The Headline: A do-or-die proposition for your writing

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The best information in the world is useless if nobody reads it. So once you’ve done your research, written your copy, edited and fact-checked, it’s time to craft the most important aspect of your content — the headline.

I can’t stress this enough: The headline, header, title, whatever you call it, is the No. 1 factor in whether people will decide to click and read your writing. The header’s most important job is to get people to read your lede.

So it needs to be interesting, it needs to be accurate, a bit of action is nice AND it needs to contain great keywords.

Oh, and you want to accomplish this in 6-10 words. Especially if you also have the benefit of a subhead, or a blurb, to augment the main headline. If not, and depending on the format of your article or website, you might stretch the main header to, say, a dozen words. Rarely will it be more.

Writing exceptional headlines is high art at newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies. What most of you reading this post need is something a bit different, though, because many of you will be writing for the web. Writing headlines for print differs from writing online headers.

In print, you can use page layout, large images and other tools to augment the header. You can write an oblique header if the subhead, photos and other elements show the reader clearly what the story is about. They see all of those elements when they open the page. Not so when you are writing for online readers.

Online, most people will see your header, maybe a sub-head and your lede sentence on a search or landing page. They make decisions to click based on just a few words. So they’ve got to be great words. Catchy, and right at the heart of the matter.

It should not be sensational or misleading just to grab clicks or eyeballs. I’m not getting into the “clickbait” discussion here — we’ll leave that for another day — but suffice to say there is good clickbait and bad clickbait. The very best headlines for online content catch your eye, hold your attention, then entice you to click (thus “click-bait”) the link for more. Good clickbait headers mean the content delivers on exactly what that awesome headline promises.

Bad clickbait, well, you won’t see many of those folks again.

Without further ado, let’s look at some of the key points to consider when writing headers.

A headline should be specific. Tell readers exactly what they will get.

There are two compelling reasons for identifying “keywords” for your headers. First, for SEO value (more on this in a few paragraphs). Second, so you focus on the most important aspects of the content.

So, identify the most critical theme(s) and information, then jot down a list of the words YOU would search if that’s what you were looking for.

Try to get a couple of verbs on that list as well. Keywords are generally nouns, yes, but verbs provide the element of “action” so we are going to want to incorporate one into the header. Once we have the most important keywords, and a possible verb or two, we can start building our header.

Make headlines active or dramatic (if possible) and relevant.

A major fire or breaking news event is dramatic by its very nature. Just writing “Major fire burns at town’s biggest employer” will entice clicks. Not so much for a maintenance company’s information page about getting your annual furnace tuneup. BUT, if you can impart some sense of action, urgency or drama into the headline it will catch the reader’s eye. “Annual furnace cleaning saves money … and possibly your life.”

In this case, the action involves a direct benefit which can be derived from clicking the link. If your verbs or adverbs can also incorporate the “me” factor for your audience, your click rate will increase.

Just be careful to ensure you make reasonable claims in the headers. Then back them up in the content. Don’t write a “throwaway” header making some outlandish statement not supported in your text. That’s bad clickbait. It might get you clicks in the short term, but over a period of time both your customers / readers and the web crawlers will catch on. It’ll drive eyeballs away.

(BTW, keeping your furnace properly tuned-up actually CAN save your life, so we’re not misleading anyone here.)

Get keywords up front, whenever possible.

The reality is that it is very, very difficult to get your website to rank on the first page of search results on Google, Bing or any of the big search engines. But that’s no reason not to follow good SEO formatting when creating headers, blurbs and ledes for your text. Search engines, generally, give more relevance to words at the front of a headline, blurb or your text.

So, applying that principle to our breaking news story, you could write a header that says “Major fire at downtown factory”. It’s certainly accurate, and contains both urgency and action. But, it is much too generic.

“Major fire at Ottawa’s ABC factory” is much better. What will people search when they go to Google trying to find articles about the first? Probably “Ottawa”. The word “fire” is a given … possibly also “factory” or “business”. The business name, if people know it, might also be in the search. Will most of your readers be local, or do you anticipate a large influx of readers from outside your local region?

“Ottawa crews battle fire at ABC factory, city’s largest employer” will score well when people search “Ottawa fire” or “Fire in Ottawa”.

“Major fire at ABC’s downtown factory, Ottawa’s largest employer” might score better for local folks who know what’s on fire, and are searching for details.

Tease your content.

Is there something just a tiny bit different, unique or compelling about your story? What is the most important thing people will learn, or take away, from the item? A great header will convey something about this, but not give away the whole tale. After all, you want the click. In our breaking news scenario, did you get access to great video from the scene? Perhaps many people had to be rescued and you are now able to update your original headline … or add a followup story. “VIDEO: Dozens rescued as Ottawa ABC factory destroyed by fire”.

For something a bit less dramatic, let’s go back to our annual furnace inspection. “Furnace tuneup can save money, or your life: See why” would be a very effective header. Compare it to “Annual furnace tuneup package”. Put both of those headers together on the same Google search page and if all other factors are equal, you tell me which one will get more clicks. Which would catch YOUR eye?

Tell just enough of the story.

Restricting your main headline to about 10 words accomplishes several different things. First, it ensures the whole header will probably appear on a search page result, which usually displays about 60-65 characters. It also forces you to be specific, while only allowing you to tease your content.

Give people the entire story in a ridiculously long header and they won’t need to click. They probably won’t even be able to read the whole header on the search page anyway, and might not understand that your content is EXACTLY what they are looking for.

Lost opportunity there, for a reader, or to create a potential sales lead.

Juggling Competing Interests

In closing, let me leave you with a final thought. If you are struggling to jam keywords into the header and it just isn’t going to read well, then remove one or two of the keywords. Writing an easy-to-read, legible header is much more important than jamming six of your keywords and two verbs/adverbs into a garbled, mangled, indecipherable string of words.

Once you have something you like, read your headline out loud to yourself, your coworkers, friends, family, etc. Get their thoughts.

If it rolls easily off your tongue, has a well-placed keyword or two and accurately reflects the key element(s) of your content, then you are good to go.

WHAT DO YOU THINK: Agree? Disagree? Have other suggestions or tips? Go ahead, leave a comment and I’ll reply. This is another installment in my Writing Well series of blog posts. Click the “Writing and Editing” link to read other posts in this series.



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