The Google Pony Danny Sullivan has fired off a few rounds at the authors over at Google Blog, who habitually use non-descriptive headlines such as ‘Greetings, Earthlings!’ and, our favourite: ‘Yes, you can have a pony’.

As an expert in SEO you’d think Danny’s beef would be linked to a lack of keywords in titles, but this isn’t in fact the problem…

“The headlines Google provides are so lame that I either need to rewrite them or point at someone else who is writing about what Google posted,”
says Danny, who publishes a regular news roundup and uses headlines as links. 

Yet Danny’s gripe raises an important point, because regardless of the media channel, a good headline should be extremely powerful.

Headline considerations are one of the first things I mention when traditional journalists ask me about the difference between online and offline. 
 
In an offline environment journalists tend to favour a witty headline, especially if it is some kind of pun…

Rhino - not in fact a rhino

 or rhyme…

Crook Smacks Hook

 or otherwise aim for something downright weird and attention grabbing…

Harry - not in fact a Nazi

With a big three-quarter page picture on the front of a newspaper this sort of thing works fine – it grabs the attention, and hey, it might even result in a belly laugh or two.

But in an online environment wit / puns / rhymes doesn’t tend to work in your favour, as the web is built on links, which are restricted to a handful of words and tend not to be accompanied by a related picture. Online, headlines ideally need to reflect the full story. Headlines = links.

Furthermore, if a headline doesn’t tell Google or Yahoo or MSN a single useful thing about the content of your story then it could work against you (it may be seen to be a negative ranking factor).

Online, you need to manage expectations a little better, otherwise writers like Danny might not take a chance on clicking on a link. Unless they really wanted that pony, of course. So you need to also consider this from a PR perspective.

As I have alluded to, the big factor to consider is of course SEO, not that the Google Blog authors need to worry about that sort of thing.

Headlines are very powerful when it comes to search rankings, so writers should be aware of their employer’s business goals before labelling content. Headlines should be descriptive, should contain a proportionate amount of keywords / phrases, and shouldn’t be too long (or too short). Experiment to see what works best.

Authors should also be aware of the psychological factors that can influence clickthrough rates. It isn’t purely about SEO, or wit, or descriptiveness, but is a balancing act.

For example, a headline with a question mark at the end forces the reader to ask himself a question, whereas a statement can be easily overlooked.

“When you ask a question you’re forcing readers to ask themselves something. You’re not simply making a statement which is forgotten immediately, you’re forcing readers to think,”
notes Steve Jackson via Webcredible.

There is more on copywriting for SEO in our Search Engine Marketing Best Practice Guide, for anybody who wants to read up more on this subject.