PR Pros: Stop Cramming Everything Into the News Release Headline

Mark McClennan: It's time for more public relations professionals to wake up and use the delete key.

Guest editorial by Mark McClennan

It's time for more public relations professionals to wake up and use the delete key.

Companies will spend billions on search engine marketing and optimization in 2010. Yet new research shows public relations professionals are undercutting their SEO efforts by cramming too much into the news release headline.

By now, most companies have realized that news releases are no longer just a vehicle for communicating with the media. They are read by numerous stakeholders and customers. News releases containing the right keywords and the right links are an integral part of any company's SEO effort. An optimized news release can vault to the top of search results and attract the attention of key influencers. Poor releases are relegated to Google's trashcan. Release headlines are a core element of optimization.

While a PR campaign using only news releases is suboptimal, they are still an essential element in most PR pros' toolkits and they won't Die! Die! Die! anytime soon.

The Schwartz Communications Research Group, with invaluable help from Business Wire, decided to see how PR professionals are doing with release optimization. We analyzed the headlines of more than 16,000 news releases issued over Business Wire in a 31 day period (July 26 to August 25, 2010).  Since Schwartz cannot know the keywords that thousands of companies are hoping to use to optimize their content and releases, the Schwartz Research Group focused on headline length as a success factor.

The analysis found that only 18.4% of all releases have headlines with 65 characters or fewer (which will fully display them in Google). Many search engine optimization (SEO) experts advise that companies try to keep the characters in the headline under 70 characters.

The majority of releases are under 150 characters, but 2% of releases had headlines in excess of 300 characters, with one headline that was over 1,000 characters. The shortest headline was 18 characters, which is also probably not ideal for SEO as it's unlikely that enough of their keywords were included. Overall, the analysis found the average headline length to be 123 characters.

(Note: I am sure the company at which I work is guilty of lengthy headlines from time to time too).

Some other surprising findings:

  • Companies located in the tech hubs - Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Austin, etc- often do the worst job of optimizing headline length. The releases from New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were the best at keeping headlines short.

  • We love buzzwords - but not in headlines: While PR people overuse buzzwords at least we don't use them in headlines. Only 14% of releases have the most common buzzwords in the headline.

What does this mean for the average public relations professional?

A recent PRSA Survey showcased at the 2010 National Assembly earlier this month, reported that writing would still be the most important skill for PR professionals in 2015. Yet too many PR pros still try to fit everything, including the kitchen sink, into the headline. We need to embrace brevity.

Show the data to your clients and your managers. Prioritize.

1. Keep the release headline under 66 characters so the whole thing can be displayed in Google Search.

2. Keep the headline under 23 words so that it can be displayed fully in Google News.

3. Favor keywords over buzzwords whenever possible.

If you would like the full research report, it can be downloaded here. What other release SEO tips do you want to share?

Mark W. McClennan, APR, is Senior Vice President and Research & Measurement Lead at Schwartz Communications. He can be found on Twitter at @mcclennan.