Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Which Headline Is the Best of Them All?

If you don’t get the answer from a mirror, use AI tools instead.

Written by Daniel Loran
Daniel Loran
2020 Sep 27 9 min read

Semantics

They say: “Practice makes a man perfect.”

And they have been saying that for quite some time, as English has developed itself over 1400 years. But can you get anything done today if you put too much emphasis on perfectionism?

Recently conducted surveys register the freely available time of working adults somewhere between 1.5 to 4.5 hours per week. Can anyone be perfect under those conditions?

Perhaps they should say: “Practice makes a man.”

Removing the word “perfect” from the equation instantly feels less stressful and more achievable, although the logical part of your brain may disagree after examining your tight schedule.

On second thought, if an AI agent reads the sentence “Practice makes a man” it could infer that more practice makes more men. While this could be a valid interpretation under certain conditions that I promise not to explore in this post, in the given context, it’s clearly not the intended semantics. If this sentence is a headline, your story could end up in a different search result set than you wish for. More on that later.

AI doesn’t always succeed in making sense of our world. But then, who does?


Keep It Short

Search engines are optimized for user behavior, and user behavior may often surprise you.

We live in a world where people are statistically more likely to click on shorter headlines. It’s possible to attribute this behavior to information overload and the aforementioned shortage of free time we all experience.

Short headlines are, therefore, more attractive for search engines and readers alike.

Google will automatically truncate any headline longer than 55 characters. If your headline crosses this boundary and important keywords are in the end, the readers will not see them. As a result, they could lose interest in reading further.

The easiest way to check if your layout fits well and scales appropriately is by using your own mobile to read your draft before hitting the publish button. Or as developers do, press F12 in Chrome to open Development Tools and use the second icon on the top-left to “toggle device toolbar,” where you can select popular mobile devices and resolutions. Sometimes, facing the harsh reality on a small mobile screen can open your eyes and bring creative ideas that otherwise wouldn’t visit your mind.

A rule of thumb: if your headline overshoots 2/3 of the iPhone 5 SE mobile screen in a simulator, then it should raise some red flags and trigger the required rewrites.

Today, there are more mobile devices on planet Earth than desktop computers. As a writer, you can no longer afford to ignore mobile readers.


Be Aware of Human Behavior

An overwhelming majority of Google users never navigate further than the first page in the search results. Unfortunately, this means that the competition to appear on the first page is high, and the placement usually can’t be secured for the desired keywords. If your story appears on the third page, chances are, most readers will not discover it via the search results.


What Strong Headlines Are Made Of?

Some titles you have to compete against are part of an advertisement campaign, carefully designed by marketing experts to target specific keywords. And some are generated on the fly. It's beneficial to extract the quality keywords used by competition on the topic you write about, so you might use alternative keywords to be found. Tools discussed further can help you with that.

The world continues to change so rapidly that no magical mirror can outperform solid keywords research and the freely available AI tools to analyze your headline in terms of emotional impact, sentiment, use of (un)common words, and power terms.

Writing is hard, and writing stronger headlines is even harder. Embedding SEO keywords into your headlines is an art on its own.

All this vigorous effort is necessary to get better SEO ranking, compete for the reader’s attention, and, ultimately, solicit a click that will hopefully lead to quality time spent reading your story.


I Object!

Perhaps as a writer, you think you shouldn’t resort to such technicalities. Maybe all this breaks too far into the nerds’ domain—a line you are not willing to cross.

But if you don’t have an audience yet, and are unwilling to help your potential readers to find your story, then your story is at risk of disappearing in the pile of 56.5 billion web pages indexed by Google at the time of writing. By the way, this was the number of indexed pages before I published my article. Just teasing.


Free Tools to Improve Your Headlines

Below is the list of freely available and useful tools I came across so far:

https://coschedule.com/headline-analyzer

Strive for 70 or above score to achieve measurable greatness while paying attention to word balance and sentiment.

https://www.isitwp.com/headline-analyzer

This tool can offer a “second opinion.”

https://www.portent.com/tools/title-maker

This one is not an analyzer by nature. It’s a Headline Generator. Warning: it tends to make you laugh.

In the beginning, it will ask you to enter a subject. To try it out, I entered “crafting headlines.” It then generated the following ideas: “How Crafting Headlines Are Part of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” and “Why Our World Would End if Crafting Headlines Disappeared.” As you can see, it’s rather melodramatic. Although those ideas aren’t directly useful, experimenting with the generator can stretch your creative muscle. Like a warmup, before the heavy lifting of choosing the right title for your story.


Focus on Your Breath

Using a headline analyzer is like meditating with a robot, watching your every move while providing spiritual guidance. No, it isn’t like that. And it can even get on your nerves if you let it.

One thing you will inevitably notice is that AI analyzers, just like humans, can disagree by a large margin. Their score can deviate to such a degree that you will start wondering if it’s a legitimate business altogether.

For example, the title of this story “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Which Headline Is the Best of Them All?” scored 77 on coschedule.com and only 60 on isitwp.com. Does it mean that one of them is “right,” and the other is “wrong”? Is coschedule.com more on the fans’ side? Not really. It’s more likely the consequence of running two distinct AI algorithms that have nothing in common. As far as AI is concerned, the dataset it trained on is the king. And what AI learned from this dataset will drive the decision-making process.

Don’t get confused by AI. It’s even more confused by you.


How to Solve the Confusion?

One way to deal with this problem is by calculating the average score from multiple analyzers for each headline candidate. It’s always a good practice to have at least 10 titles per story in your arsenal and experiment with different variants of each by following analyzer recommendations until the best headline with the score 70+ will emerge.

There will be times, however, when analyzers repeatedly cannot show appreciation for your creativity. This is where your intuition should interfere and take control of the situation.


To Analyze or Not to Analyze

This endeavor involves practicing writing stronger headlines. The more you invest in developing this skill, the less time you will spend worrying about your SEO.

Understanding AI’s way of thinking can pay off big time. Not only in the present, where, among other things, it determines the search engine ranking, but also in the future, where it’s expected to have an even more profound impact on our lives.

In one version of such a future, inspired by technological singularity, AI becomes smarter than all of us combined and creates a super AI with an exponential capacity to expand its intelligence, and, as the story goes, takes over the planet. Fortunately, we are light years away from this scenario, and AI headline analyzers remain safe to use. They are not yet super intelligent.


SEO Keyword Research

Headline analyzers are great tools, but alone, they will not make your story discoverable on Google, no matter how hard you try. Doing SEO keyword research and embedding the long-tail keywords in your headline will.


Long-Tail Keywords… Are They Really That Long?

Short answer: yes. A more elaborate answer deserves a separate article. Please remind me to write it.

In a nutshell, it’s important to understand how your current headline ranks in organic search results in terms of its keywords. Then assess what changes are necessary to outrank the competition and to land in the top 10 list. In theory, this should guarantee a shiny spot on the first page. Meaning: a lot of clicks headed your way, paying nothing for the advertising, as all the traffic is organic, based on what users type into the search box. The more clicks, the more chances to grow your audience.


Where to Find Long-Tail Keywords?

Although there are professional tools that can shed some light on finding long-tail keywords, unclaimed by the big sharks, they are very far from being freely available. In fact, for a novice blogger, those tools are likely to remain financially out of reach for quite some time.

Below is the list of tools that can bring your keyword research to the next level. They were specially designed to help you identify the long-tail keywords that can become part of your headline.

https://ahrefs.com

https://www.semrush.com

https://moz.com

Unfortunately, all three of them have a rather discouraging price tag of 99 USD per month. It’s beyond my comprehension why it’s so expensive. Such investment in SEO optimization and daily rank monitoring can only be justified if you already have a steady income from blogging or have a product to sell. If yes, then those are the best tools on the market.

One important thing to understand here is that the keywords collected by those tools are organic search keywords. They are very different animals and have nothing in common with the keywords offered by Google Keyword Planner on the Google Ads platform.


Monitor and Fine-Tune

Even if you succeed to appear on the first page after all those efforts, someone can still outrank you, or worse—evict you from the Hall of Glory. Hence, the need to monitor your ranking and adjust your SEO strategy accordingly.

Although keywords have a substantial weight in a ranking calculation, they are not the only parameter that matters.

Other parameters include: how many external high-ranked sites reference your story, the reader engagement, the quality of your writing, and the length of your story, to name a few. Including an unreasonable amount of advertisement blocks in your blog post can drastically degrade your score.

Google assigns a higher score to long stories with 2000+ words.

Despite many claims to the contrary, when somebody asks you if the size matters, answer that it does to Google.

Reader engagement is measured in time spent reading your story. User interaction on-page by posting comments is important as well.

The writing quality is evaluated by NLP - Natural Language Processing algorithms, which is a highly specialized group of AI agents trained to reason about correctness, clarity, style, delivery, readability, and the richness of your vocabulary. Grammar correction software like Grammarly and ProWritingAid offers similar metrics, which could give a glimpse of what to expect from the search engine ranking algorithm. Next to helping you fix the grammatical errors, this software also assigns an overall score to your writing.

There is a lot AI can infer after analyzing your text. For instance, readability can further be mapped to a particular reader’s age group. The search engine is then more likely to target that age group by showing the readers your story. A competing story with similar parameters, but a different readability score, will miss the spot.

Besides that, there are other areas to explore. For example, embedding tweets with pictures (that readers can easily retweet) rather than static images into your post can further increase the engagement factor, and, as a result, improve your overall score.


Finally

Many writers succeed by focusing their efforts on writing quality stories with carefully crafted headlines. Some do that while also being aware of SEO, which gives them an advantage. The road of pleasing the search engines isn’t taken by all. If, however, you choose this road, AI can help to send free organic traffic to your story. It’s up to you to decide which avenues of content promotion are the best to pursue.


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