How to write headlines for the web

Quick question: apart from the obvious, what’s the difference between the following two headlines?

“Here’s A Very Good Way To Deal With Amazon Accidentally Shipping You The Wrong Thing”

“How An Amazon Mix-Up Led To The Greatest Twitter Rant Ever”

Answer: almost three quarters of a million page views, according to Buzzfeed UK editor Luke Lewis. The first headline, written in haste, attracted 7,000 views but once altered the traffic levels changed dramatically. The latter generated more than 750,000 page views.

Putting aside, for a moment, the rather hyperbolic tone of Buzzfeed’s second effort, here’s a universal truth: headlines matter. And online headlines matter more than they do in print. Why? Because they have to work harder. Invariably a print headline, whether in a magazine or a newspaper, will be supported by:

– a standfirst (sometimes known as the sell, intro or kicker)
– an image or photograph
– an image caption
– a pull quote; and
– the article itself

All of the above help sell the article. If the headline doesn’t pull you in, the image might; if not the image then the standfirst, the image caption, the pull-quote or even the opening few paragraphs of the piece itself.

By contrast, an online headline will often act alone – seen among a list of links on your website, a link on someone else’s site, on Twitter or on a search engine results page. And because it frequently works alone, the headline must do more.

We can argue over the merits of some online headline (link bait, anyone?) but what is more difficult to dispute is this: if a headline gets clicked on, it has succeeded; if it doesn’t, it has failed. That’s web meritocracy in action.

So how do you ensure your headlines succeed?

Write for humans…
That means packing you headlines with wit, in both senses of the word. But it also means putting yourself in the mind of the time-poor, action-oriented reader searching for answers, solutions, inspiration and insight. That’s why “how to…” and “5 thing you should know about…” styles play well. Headlines as questions work well too.

…but don’t forget search
Hummingbird, a new search algorithm from Google, aims to better answer the questions that users type into search, which happily plays to the above. Moreover, think the specific not the generic. Keywords matter – for those busy humans in task mode as much as for search algorithms – but don’t overdo it.

Don’t oversell
A strong headline works but unless the article beneath it delivers on the editorial punch promised, readers won’t return. Quality will out. Hyperbole only gets you so far.

Don’t apologise for writing web headlines
Just as no magazine publisher wants to see their lovingly-crafted title tucked behind copies of a rival publication on the shelves of WHSmith, so no digital publisher should hide their lovingly-crafted article behind an opaque, obscure or downright boring headline. Witty but obscure headlines that only work when seen alongside an image are no good online. So be creative, certainly, but understand the medium and how the browsing and searching habits of your audience informs headline writing.

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

Visit Content Cloud to sign up as a creator, or commission the content your business needs

Editor's pick

Most popular