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Our point of view on Web headlines

May 25, 2010

We read a lot of advice about how to use celebrity names and trending topics to write headlines that will grab a large audience from search engines. Venerable sites such as Copyblogger and Hubspot promote the practice of connecting with what the “social media everyman” is looking for in terms of headline fodder.  Here’s an excerpt from a Copyblogger writer about how to use trending topics in headlines, which we also quote in the book:

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  • What Owen Wilson’ Pursed Lips Mean to your Blog
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  • What Prince Can Teach You about Effective Blogging

This is the exact opposite advice that we give in our book. Except in rare cases, trending topics are not likely to be relevant to your audience. Using them to garner more traffic is akin to spamming. The practice is turning a lot of people off. David Carr of The New York  Times wrote an excellent blog post about the practice of using trending topics as headline fodder on Web pages. His position is in line with ours: It’s not helping.

Our position is clear: Headlines are the most important parts of your copy because search crawlers pay particular attention to them, as do Web scanners and readers. What follows further clarifies that position and gives you tips on how to write compelling search-first headlines.

Print vs. Web headlines

Much of Carr’s critique relates to the dying art of newspaper headline writing. Gone are the days from print in which headlines used clever puns or longer discursive forms. Good Web headline writing is more literal, because search engines don’t parse puns or irony.

Though we admit print headline writing is a dying art, we don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Effective communication maximizes relevance. If you write headlines that closely relate to users’ search queries and they find the content under those headlines also relevant to their queries, you are maximizing relevance for them. Done right, good Web writing can be more relevant to the audience than print writing. Done wrong, the opposite is the case, which is why we do not advise using trending topics to help with headlines. All you’re doing in that case is minimizing relevance by enticing a high volume of people to come to your page, only to be disappointed that the headline does not match the content of the page.

I can’t say clever puns in print headlines always maximize relevance. Their purpose is to catch the eye, and entice readers to choose that article over the others in a print publication. But they also don’t minimize relevance. The user of a newspaper expects to browse and find what interests her. In picking up the publication, she tacitly consents to the editorial style of the newspaper. And she expects at least one article in the paper to be relevant to her. Readers of magazines and journals have a narrower field of vision still. They pick up the publication because the topic is relevant to them. They will be more tolerant of clever word play in headlines because headlines are not carrying as much of the information about what is relevant to the reader.

In print, the reader has a presumption of relevance. On the Web, not so much. So Web headlines must do more to demonstrate relevance than they do in print. This leaves less room for literary craftiness, but it need not result in boring headlines entirely derived from keyword research.

How to write relevant and compelling Web headlines

There’s no one way to write relevant Web headlines. But all good Web headlines have a few things in common:

  • Good Web headlines contain the keywords most relevant to the content of a page. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many pages are mostly built prior to an SEO consultant coming in and putting keywords in key spots, including the headline. Rarely does this arrangement produce enough relevance between the headline and the body copy. When those two things don’t line up, the page will not sustain success. It might get ranked well initially, but bounce rates will force the ranking down over time. Remember Google runs A/B tests constantly and penalizes pages with high bounce rates. On the flip side, low bounce rates–the best measure of relevance on the Web–help you climb the search rankings.
  • Good headlines use words the target audience is most likely to care about. This also might seem obvious. If they searched on those words and they found them in the headline, they care about them. But again, if the headline was not written with the body copy, the page will not be relevant to the searcher even if the headline is. The only way to line these two things up is to do keyword research first to determine what your target audience cares about. Then write the headline and the body copy together so that readers will find the body copy optimally relevant to the headlines and vice versa.
  • Good headlines don’t necessarily match the exact keyword string. This might be less obvious. But you’re not just writing for search engines. You’re writing for Web scanners. This is where print headlines and Web headlines resemble each other. Scanners need enticing language to get them to at least read the abstract before determining relevance. If the headline does not contain enough literary craft, a percentage of visitors will bounce even if both the headline and the body copy are relevant to what they care about.

The tricky part is balancing relevance with literary craft. But it’s not as hard as you might think. If you start with the keywords, crafting a compelling headline is a matter of starting with a few simple guidelines:

  • Focus on the verbs. Every good headline promotes some action. The keywords are typically nouns, but the verbs are what compels visitors to engage with the page. Here I use my thesaurus for every headline. Often times, the verb I have in mind is not as compelling as an equivalent. Even if I use the verb I had in mind before I checked the thesaurus, it gives me peace of mind that the verb I used was most likely to result in the desired action.
  • Use 7 plus or minus 2 words. That’s the number of words human brains can parse at a scan. A common mistake is to be overly concise because you think scanners don’t want to waste time. In reality, it takes the same amount of time for the human brain to scan a seven-word headline as a five-word headline. So use as many words as your template will allow, but no more than nine. If your template is too constraining, change it.
  • Use decks or subheads. A seven-word headline might do enough to catch a scanners’ eye, but not enough to compel him to read on. This is where a deck–the secondary headline–can help entice him without overwhelming him.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But if you start with these guidelines and test them out on a live site, you can adapt your headline practices to your target audience preferences. One way or another, you can craft relevant and compelling headlines for your Web audiences.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2010 5:03 pm

    Good points all around — and in some ways, an update to an old magazine truism, especially when considering cover lines: Write a good headline first, then write (or assign) the article. If an editor does that based on what someone wants to read (as determined by things like past performance, A/B testing, what you already know or can intuit about your audience, search engine rankings — and every other tool at our disposal for insight into the potential audience), it’s more likely to be read/bought/clicked on/etc. But I can’t resist one ironic quibble: Where is the verb in “Our point of view on Web headlines”?

    • May 26, 2010 3:54 am

      Good one Derek. Do as I say, not as I do, I guess. If I had to write it again, I would say something like, “Compose relevant and compelling Web headlines”.

  2. Dey Alexander permalink
    May 31, 2010 1:08 pm

    Nice article (though I wasn’t sure if you were referring to or , when using the term ‘headline’).

    You might want to have another look at Millers Law. It isn’t about the number of words the brain can ‘parse’, but about the number of items that can be held in working memory. When the words are on the screen in front of you, you’re not relying on working memory.


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