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Headlines and Search Engine Optimization


This lesson will help students to understand the difference between writing headlines for print and online stories. Specifically, students will understand how search engines work and the relationship between good headlines and improved search results or more web traffic.


  • Students will be able to explain the difference between writing headlines for print and online publications.
  • Students will understand how search engines utilize headlines to improve search results.
  • Students will learn to create their own SEO-friendly headlines.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain a flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.5 Analyze in detail how an author’s ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs or larger portions of a text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.


50 minutes


Review this lesson to introduce basic SEO ideas

Handout: Headline list (optional)

Rubric: Headline rewrite

Devices with internet access


Lesson step-by-step
1. Tap prior knowledge — 10 minutes

Invite students to explain “clickbait,” drawing a distinction between “clickbait” and SEO, or search engine optimization. As needed, have them look up the terms and copy basic definitions into their notes.

If students do not have access to the internet during the lesson, you can use a projection device with your own definition for students to copy into their notes. For example, the two definitions below from Wikipedia may be a worthy starting point.

Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks. Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the “curiosity gap,” providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a web search engine‘s unpaid results — often referred to as “natural,” “organic,” or “earned” results. In general, the earlier (or higher ranked on the search results page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users, and these visitors can be converted into customers.

2. Direct instruction — 15 minutes

Deliver these slightly modified headlines to the students. Tell them one word has been replaced by something else in each of these published headlines:
• Why Are So Many 43-Year-Old White Men Having Zero Sex? (NYMag)
• How 43-Year-Old White Men Are Ruining The Workforce (Philly Mag)
• Proof That Fancy Job Perks Can’t Keep 43-Year-Old White Men Happy (Fortune)
• Why Are So Many 43-Year-Old White Men Having Children Out Of Wedlock? (The Atlantic)
• The Hot New 43-Year-Old White Men Trend Is Hating 43-Year-Old White Men (VICE)
• Is The Future Of Your Church Doomed Without 43-Year-Old White Men? (Christian Post)
• How Tumblr Plans To Pay 43-Year-Old White Men To Blog (Inc.)
• Why Are 43-Year-Old White Men So Hard To Manage? (Forbes)
• Martha Stewart Still Confused About What 43-Year-Old White Men Are Exactly (Vanity Fair)
• UK Businesses Don’t Understand ‘43-Year-Old White Men’ (Campaign Live)
• Why Aren’t 43-Year-Old White Men Buying Diamonds? (The Economist)
• Kendall Jenner Urges 43-Year-Old White Men To Vote For America’s Next President!  (WWD)
• Weak Hands? Weak Body? 43-Year-Old White Men Lose Grips (USA Today)
• Country Music Proves That 43-Year-Old White Men Are More Patriotic Than You Think (Forbes)
• Churches Using Pokémon Go To Get 43-Year-Old White Men In Pews (The Boston Globe)
• I’m A 43-Year-Old White Man And My Generation Sucks (New York Post)
• Why Employers Need To Empathize With ‘Entitled’ 43-Year-Old White Men (Fortune)
• Why Are 43-Year-Old White Men So Obsessed With Food? (The Atlantic)

Have students talk in pairs and share what they think was changed. If they do not figure it out, tell them that the term “43-Year-Old White Men” was “Millennials” in the original headlines.

Ask students to discuss why these headlines seemed so odd as they were presented.

Collect responses. Have students talk in pairs about why so many headlines used “Millennials” originally. Shift to a group discussion and lead students to the idea that these news sites have data that suggest the word “millennial” shows up in search results often enough that it is a “buzz word” that can drive readers to the site.

3. Pair-share application — 10 minutes

Have students talk in pairs about how that could affect their stories. Solicit responses. Drive them to the idea that headlines for online stories need to do the following:

  • Inform the reader.
  • Make that reader interested in clicking.
  • Provide enough information that make the story appear in search results for someone who might be interested.

Still in pairs, students should discuss what types of things could make their stories show up in search results. If they are used to adding tags to web stories, they will notice a natural connection. Solicit responses from each partner group, and write them on the board for students to copy. Make sure the following ideas get collected: Unique or important last names, school name, city name, famous references (e.g. Star Wars).

4. Assessment — 10 minutes (finish as homework if necessary)

Assign students to review five headlines from one of your past publications. Instruct them to rewrite the headline to make it search engine-friendly without becoming clickbait.

Students should submit their responses and be graded according to the rubric provided.

Alternative — 5 minutes

Have students swap headlines and evaluate a partner’s work using the checklist.


Enrichment: For students who are more advanced, invite them to find an example online to share with the class. Ask them to look for a story with a weak headline and a different story online about the same topic with a more SEO-friendly headline.

Modification: If you use WordPress, explain that you can have a different HEADLINE and PAGE TITLE. You can have a very long page title that hits many different SEO topics:

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?