If it bleeds, it leads. Punchy. Catchy. Attention-getting. Insightful. Instructive. Incentive. Luring. Fishing. Bait. Hook. These are all terms used to describe an effectively written title or headline for an article. The words chosen must provide a powerful incentive to make the reader want to read. To make them want to buy the magazine, newspaper, or book. To make them want to click the link to the online article. It must reach out and grab them and motivate them into action.
Writing a title for your articles or posts is part of the marketing campaign of your blog. Writing the “right” title attracts visitors to your blog. Writing good headlines and titles is a skill bloggers need to learn.
A blog uses titles in many different ways, from within the web page design and browser, to how titles are used on search engines and link lists. Each plays a very important role in how reader’s read, searchers click, and search engines return results.
In this two part series on headlines and titles, a kind of “more than you could ever want to know about creating and writing titles and headlines”, I’m going to offer tips, information, and resources to help you learn more about how to write effective, attention-getting headlines and titles on your blog, and then introduce you to how blogs use titles and headlines in a blog’s structure and presentation.
In this first part, we’ll examine how to write an effective, attention-getting headline or title for your blog. In part two, Creating Effective, Attention Getting Headlines and Titles on Your Blog”, we’ll examine how to create effective, attention-getting headlines and titles within the structure of your blog’s design.
Writing Effective Titles and Headlines
|What’s the Difference Between Titles and Headlines?
There is no difference between the words “title” and “headline”. The two words, in this case, are synonymous. Newspapers tend to use the word “headline”, and magazines, websites, and blogs tend to use the word “title”, but they all mean the same thing. It is the name which represents a summary or description the written content.
In blogging terminology, a headline is more often referred to as the “post title”, whereas the title of the blog is called the “blog name” or “blog title”, distinguishing the name of the blog from the name of the article or post.
Writing a blog post or article can be hard work. Writing an effective title or headline can be even more of a challenge.
There are two goals to writing an effective title.
- Catch a reader’s eye and encourage them to read.
- Help search engines help searchers find your article.
It’s that simple, and that difficult.
Your post title or headline must attract readers. It must motivate the reader to click. It must encourage them to move their eyes past the title to the text. Then it’s up to your storytelling and writing abilities to lead the reader through the rest of your story.
Article titles today do more than just encourage readers to read. Search engines use them in their search results to help the searcher find information on the web. From among a long list of links, your post title must jump out and scream, “HERE! This is the information you are seeking! Click here! Read this!” Your post title becomes a critical component to helping people find you in a search engine, directory, link list, and more.
Thus, writing effective, eye-catching titles and headlines becomes even more important than writing a powerful article. Without the power in the title, the power in the content is often overlooked. A good title helps your blog get found.
The Art of Writing Titles
When I first began publishing technical articles online, I wanted to stand out from the crowd with cute and clever names. I was raised by a mother with a reputation for writing clever newspaper classified ads to help sell houses and property as part of her real estate business. She could turn a small two bedroom fixer-upper with a peek-a-boo view of the mountains into an “Intimate Home for 2 With View”, making even a dump seem sexy. I asked her to help me come up with catchy titles for some of my technical articles. It’s boring to write “How to Take Nature Photographs” and “How to Make Money with Nature Photography” all the time.
An article I’d sold repeatedly under various titles was basically titled “Tips On How to Succeed in the Business of Nature Photography”. She came up with “Making $$ Doing What Comes Nature-ly?” It was brilliant. Creative. Eye catching, and a perfect description – if you were reading it in a magazine. Search engines and searchers ignored it.
After a year or so, people stopped requesting that article from our list of articles for sale and reprint. It took a while for me to pay attention to the loss of the article’s income, but when I did, I realized that the title was now hurting the article.
“Making $$” isn’t the same as “Making Money” or “Money Making”, two frequently searched for keywords. When was the last time you typed in $$ in a search engine to search for information on money or finances? Not very effective. “Nature-ly” isn’t even a word, so while “nature” is found within it, it doesn’t represent “nature photography”. The title has no keywords in it for search engines to use, does it?
I changed the title to “How to Succeed in the Business of Nature Photography” and search engine traffic has gone up and interest is once again focused on the article. All because of the use of clear, easy to understand, and searchable keywords.
I’m back to boring titles, but boring titles get articles found.
In a recent test on site headlines, The Marketing Experiments Journal found some very interesting results on a title’s clickability and response:
In the world of direct mail it is well known that a minor change in a headline can have a significant impact on response rates.
But what about the web?
* What kind of impact can a headline have on page conversion rates?
* To get a significant difference in results, do you have to write completely different headlines? Or can a small change to a headline make a disproportionate difference?
* And are there any rules or guidelines to follow when writing different headlines to test?
To find answers to these questions we ran a number of tests with different research partners and have discovered some surprising insights.
How you title your title has an impact on your reader. When scanning down a list of link titles or search results, in a fraction of a second your brain sifts, evaluates, and judges the content within the article based upon the title. The more specific the better. The more “motivating”, even better.
In The Tlog’s Blogging Tips, the importance of titles includes a very important point bloggers often overlook:
There’s a blog, The Invisible Monster, that is possibly the best personal blog I’ve ever seen. Most personal blogs are mundane, boring, and of any interest only to a small group of friends of relatives; not that one (though the author is a relative of mine). It’s funny, witty, wonderfully written, and still personal – no “selling out” by talking about non-personal subjects to attract visitors at all.
However, it has a problem. Every post has a title like this: the very first post was called “The First”, the next one was “The Second”, the 34th one was “The Thirtieth-Fourth”, and so on.
And now, consider this: do you ever go to Google and search for “the second” or “the thirtieth-fourth”? Do you know anyone who does?
During the 2006 Blogathon, I wrote about how not to blog in a blogathon blog and mentioned that titling posts by their post number was fine, but if that’s the only title, your audience is missing out on the “rest of the story” in the blog post. Why would I click “No. 14” if I don’t know what “No. 14” is about?
It’s critical that your post title must reflect your post content, and as Tlog said so beautifully, “every post’s title should be related to the content without requiring the reading of the article itself.”
Writing Titles for Search Engines
Titles are seen most often in two places: search engine search results and link lists. Link lists are any web page that offers lists of links. These can be social bookmarking services, directories, blogrolls, link list posts, feeds, aggregators, or any article or page listing a collection of links.
When your eyes scan long lists of links, you are looking for something in particular. Understanding how people search and look for answers to questions or things that interest them can help you title your blog and articles appropriately. Use the words that catch their eye while giving them the information they are seeking.
The New York Times’ “This Boring Headline is Written for Google” (printer version) examines how search engine web crawlers and their algorithms may be dumbing down headlines and titles, making it easier for those “eye catching” titles to catch the attention of those scanning link lists and search results, as well as work within a search engine’s technology for keyword and data collection:
The search engine “bots” that crawl the Web are increasingly influential, delivering 30 percent or more of the traffic on some newspaper, magazine or television news Web sites. And traffic means readers and advertisers, at a time when the mainstream media is desperately trying to make a living on the Web.
So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing. The software is a logical, sequential, left-brain reader, while humans are often right brain.
In newspapers and magazines, for example, section titles and headlines are distilled nuggets of human brain work, tapping context and culture. “Part of the craft of journalism for more than a century has been to think up clever titles and headlines, and Google comes along and says, ‘The heck with that,'” observed Ed Canale, vice president for strategy and new media at The Sacramento Bee.
…News organizations, by contrast, have moved cautiously. Mostly, they are making titles and headlines easier for search engines to find and fathom.
…Whether search engines will influence journalism below the headline is uncertain. The natural-language processing algorithms, search experts say, scan the title, headline and at least the first hundred words or so of news articles.
Journalists, they say, would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. “That’s not something they teach in journalism schools,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. “But in the future, they should.”
“How to Write Compelling Headlines for Search Engines” (printer version) goes on to examine the issue of writing headlines with search engines in mind:
When you use headlines, you give the search engine spiders something to focus on. You are essentially repeating yourself, saying, “This is what my article is about …. my article is about this …”. Then, when the spider turns all the “stuff” they’ve picked up to the main search engine, or database, the search engine will use your headlines as a reference. This helps the search engine look good because they’re able to provide relevant content to a searcher, and it helps you look good because, well, you wrote the content.
Your main headline is the most important one: your title. The title of your writing should include a keyword phrase that someone looking for your topic will use, but it’s also important because it actually convinces the reader to go to your writing in the first place.
Headlines within your content serve several important functions. First, they pinpoint problems the reader may be having (the reason they came to your article in the first place) and draw them into reading your next paragraph. Secondly, when you continue using versions of your main keyword phrase in your headlines, you tell the search engines, “Yup – my article really is about this topic”. That helps you get pulled up in search results much more often, which easily means more visitors to your writing.
To get the answer about headlines and titles regarding search engines and search engine optimization, I went to the source: Google. I found Google Analytics and Ginger Makela’s “Five Tips for Writing Effective Web Headlines”:
Recent research suggests that users decide to stay or leave your site in 8 seconds or less, and headlines are the one piece of copy that users will actually scan in that short amount of time.
That makes your headline a key piece of real estate on your site. So, writing headlines that engage users is going to be an important part of your landing page optimization plan.
1. Include your paid keyword in the headline…Putting the keyword in the headline provides split-second assurance to visitors that they are in the right place. It will make them relax a bit and be more receptive to your message.
2. Don’t sound like an ad.
3. Highlight benefits rather than features.
4. Make headlines look easy to read.
5. Don’t forget subheads [headings].
Writing Headlines: How to Find Phrases, Check Keyword Density and Google Your Content by Kim Ray of Associated Content offers tips on analyzing your content to determine keywords to build an effective post title, including using one of my favorite keywords tools, Keyword Density Tool.
Writing articles for an online publication such as Associated Content is entirely different than writing for newspapers, magazines, and other print media. Articles written for Associated Content rely on keywords, phrases, keyword density, and clear and concise headlines in order to be discovered and properly listed by search engines. Without the proper keywords, headlines, and the appropriate keyword density, Associated Content articles can’t be found, and online articles that can’t be located through popular search engines are virtually worthless.
…headlines are just as important as keywords. While writing for Associated Content, I discovered that headlines must contain the main keywords or phrases that best describe the piece and preferably nothing more. Don’t make your headlines too wordy. If you want to rank at the top of the search engines, keep this in mind when choosing headlines for Associated Content articles.
Although it may be tempting to write a catchy creative headline, don’t get too creative. Train yourself to think in search engine terms. If you were searching for a particular subject, ask yourself, what search terms would I use? More than likely, you would type a simple keyword phrase that is clear and concise. You wouldn’t type a catchy or creative line. Creative headlines won’t matter when no one can find them. Save your catchy or clever phrases for sub headlines.
Remember, part of the goal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is helping search engines crawl through your site gathering information to store in their database that searchers will use to find you. The goal of good headline and title writing is to write a title that gets you found.
Jakob Nielsen’s “Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines” adds a bit more to the context of good title writing and how titles are use. This leading expert on website usability explains how a title is more than just a lead-in for a story:
The requirements for online headlines are very different from printed headlines because they are used differently. The two main differences in headline use are:
* Online headlines are often displayed out of context: as part of a list of articles, in an email program’s list of incoming messages, in a search engine hit list, or in a browser’s bookmark menu or other navigation aid. Some of these situations are very out of context: search engine hits can relate to any random topic, so users don’t get the benefit of applying background understanding to the interpretation of the headline. The same goes for email subjects.
* Even when a headline is displayed together with related content, the difficulty of reading online and the reduced amount of information that can be seen in a glance make it harder for users to learn enough from the surrounding data. In print, a headline is tightly associated with photos, decks, subheads, and the full body of the article, all of which can be interpreted in a single glance. Online, a much smaller amount of information will be visible in the window, and even that information is harder and more unpleasant to read, so people often don’t do so. While scanning the list of stories on a site like news.com, users often only look at the highlighted headlines and skip most of the summaries.
Because of these differences, the headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available. Sure, users can click on the headline to get the full article, but they are too busy to do so for every single headline they see on the Web. I predict that users will soon be so deluged with email that they will delete messages unseen if the subject line doesn’t make sense to them.
Don’t forget, titles serve multiple purposes on your blog than just naming an article. We’ll examine this more in part two on Creating Effective, Attention Getting Headlines and Titles on Your Blog”.
Writing Titles to Attract Readers
As much as we can have fun digging into the algorithms and technological filtering search engines put titles through, you can’t get away from the old school of headline writing:
Great titles attract readers.
Writing titles for search engines and link lists help get you found, but writing titles to attract readers gets you read.
Everyone wants to tell you that their way is the “best” or “right” method of writing powerful titles that attract readers and customers, but not every title works in every situation. Let’s look at a variety of tips offered around the web on writing effective titles for your articles to see what they recommend.
“How To Write Headlines That Sell” by Justin Schultz highlights four purposes a “great” headline must serve in order to be successful:
* Get attention. Your headline must capture attention. 75% of Ads in the Sunday newspaper are skipped because they don’t grab the reader’s attention.
* Select the audience. A great headline should call out to a very specific audience. If you’re selling life insurance to people older than 65, there’s no sense in generating inquiries from young people. In the same way, an ad for a $55,000 sports car should shout out “This is for rich people only!”.
* Deliver a complete message. According to David Ogilvy, 4 out of 5 people will read a headline and skip the rest of the ad completely. If this is true, it pays to make a complete statement in your headline. That way your headline can do some selling to the 80 of readers who read headlines only.
* Draw the reader into the body copy. Most prospects require a lot of information before they make a purchase. That information appears in the body copy, and for the ad to be effective, the headline must compel your prospect to read this copy.
Copyblog’s “Writing Headlines That Get Results” explores the ways to help you write quality, attention-getting titles:
Here are some interesting statistics.
On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of the headline, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.
The better the headline, the better your odds of beating the averages and getting what you’ve written read by a larger percentage of people.
Writing a great headline doesn’t guarantee the success of your writing. The benefit conveyed in the headline still needs to be properly satisfied in the body copy, either with your content or your offer.
But great body content with a bad or even marginal headline is doomed to go largely unread.
Copyblogger provides these simple guides on writing headlines, headings, subheads, and bullets:
1. Be USEFUL to the reader,
2. Provide him with a sense of URGENCY,
3. Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow UNIQUE; and
4. Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way.
Writing a good blog post title is not much different from writing a good book title. Peace Team Book’s “Top 10 Tips for Book Titles that Sell Well” explains:
People do judge a book by its title. Your reader will spend only four seconds on the front cover and eight seconds on the back cover. It must be so outstanding and catchy that it compels the reader to either buy on the spot or look further to the back cover. Take a risk. Be a bit crazy, even outlandish.
…Choose the strongest words, benefits, and metaphors to move your audience to buy. Titles do sell books.
…When your title isn’t targeted other famous authors’ titles win out. Always make your title clear and make it easy for your audience to recognize they need your book. Your title and front cover is your book’s number one sales tool. Short titles are best, say three to six words. John Gray didn’t get much attention with his book “What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and What Your Father Didn’t Know.” He shortened it to the now famous, “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.”
SNN Newsroom’s guide for writing headlines gives you an inside look at some of the guides for writing headlines for news stories:
* Does the headline express the main idea of the story?
* Does the headline effectively label the story’s content?
* Will it create reader interest?
* Will it move readers into the story?
* Does the headline focus match the lead focus?
* Are the words short, common, colorful, powerful, specific?
* Would you read a story with this headline?
The William Allen While School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s article, “Making an Impact – Accurately”, focuses on the grammar and structure of an effective headline:
Use the active voice: Effective headlines usually involve logical sentence structure, active voice and strong present-tense verbs. They do not include “headlines.” As with any good writing, good headlines are driven by good verbs.
Number, please: Numbers often go against AP style in headlines. For example, you may start a sentence with a number and, even though that number is below 10, you do not have to spell it out.
Present tense, please: Use present tense for immediate past information, past tense for past perfect, and future tense for coming events.
Punctuation normal — mostly: Headline punctuation is normal with two significant exceptions: Use periods for abbreviations only, and use single quotes where you would use double quotes in copy.
“And” more punctuation: The comma, in addition to its normal use, can take on the work of the word “and.” On rare occasions, the comma also can indicate the word “but” (but, if used that way, be very, very careful, ensuring that the reader has a clear understanding that’s what the comma means. The semi-colon is better for the “but.” Even better is to use the word “but.”)
Poynter Online’s Guide to Writing Headlines emphasizes a different aspect of headline writing:
1. First, do no harm: …Have some empathy. Imagine that the subject of the story is your neighbor or a family member. One person’s cleverness is another’s ridicule. Petty-crime stories are a minefield.
2. Make sure the big type does not contradict the little type.
3. Use humor or cleverness to invite readers in, not drive them away.
4. Stay away from cliche: …Unless–and there are exceptions to every rule– you can find a way to turn a cliche on its head. Some very good heads are upended cliches. These work.
5. Use plays on words to contribute to meaning, not to show off.
6. The last rule is to ignore all of the above if you have a good reason …Good reasons, however, are typically in short supply.
In an article by Shelley Lowery of Web Design Mastery on Two Spots called “Secret Formulas for Writing Headlines That Sell”, the psychological issues of headline writing is discussed:
Before writing your headline, you must first learn a little bit about the basic human motivators. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human behavior is always the result of one or more of five basic needs. He listed these needs in a sequence that he refers to as “the hierarchy of human needs.”
He believes that until a less important need is met there won’t be any desire to pursue a more important need. Below are the five human motivators, beginning with the basic needs and continuing to the most important needs.
Physiological – Basic human needs include hunger, thirst, shelter, clothing and sex.
Safety (Security) – Human need for physical, emotional and financial security.
Social (Affiliation) – Human need for love, affection, companionship and acceptance.
Esteem (Self Esteem) – Human need for achievement, recognition, attention and respect.
Self-actualization – Human need to reach their full potential.
When you are aware of the basic human needs, you can incorporate these needs into your writing. A great headline will appeal to your potential customers’ emotions. You must feel their needs, wants and desires and write your headlines with passion and emotion.
University of Minnesota Extension Course’s article on “Writing Headlines” offers a tip that really caught my eye:
Signal them to the article’s content; help them decide whether to read or skip.
A good title gives the reader power and control over their choice to read or not. Influencing them to read is great, but I like titles that help me decide whether or not I should use my precious time to read it. A good title or headline helps me decide if this meets my needs at the moment.
Match Titles With Content or Lose Your Audience
As I researched “everything you could possibly want to know about titles and headlines”, I found that many articles on the web use powerful and effective, attention-getting titles, but the content didn’t match the power of the title. Many hinted at great tips and information while only providing a sentence or paragraph at most that said, “writing powerful headlines is really important for your blog or website. Here’s a link for more information.” I don’t call that helpful information.
Their article title drew me from the search results to their blog, and yes, they were helpful by referring me to another resource for more helpful information, but think through the process I went through to get to the goal: real information:
- The title on the search engine results led me to your blog.
- The post immediately directed me to another blog with “real information”.
- I clicked away and consumed the real information off your blog.
- I then returned to my search results to check out the next result that attracts my attention.
Do you see a mention anywhere on that list that said I was so grateful to the blog that directed me to the blog with the information that I came back for more from that blog? While that can happen, it usually doesn’t. Since there was nothing to keep me on your blog except a link directing me away, why would I come back?
Research has found that on the web you have about 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression. If I don’t see anything worth hanging around for, what are the odds I’ll come back?
The process of creating value in those micro-seconds is called “stickiness”. It means the visitor has enough content to distract them for a few more seconds, so hopefully they will stick around or return. The more content and value they find in those few seconds before they leave your blog can make them think about saving your page, bookmarking it, adding it to their feed reader, or adding the page to their social bookmarking service to return at a later time.
Content keeps visitors.
A big powerful title with one sentence of content with a link isn’t motivation for me to hang around. Is it for you? I’m gone. I’m off having a good old time gathering information away from you. You were just a stepping stone on the path to my goal.
Have content to support your post title. Explain to the visitor why this information is good, how it helped you, how you put the information to use on your blog, and help them learn a little more about what they will learn when they click away from you to visit the site with the “real information” on it.
The odds are that in those few seconds, you increase your likelihood to create a relationship between you and the reader. They will pause, look around, see links to related posts, recent posts, categories, popular posts, and subject matter that may be of interest to them. If it is, they will be back. Give them nothing to stick around for, they are gone for good.
Do a search for “writing headlines” and you will find a lot of such examples of powerful titles and useless, lackluster content. I found a lot of blogs I will never return to while researching this article. I found some that I will definitely revisit, but out of over 50 new websites and blogs I visited, I found two keepers. That’s sad. An opportunity missed.
I also found a lot of powerful headlines that sucked me in, but they were only marketing ploys that tried to sell me “how to succeed on the web without really trying” crap using power titles like “Tips for Writing Headlines That Make You Millions of Dollars” just to lure you into their sales pitch.
However, I did find some good articles to help you with your title writing beyond those included in this article. The following articles offered practical information and tips to help you learn how to write headlines and titles better on your blog.
- 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work
- Meryl.net – Five Tips for Writing Eyeball-Grabbing Headlines
- Dustin Diaz – Why Headline Writing for Web is Important
- Your Press Releases – Make your headlines hook the reader when writing a press release
- Stanford School of Medicine – Public Web Services – How to Write and Use Headlines
- Michel Fortin – The Truth About Mega-Headlines
- Leon Kilat – The Cybercafe Experiments – Improving Blog Headlines Lessons Learned Offline
- Robin Good – How To Write Great Titles And Headlines For The Web
- How To Write Effective Headlines – About Desktop Publishing
- Copy Desk Resources – Tips for Good Headlines
- World Copywriting – Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Headlines
- 5 Simple Ways to Open Your Blog Post With a Bang
Part Two: Creating Effective, Attention Getting Headlines and Titles on Your Blog
In the part two of this two part series, part two on Creating Effective, Attention Getting Headlines and Titles on Your Blog”, I’ll be talking even more about titles and headlines and how to use them on your blog, working with them in the structure of your blog’s design and WordPress Theme.
So stay tuned for more of “more than you ever could possibly want to know about titles and headlines on your blog”.
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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network