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Writing for Google

The understanding of how to write for SEO can be a slippery challenge to conquer. Jonathan Rick from Levick Strategic Communications hits it on the SEO head with his laymen explanations how to capitalize writing for today’s Google.

Jonathan Rick by 

Jonathan Rick is a director at Levick Strategic Communications. He contributes to Levick’s Bulletproof Blog. Follow him @jrick.

Why do search engines always rank certain websites so highly? Sure, their content might be great, but their search engine optimization is definitely awesome. Indeed, for many sites, the search-engine spiders that crawl the web deliver a third or more of their traffic.

So crafting key parts of a page, like a headline, is critical. Perhaps the most famous example comes from theHuffington Post, which in February reeled in readers with the ingenious bait: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?”

In protest, writers for publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic each took turns slugging the SEO punching bag. The headlines describe their complaint: “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.” “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.” “Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO.”

In other words, algorithms don’t appreciate wit, irony, humor, or style. As reporter Steve Lohr put it, they’re “numbingly literal-minded.” Yes, it is one of the definitive 21st century truisms that in addition to writing for eternity, or for one’s mother, today’s writer must also write for Google.

That, however, doesn’t mean your headlines have to be stale. You can pen pun-based headlines all day long and maintain your journalistic integrity. Consider these examples from leading news organizations. As with most things in life, the media have adopted tactics that range from bad to the best.


Don’t write the same headline for both the article and the page. The difference is that an article title is what you show your readers, and a page title is what you show search engines. (With a good plug-in, like Page Title for Drupal or WordPress SEO for WordPress, you can rig most content management systems to separate the two.)

In the examples below, keywords pertaining to the subject of each article are, well, nowhere. Google doesn’t know if the Time article involves a beach called “Force One” or presidential vacations. Likewise, does “Hacked” mean a hacked Gmail password or the Stuxnet virus? And it’s unclear if “The Woman Who Knew Too Much” refers to Alice Stewart, who wrote a landmark biography by that name, or the former chairwoman of the congressional oversight panel monitoring the Troubled Assets Relief Program.



    • Article Title: “Beach Force One”
    • Page Title: Beach Force One

The Atlantic

    • Article Title: “Hacked!”
    • Page Title: Hacked!

Vanity Fair

  • Article Title: “The Woman Who Knew Too Much”
  • Page Title: The Woman Who Knew Too Much


A better approach employs a single title that blends creativity with SEO punch. The idea is to craft headlines that are both self-explanatory and catchy. The compromise here allows both creativity (integrity) and technology (impact). It kills two birds with one keystroke.



    • Article Title: “15 Case Studies to Get Your Client on Board With Social Media”
    • Page Title: 15 Case Studies to Get Your Client on Board With Social Media

Bloomberg Businessweek

    • Article Title: “Scott Forstall, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Apple”
    • Page Title: Scott Forstall, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Apple


  • Article Title: “What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs”
  • Page Title: What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs


Headline writing crystallizes the writer’s dilemma. To a writer, a headline is a one-shot first impression that stops a mouse-moving, page-scrolling, attention-deprived user in his pixels and makes him wonder, “What is this?” The way to do this is with a two-title approach. True, the two-title technique means extra work. But absent sheer dumb luck, only extra work can deliver the eyeballs your content deserves. And considering the dramatic difference between the number of clicks generated by the first result Google returns vs. the second, the third, and the fourth, you owe it to yourself to play every angle in this ever-changing race to the top.


The New Yorker


    • Article Title: “Changing Times”
    • Page Title: Jill Abramson, New York Times’ First Woman Executive Editor

The Wall Street Journal

    • Article Title: “White House Party Crashers Cause a Hangover”
    • Page Title: Obama Asks for Review After Michaele and Tareq Salahi Crash White House State Dinner


  • Article Title: “Deliverance”
  • Page Title: U.S. Postal Service: Will It Survive?


For those looking to wring every drop of SEO juice out of every article, there’s a fourth arrow in your quiver: themeta description. It is from here that Google often pulls the two-line “snippet” displayed for each webpage.


Why bother with a meta description? Simple: according to the SEO uber-site,, a description induces more clicks. At the same time, SEOmoz offers a caveat: While a description makes sense for an article that targets a few heavily searched terms, if you’re going after long-tail traffic, “it can sometimes be wiser” to forgo the description and let Google work its will. (If a description is missing, Google will create one, scraping the article for pertinent content.)

Yet SEOmoz’s qualifications aren’t written in stone. “In some cases,” search engines will “overrule the meta description” altogether.” But here too, it’s not always wise to bank on that possibility. Here’s how some of the best leverage this option.

New York Magazine


    • Article Title: “What’s Eating the NYPD?”
    • Page Title: Why the NYPD Is Turning on Ray Kelly
    • Meta Description: Ray Kelly has built the best police force in the country. Now it is turning on him.


    • Article Title: “Citizen Cain”
    • Page Title: Herman Cain’s Unlikely Republican Rise
    • Meta Description: Meet the rising GOP star who is confounding the pundits and much of black America.

The New York Times Magazine

  • Article Title: “When Is a Flip Not a Flop?”
  • Page Title: The Fate of the Republicans Who Supported Gay Marriage
  • Meta Description: The four Republicans who broke with their party on New York’s gay-marriage law were supposedly marked for electoral death.But that’s not exactly how it is working out.

SEO is an ever-evolving and much-debated field. It’s full of qualifications and judgment calls, backed by correlation studies and launched by conjecture. Those convoluted meta descriptions notwithstanding, start with the above best practices. With this foundation, you’ll be able to pull off one of the web’s hardest acts: you’ll be able to make Google laugh.

Follow The Boza Agency for Social Media/Tech News: @JoseBoza. Social Media consultant by day and Superhero by night, Jose Boza.

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