Online headlines are different. And here’s the proof

I’ve written previously about why headlines matter – and why they matter more online than they do in print. Without reprising the whole piece, the main differences are these – web headlines often act alone and the key metric of success is whether or not the headline gets clicked.

This sometimes means forgoing wit for something more straightforward, something with more keywords acting as cues for the task-oriented reader.

Here’s a good example. This headline is taken from the print version of the Washington Post the day after the United States beat Ghana 2-1 during the World Cup.

Washington Post headline 1

‘Ahead early, a head late’ is a smart play on words. It reflects the pattern of play where the U.S. team scored in the first minute (‘Ahead early’) and then again in the 86th minute from a John Brooks header (‘a head late’).

Now here’s the online equivalent:

Washington Post headline 2

‘U.S soccer beats Ghana in World Cup thriller on John Brooks goal’ lacks the charm of the print headline. Instead, it goes with the keywords that will get picked up by search engines and seen by the browsing reader. So we have the two teams (‘U.S’ and ‘Ghana’), the competition (‘World Cup’) and the goal scorer (‘John Brooks’).

It’s difficult to argue with the logic; it’s just a shame the Washington Post abandoned all of the smarts of the print version. A combination of the two would have served the purposes of online without losing the personality of the original.

Nevertheless, in a straight choice between the two, most online publishers would have gone for the latter.

For more on this subject, read ‘How to write headlines for the web’.

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News

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