keyword they searched for) – Next – Capture their attention – Lastly – give them a contact phone or e-mail (if they don’t want to go to your website and are ready to buy – why make them?) to reach you by.

If you follow this short pathway, you will be well on your way to better SEO/Adwords headline writing. People look for the keywords they looked for first – because they want to know is that they are in the right place, and they’ve found what they were searching for. After that – you need to hold their attention with classic headline writing techniques (some listed below). Then – make sure they can get ahold of you directly if they want to (unless perhaps your goals are website traffic, or selling a single product, or building your e-mail list/filling your sales funnel) without making them go anywhere else.

Here Is A Common Title Tag and Google Ad Headline Mistake

Lots of people put their company name AHEAD of the main keyword in the title (meta=title) tag. Why? Most people when performing google search are looking to match up the keywords they used in their Google Search – not your company name. Reverse these. Get the main keywords in first (to the far left), and then if you have room left over, put your company name in there.

Google Ads (Pay Per Click) are usually written just as poorly. They often have no consideration given to the headline. This is terrible – you are literally paying so to not have to conform to any of the rules of SEO – so why would you not take advantage of the flexibility you paid for? That top line, and what comes underneath it, should be TOP NOTCH headline writing. Otherwise, nobody is going to read your ad. It should NOT read like the title tag of your website’s home page – that is to say, it shouldn’t bore people to death, and provide ZERO value.  

What Makes A Good Headline for Pay Per Click Advertising or SEO?

What makes for a good headline in Digital Marketing? The exact same things that made good headlines back when people were writing direct response mail in coupons. I am not going to give you all of my best tips, but here are some really good ones:

Headlines That Begin With: How To

How to do anything is, and has always been, an attention grabbing headline. Especially if someone is searching for a service of some kind. You might have noticed my use of it in the title of this post.

Headlines Beginning with: Announcing!

People like announcements, and the word Announcing – has always been a good attention grabber. This works particularly well when you have written something new, or are offering something new, or having a sales event, or some new event coming up.

Headlines That Begin With A Provocation: Your Headline Sucks!

Provocation headlines are click bait. And that is what they have become known as – but you know what? They work. How? By provoking someone – that’s how. Now – to be fair, if you are going to run headlines that provoke people, you need to make sure you have something worth saying after they click, otherwise you will irritate people. Regardless of what people think of it – provocation works.

There is a facebook Ad I see that runs EXACTLY this headline: Kick Adwords Ass!

And you know what? They get engagement from users while other ads from more reputable firms scroll by and nobody is commenting on them. Why? Because they are boring.

 In this desensitized world, sometimes you have to shock people quite a bit to get their attention. The writers of the book – The Ultimate Guide to Google Adwords explore this topic really well. One my favorite quotes from their book is something like “You need to be edgy and tactful at the same time. You can’t be boring – but you can’t be too offensive either. You need to walk the middle of the line between shock and educational when writing digital ads. If you can get this down, it will make you invaluable.” I agree.

Headlines That Make A Promise: 30 Days Or Your Money Back!

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. Headlines that make a promise work. What if you don’t have a promise you can make? Then I suggest you consider improving on whatever it is you do so you CAN make a promise. If you can’t find anything to promise someone – maybe you need to work on your skills a bit (or your courage level).

Headlines That Make An Offer: 20% Off Sale Tuesday Only!

This is a classic headline writing technique – and it works. If you have an offer, PUT IT IN THE HEADLINE! People don’t want to hunt for things they already want, so don’t make them. If you are having a sale – the sale should be the headline. If you are offering interest free financing, make that your headline. If you are offering a special this month only – that should be the headline. If you aren’t offering anything, create something to offer, and put that offer in the headline.

These are just some of the examples I have relied on over the years. There are many more. If you really want to become an expert headline writer, I suggest you become a student of John Caples. A master headline writer many people have forgotten about. But I haven’t. What I have just taught you, I learned from John Caples. David Ogilvy – learned from John Caples. You can still get his book on Amazon. I still refer to it often.

If you are looking for a great resource for books on copywriting in general, here is a link I recommend:

The Digital Marketing industry has been the wild west for a long time – you could get away with just about anything and still make a living. You could barely know what you were doing and still make money with pay per click. But those days are coming to an end. Competition is increasing rapidly for digital ad space because lots of people are starting to use pay per click. Pay per click costs are skyrocketing (as more competitors drive the bids up). There aren’t a lot of new platforms coming on the scene, so you can’t buy cheap ad space anywhere (that matters).  All of this has brought us to a place in time where the truly skilled advertising professionals are going to take over, because “old school” advertising methods are required, when competition is fierce.

Tim VanDerKamp is Co-Owner of Stay Wild Digital Marketing. A Digital Marketing Firm that Specializes in Pay Per Click Management, Search Engine Optimization, and Website Design.


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