Which one wins? If you ask me, you don’t have to choose.
The battle between SEO and clickbait headlines has raged far too long.
If you optimize for both people and search engines — which we know works in body content — you can’t lose.
Google has one goal: please its user base.
If people are happy with the content in the SERPs, the search engine generates more advertising revenue and enjoys more traffic.
Similarly, people click on content because they’re enticed by the headline.
If your headline is written strictly for search engines, your prospective customers might ignore it entirely.
That’s bad for everyone.
So how do you marry SEO and clickbait headlines? What makes a great headline — both for searchers and search engines?
Before we answer those questions, though, we need to figure out how people and search engines evaluate content.
Search intent and Google rankings
You know how I feel about SEO.
It’s essential for your website if you want to rank the content you create.
However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore your audience in favor of search engines.
That’s like getting people through the doors of your restaurant and serving bad food.
We know from Google itself that search intent is one of the most important factors in ranking specific types of content.
When people search for a particular phrase, Google wants to know their goals.
Do they want to compare different products? Do they want to know how to find a particular business? Might they be ready to buy a product today?
From this, we can determine that Google and searchers are looking for the same things.
They want to know whether your content will help the searcher find what they’re looking for.
- Informational intent means the user wants to learn something new.
- Navigational intent suggests the user wants to visit a local business.
- Transactional intent demonstrates a desire to buy.
There’s also one more type of search intent: Comparison intent.
We know that comparison shopping has become extremely popular.
Comparison intent means the searcher wants to compare one or more products of a similar nature.
So what does search intent have to do with writing SEO-optimized and clickbait headlines?
If you can get into the minds of your searchers and figure out what they want to learn, you can respond with better headlines — not to mention better content.
Fortunately, clickbait and SEO don’t have to get in a headline war.
Let’s look at several ways to unite them both for maximum growth.
Get the keyword in your title
Perform any old search on Google.
For this example, I’ll go with my standby: “content marketing.”
If you scroll through the results, you’ll see one pattern remains consistent. The headlines (or titles) all have the keyword “content marketing” in them.
That’s pretty telling, right?
Clearly, Google wants to serve up content that’s obviously directly related to the keyword or search phrase.
You have to work your keyword into the title — preferably at the very beginning.
But what about the somewhat nonsensical searches we conduct on a daily basis. For instance, if I need to hire a plumber, I might type “plumber Seattle” into Google.
Google’s a lot smarter than it was 10 years ago. It understands contextual searches.
The results you see above have related keywords in the headlines, such as “Seattle plumbing,” “Seattle plumbers,” and “Plumbing in Seattle.”
One has “Plumber Seattle,” but that isn’t necessary.
When you happen upon a prime keyword that doesn’t make grammatical or logistical sense, feel free to add a stop word (such as a, the, by, or in) to ensure it makes sense.
For instance, if I wanted to rank for the keyword “plumber Seattle,” I’d probably include the phrase “plumber in Seattle” in the headline.
The stopword “in” won’t make a difference in terms of SEO.
Make something shocking, unbelievable, or amazing
It’s incredible to me how adding or changing one word in a headline can turn it on its head.
You go from boring, SEO-optimized headline to instant clickbait.
One option is to add words like “shocking,” “unbelievable,” or “amazing” to the headline.
But here’s the rub:
What you reveal in the article must actually be shocking, unbelievable, or amazing.
You see these words on the website BuzzFeed all the time.
Don’t abuse this clickbait trick. Only use it when you can back up your claims.
I’ve used it myself on occasion, such as for my article on how to write better articles.
Statistics and relevant news stories can often be turned into articles with this type of clickbait headline.
Add crazy-high numbers
Everybody’s impressed when you can walk out a huge number.
It could relate to money, percentages, or anything else.
I got a ton of engagement on my article about YouTube advertising spend.
In fact, I actually used two forms of clickbait in this headline.
First, I trotted out that huge number — $144,000. Second, I proved that I could be transparent.
If you’re not willing to be nakedly honest with your audience — metaphorically speaking, of course — you’ll struggle to build a following.
People want to engage with people who don’t mind sharing the details.
Is my entire life an open book? Heck no. But I’m willing to put some things out there.
Make controversial claims
Controversy isn’t always good for business.
However, sometimes it can get you more attention.
You don’t want to start controversy just for the sake of being controversial. That’s silly.
However, if you have an opinion that’s contrary to the status quo, go ahead and share it.
I did that very thing recently on a podcast I co-host.
That’s a pretty controversial claim, right?
During the podcast, though, Eric and I back up our claim. We explain why we feel marketers often exaggerate their claims.
Sure, we used an inflammatory statement, but that’s clickbait.
It’s also good SEO.
If you Google the title, our podcast ranks in the number-two position.
That’s out of nearly 500,000 results.
Clearly, you can use clickbait titles without sacrificing your search rankings.
Assemble a list of simple tricks
We know that listicles work really well — not just for clickbait but also for SEO.
One way to jazz them up is to use adjectives to describe the tips, tricks, or things you’re going to list.
- 5 simple tricks to…
- 10 crazy ways to…
- 8 foolproof strategies for…
- 31 magical fixes for…
You get the point. Add an appealing adjective to the listicle headline to make it even more clickbait-y.
A little while ago, I wrote an article that combined two of the suggestions in this post: the adjective added to the listicle and the crazy-high number.
Compare two versions of this headline:
- 7 Proven Strategies to Increase Your Blog’s Traffic by 206%
- 7 Strategies to Increase Your Blog’s Traffic
Which one do you find more appealing? The second one, right?
That’s because I started with a compelling adjective. “Proven strategies” sounds better because it suggests I have evidence of my claim.
I backed up that assertion with the crazy-high number.
No, I’m not just going to teach you how to increase your blog’s traffic. I’m going to show you how to do it by a whopping 206%.
Revisit old-school ads
If you think “clickbait” some new strategy that came about because of the Internet, you’re wrong. It’s been around forever.
In the past, though, clickbait-style headlines were used to get people to turn the page in a magazine or to buy a product advertised in the newspaper.
Consider this ad from the early 20th century.
It should. The same headline format has been used on thousands of blog posts to sell get-rich-quick schemes.
Studying old ads can help you formulate new clickbait headlines for today’s consumers.
Beef up short headlines with teasers
We’ve all seen the clickbait headlines that call out some revelation in the article.
Consider this article from ViralSlot:
It’s too long for an SEO-optimized headline, but you get the picture.
This is considered clickbait for three reasons:
- The use of adjectives like “actual” and “embarrassingly”
- Listicle format
- Teaser for “Number 13”
Why does the third example matter?
Because it encourages people to read more of your content. They know something good awaits at number 13, so they’re going to read at least to that point.
And by the time they’ve invested all that time, they might as well finish it.
It’s an ingenious strategy, but only if number 13 is truly “hilarious.”
If you’re writing a short, SEO-optimized headline, you can transform it into clickbait. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
- 20 Ways to Boost Traffic by 206% (You Can’t Miss #18)
- 32 Tricks for Better Lead Gen (Try #30 First)
- 7 Simple Strategies for Better Social Engagement (#7 Can’t Lose)
You get the point. It’s like a movie trailer — tease what the audience has to gain by watching (or, in this case, clicking).
Start (or end) with “this is why”
People are hard-wired to look for meaning in even the smallest of things.
They don’t want to just know that something happened. They want to know why.
Adding “this is why” somewhere in your SEO-optimized headline can transform it into effective clickbait.
You have two options for this strategy.
The first is to begin with the phrase “This is Why.”
That sounds good, right?
It employs a leading question to get people to click, but it incorporates a popular keyword.
However, modern SEO best practices involve moving the most important words in the headline to the beginning. All we need is some fancy rearranging.
See the difference?
We’ve changed “This Is Why You Can’t Grow Your Blog Traffic” to “You Can’t Grow Your Blog Traffic (This Is Why).
The second might prove even more compelling because it’s a declarative statement.
If I write this article, I’m assuming my target audience struggles with low blog readership.
Plus, I’m naming my audience in the headline. That’s a compelling way to get people to click.
Use “will make you” in a headline
In June 2017, Digg analyzed some of the most popular phrases used in clickbait headlines. (“This Is Why” came in second.)
It also highlighted some of the examples it had featured on the Digg website.
Digg measured the headlines by Facebook engagement. The winning phrase was “Will Make You.”
This is a great construction for an SEO-optimized title because it allows you to put your most important keyword at the beginning of the headline:
- Check Out X Social Media Hacks That Will Make You Insta-Famous
- Our New Paid Search Service Will Make You Sigh With Relief
Evoke a trusted celebrity
No, you shouldn’t turn your website into a tabloid rag. Put that thought out of your mind.
However, you could use a well-known name in your industry to combine clickbait and SEO in your headline.
Consider this recent headline from Market Watch:
Seth Godin is arguably one of the most trusted experts in marketing, entrepreneurship, leadership, and productivity.
In this case, the website posted a video of Seth Godin during an interview, but you don’t have to take that approach.
After all, we can’t all sit down for a chat with a celebrity.
You could use quotes from your subject’s latest book or recent blog posts, for instance.
Show how that person’s statements uphold the statements you present in your article.
Alternatively, look outside your industry like AboveTheLaw.com recently did by evoking The Beatles:
Genius, right? The Beatles weren’t lawyers, but author Cordell Parvin managed to tie their legacy into the article’s topic.
I’ve read lots of articles in this vein. You can write them, too, if you’re creative enough.
Stumped? Write two titles
When you can’t transform an SEO-optimized title into clickbait, you have another option.
What you might not realize is that you can put two titles in a single article or page:
- Title tag: This is the headline that goes within the <title></title> tags on a web page. It shows up in search engines and in the browser bar when someone clicks on it.
- H1: The H1 tag goes within <h1> tags and appears at the top of your article if you decide to put it there.
If you use WordPress, you can easily differentiate your title and H1 tag using Yoast. It’s a plugin that gives you more control over your SEO.
After you install the Yoast plugin (free or paid), you get lots of extra options in your WordPress install including an SEO title and a URL slug.
You can also add a custom meta description and a focus keyword.
Why does this help?
Let’s say you have two headlines for your article. One is optimized for SEO and the other is geared toward clickbait.
You would use the SEO title in the headline field on your WordPress post page. Then, you would add the clickbait title to the field in the Yoast section.
This way, search engines will see the SEO-optimized title embedded in the H1 tags, but searchers will see the clickbait title when they peruse the search engines.
If you’re writing plain HTML, you can change these two tags, as well. Just alter the text between the <title> and <h1> tags.
People are always looking for ways to see things in black and white.
As for me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mix-and-match marketing.
You find two things that work, like SEO-optimized and clickbait headlines. Then you mix them together to see what you come up with.
Start with user intent. When writing a page or post, think about what searchers might actually want to learn.
Once you know that, figure out a way to get the keyword in the title. If it’s at the beginning, even better.
Add some pizzazz to your leadlines. Words like shocking, unbelievable, and amazing work well, but feel free to get creative.
Transform a boring SEO title into clickbait by adding some extravagant numbers. If you have the data to back it up, you might as well flaunt it.
Make controversial claims if you want to stir the pot. Alternatively, add gripping adjectives to nouns in your headlines to give them more interest.
You can also learn from the past by revisiting old headlines or beef up short headlines by adding teasers to the end.
Of course, falling on the old standbys is a great way to craft a perfect headline. Start or end your headline with “This Is Why” or incorporate the phrase “Will Make You” into the headline.
If all else fails, work a celebrity into the headline. Talk about his or her opinions on a topic, but relate them to your own ideas.
Finally, if you’re still stuck, use H1 and title tags to craft two headlines. You get the best of both worlds.
What’s your favorite way to create a headline that will please both people and search engines?