How to write headlines for the web

Writing headlines for the web and print are not the same thing. Much like writing news stories for the web, headlines need to be customized to fit best with how readers consume news online, and they need to be compatible with search engines that help drive more readers our way.

Be literal. Not punny.
Google doesn’t have a sense of humor. Your headline pun may in fact be hilarious. But it’s not going to land the headline on the front page search for “Oregon Ducks football.”  Plus, online readers want headlines that are direct and to the point. They don’t want to spend time trying to figure out a confusing headline. As digital media guru Mark Luckie has written, “Man on the Moon” worked on the front page in 1969. Today, that same headline on the web may read: “US astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes first man to walk on moon.” A little extreme but you get the point.

Use full keywords
“Oregon football coach Chip Kelly” or “President Robert Berdahl” or “ASUO President Ben Eckstein.” Headlines can be a little longer on the web so don’t worry too much about length. More importantly, use titles and first and last names to make the stories more relevant to search engines. That said, don’t use full names for obscure people who aren’t widely known.

Start with the most important keywords
Catch the readers eye by launching with what’s most important

Be interesting but don’t oversell.
Headlines should grab readers’ attention but don’t stretch the facts or conclusions in the story.

Focus on the verb
A strong verb that follows the noun or pronoun keyword at the start is critical to catch people’s eyes.

Consider an explanatory approach
Unless you have true breaking news, consider tweaking the headline to signal to the reader that the post will deliver the goods, something that provides some insight rather than just a repeat of facts. (Of course, only use this approach if the story can deliver on it.) Which would you read first: “De’Anthony Thomas racks up 256 years in total offense.” Or, “How De’Anthony Thomas blew past Wisconsin”

Examples

ESPN: The breaking sports news headline widget on the upper right side of ESPN’s home page may provide the best example of short, snappy explanatory headline writing on the web.

What other sites write good heads for the web?

References

Poynter: 10 questions to help you write better headlines

Writing for Digital: Our point of view on web headlines

Jakob Nielsen: World’s best headlines: BBC

Copyblogger: How to write headlines that work

  • http://www.createheadlines.wordpress.com/ trevor

    I’ve found the best way to write online headlines is to give your reader some type of news that they will benefit from but also make them feel as if you’ve left something out so they want to find out more. Add to this a sense of urgency and you have the makings of a very effective headline.