Ivory tower dispatch: Headlines, SEO and WordPress.com

Online Journalists can learn a lot about optimising content from the likes of the Daily Mail but can we put it in to practice on WordPress.com blogs?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to first year journalists about blogging and the starting point is why blogging is a a bad idea.

In the past I’ve tried to make the case for blogging – of course you need a blog – but the upshot of that is that some students dismiss it as ‘something they have to do’ and file it as ‘look at when the assessment is due’. At least by talking about the downsides – time, dealing with trolls etc. – you can discuss motivation in a constructive way. So they all start (or, for many, restart) a WordPress blog.

Outside of the usefulness of blogs to them as journalists,  one of the reasons for introducing blogs in the module (essentially basic online journalism practice) is that it gives them a platform to experiment with things. This week it was a way to look at headlines.

When you deconstruct how and why headlines work differently online you end up taking about two main themes:

  • Grabbing attention – not only how your headlines have to grab attention and get people to read on the page but also outside your site – different platformsaggregation etc.
  • Serving different audiences – how you need to tailor you headline for the reader, search engines and social media. 

It’s clear that there are a number of different strategies to do this and all require levels of optimisation and it was interesting to explore how accessible ways to do this in practice are when you’re using WordPress.com. 

Getting noticed in search

We know that search engine optimisation has become a more complex thing than simply loading your headline with key words. That’s great news for the reader as headlines are now slipping back in to the more descriptive eye-catching headlines we might associate with print; stuff that is as useful to the reader as it is to your ranking.

A simple, but not always obvious way this works is to take advantage of technology (and your CMS) to use different headlines in different places.

The Daily Mail are experts at this.Take this story on the Eastleigh by-election:

  • Front Page: ‘Beastly in Eastleigh': Conservatives in crisis as UKIP push Tories into THIRD place after Lib Dems hold onto must-win seat with dramatic by-election victory
  • Article Headline‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP in Eastleigh by-election as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat
  • HTML Title: Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online 

That last one is in the code (Right-click and look for something like view source and you’ll find it in between <title> </title>).

What’s immediately obvious about this, outside of the technical, is that writing a headline for the web is really writing headlines for the web. Who says technology simplifies things!

Each one of those headlines, in it’s own way, is designed for attracting attention. But, at risk of oversimplifying things here, although each one contributes to improving the searchability of the piece, it’s the title that does a lot of the heavy lifting (find out some more about the title and seo).

So can we do something similar with our wordpress.com? The short answer is no.

In a WordPress blog, unless we spend money on a fancy template, getting a ‘magazine’ style layout where we can trail content on a front page is nearly impossible. Even if we splashed out on a custom template it’s still almost impossible to specify a custom headline for the front page. So our attention grabbing front page headline is out!

At a post level, the title for the post and the title in the html are the same.  So whatever I put in the title box, WordPress will use that as the html title as well. The only difference is that it will add the blog title to the end.

  • Post title: SEO headlines are tricky to write
  • HTML title: SEO headlines are tricky to write | andydickinson,net

The only thing we could conceivably do at this point is to change our blog title to include some keywords that generally relate to everything we write about. A little generic though. So no search engine headline ‘hidden’ in the code.

We are left trying to write a headline that balances the needs of the reader who wants to know what’s in a story and if it’s for them, and the benefits we would get from a little tweaking to suit a search engine. Luckily all the evidence points towards a happy medium.

If you can get strong keywords – in journalistic terms the who, where and what of a story – in to the front part of your headline then you’re on to a winner – both readers and search engines like it when you put proper nouns up front. Taking the Daily Mail example above, the HTML title headline

Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online – would be our best choice.

There’s plenty of advice for picking good keywords including using tools like Google Trends and Google ad words tool to help identify good keyword contribution.

Social media optimisation

Making the effort to strike the balance between search engine and reader friendly optimized headlines is worth the effort but search engines are not the only place we find stuff these days. Social media plays a big part in the recommendation and discovery process so optimising our content for those platforms is going to be worth some effort.

Ensuring our headlines travel across and round social media whilst retaining that ‘attention grabbing’ quality is a challenge. Take twitter for example. We don’t just have the headline to worry about, we also need to leave room for a link and, maybe, space for anyone who wants to retweet to add ‘RT @ourname’. So we actually have a limited amount of space to work with.

The advice is to work with a headline of around 65 characters. That gives you a headline that will appear on Google searches without getting truncated and if you wanted to tweet it, used along with a URL shortner like Bitly or wordpress.com’s  built in shortlink generator, you leave enough space for people to add their own stuff. Using something like Bitly also give you the added bonus of some nice stats to help track your social media traffic.

Excerpts

It’s worth noting at this point that the excerpt function in WordPress.com can play a really important part in selling your content. Some WordPress  ‘magazine’ style themes use it as the article summary, but if you add an excerpt it is used as the meta description for your article.

That ‘code’ won’t necessarily peak the mechanical interest of a search engine like the title tag does but it’s what appears under your (carefully crafted) headline in search engine results. It’s your chance to reinforce what the article is about and draw the reader in.

It also gets a lot of use in the social side of things. Look at this code from the header of a wordpress post using the standard 2012 template.

<meta property="og:type" content="article" />
<meta property="og:title" content="SEO friendly headline here. It&#039;s the headline and html title as well." />
<meta property="og:url" content="http://andystestpress.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/seo-headline-in-the-html/" />
<meta property="og:description" content="This is the excerpt but it&#039;s used as the META description which google will use as the &#039;snippet&#039; under the title." />
<meta property="og:site_name" content="Andy&#039;s Testpress: its great" />
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@wordpressdotcom" />
<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary" />

The og in there means open graph and that means Facebook. This code essentially controls the information that Facebook uses to display details of your post when someone shares or likes the link on Facebook. The Twitter one does the same thing for the twitter card that’s displayed.  The title is the same as before.

On the face of it, using WordPress.com for blogging  may not give us the flexibility that the big players have to craft different versions of headlines. To get that you need to install your own version. But out of the box it does a lot of stuff for us. All we need to do is pay a little attention to the content.

If we want to get the best out of our headlines then they need to be attention grabbing, relevant, hooks for our articles that are no longer than 65 characters and front-loaded with appropriate keywords. And if we want to start optimising for social media we need to give the excerpt some attention as well.

Note: Clearly content optimisation (search or otherwise) is a complex and rich process – I’ve not even scratched the surface of some of the stuff specific to wordpress.com let alone SEO in general! Simply tweaking a headline or excerpts is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not suggesting that working your headline is in anyway SEO or that good content, carefully crafted for your content is not just as (if not more important). Just saying :-)

Note 2: Not all wordpress themes are the same. As much as we might argue that HTML is not something journos need to engage with (btw, yes they should) having a root around the header of your chosen theme to see what meta is kicking around is not a bad or techie thing to be able to do.

Note 3: Paul Bradshaw has a great blog post about using the wordpress editor which has some good stuff to say about URL’s and links – two factors in google ranking.

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