How to write better headlines for clicks, SEO and social media sharing

Packaging and selling your story through the right headline is part of being an online content writer and digital journalist. In a digital world without subeditors, composing an attractive headline is now a key part of the online writer’s work. The battle between being informative or intriguing, a click-baiter or a master punner, will determine the success of your header. Content writers at small and large businesses have plenty to learn from how professional digital journalists and online news editors are writing their headlines these days.

As the main media for consuming news moves from the printed to the pixelated word, the role of the headline has altered as digital media create new opportunities, allow new rules and foster new debates. The limits on size and space (from newspaper columns for example, which made subeditors often choose slightly weird headlinese words like nix, probe, mull) are not as restrictive, for one, while dark arts of search engine optimisation (SEO) encourage writers to format headlines that are going to get picked up by search engines.

But there is far more skill in writing effective headlines than just fixating on SEO. Illustrating the continuing importance of the headline and whose responsibility it is to create, here are two quotes from the 2014 Hearst Digital Media Lecture in October:

Headlines make all the difference – curiosity is at the core of it.  It is amazing how New Yorker can take a New York Times story, reframe it, write a great headline for it, and sell it to a greater audience,” says Mitra Kalita, the wonderfully titled ‘ideas editor’ at Quartz.

“[It] used to be journalists were not at all worried about the distribution of the story.  Reporters did not care much what the headlines said. Today, the headline is important. Journalists are now responsible for selling the story and getting an audience,” adds Stacy-Marie Ishmael, vice president for communities at the Financial Times.

The click-bait debate

A popular means of attracting the all-important clicks on your site is a style of headline called clickbait, which has pros and cons.

If you don’t know the terminology you’ll recognise the format. Clickbait headlines are those that start with a sort of “You won’t believe what happened” or ask a question that the article purports to answering “Guess which son of a film star did something unbelievable” or “This the biggest mistake you can make when—” or “How does Kim Kardashian’s bottom etc, so on and so forth”.

This addresses one important function of the headline, which is to make the article intriguing and engaging enough to read (for dimwits).

But clickbait may not work, apparently.

Buzzfeed, with its insanely popular stories along the lines of 31-gifs-of-people-who-look-like-marsupials or 18-ways-to-ace-your-breathaliser-test, say it’s a ‘fact’, or a little-known trade secret they’re only now kindly revealing to their more dozy journalism peers, that clickbait “stopped working around 2009”.

A great description of what clickbait came recently from Daily Show satirist Jon Stewart, who said to New York magazine: “I scroll around, but when I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

Jake Beckman, the journalist who’s heroic hobby is running the @SavedYouAClick clickbait-negating Twitter feed, told the Daily Beast how fundamentally ruinous clickbait was for society. “It’s social copy specifically intended to leave out information to create a curiosity gap. Some of it’s disingenuous. It’s not always, but the reader is always being manipulated.”

Although he said clickbait was worse, he admitted that news outlets had been engaged in similar practices since the dawn of print: “The concept of using ‘shouty journalism’ to move the needle isn’t new. ‘Extra, extra read all about it!’ That was trying to sensationalize a story. This is just the modern equivalent.”

Facebook’s own war on clickbait this summer has seen the social media giant incorporate new aspects to its algorithm that check if users spend time reading articles they find on its website or app.

Content producers who produce too much clickbait can now get kicked off the News Feed. As Facebook research engineer Khalid El-Arini writes:

“When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through. Over time, stories with ‘click-bait’ headlines can drown out content from friends and Pages that people really care about. So how do we determine what looks like click-bait?

“One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.”

Clickbait isn’t necessarily wrong

Plenty of people in digital media argue that clickbait is totally justifiable. And what is one man’s perfectly acceptable headline may be another man’s clickbait. As Josh Benton of Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab it, clickbait is defined as “noun: things I don’t like on the internet.”

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, predicts that “great clickbait” is a form of art that will one day receive its due worth, like the work of Shakin’ Stevens, Chaka Demus & Pliers and Beyoncé .

Furthermore, he has argued that what is called ‘clickbait’ is just one of the means that media companies have found to try and solve their existential problem (which is that “the physical scarcity that built the media industry is gone, and it ain’t coming back”). Clickbait headlines, he says, are “super effective at driving traffic and attention, because they’re basically just games,” he writes.

“Clickbait irritates when the real answer doesn’t live up to the wildest guesses of the reader; no one cares if what happened next is actually boring. The virtual scarcity of the game doesn’t create any value.”

So, in effect, if you make the content of the article, blog or video under your headline better than your headline, then what may seem like clickbait will turn out to be entirely acceptable.

Or as Buzzfeed mulls, in recent article proclaiming that it “Doesn’t Do Clickbait”: “What makes a great headline[?] The only real trick is that the work has to be good. And the only thing, other than mediocrity, that can really sabotage this strategy is writing a headline that overpromises and a story that underdelivers.

“Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest.”


Recent Mail front page headline reaction after UK food firm recruits overseas

What can tabloids teach us?

Tabloid newspapers have long known how to lure in a reader, be it from the misleading ‘Titanic: No Lives Lost‘ over a century ago, to more recent times, which seem to have been dominated by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.

Whatever you think of him, Rupe’s titles have a reputation for memorable headlines, from The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’ or ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ to the New York Post’s ‘Headless Body Found in Topless Bar’.

In recent years, The Daily Mail’s online click-generating machine, MailOnline, has also become known for its own headline style and ‘sidebar of shame’. These often use clickbait style, but also are known for their length and descriptiveness. (More on Mail Online’s content strategy lessons.)

Here are some Mail lowlights/highlights: ‘ISIS chief executioner winning hearts with his rugged looks’, ‘Is the bum slip the new side boob? Kate Moss, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna are all fans of a cheeky bottom flash’ and ‘So miracles DO happen! As flesh-eating bug left toddler at death’s door, his mother turned to prayer… and just look at him now’.

Although it’s a long way from Mail and Murdoch-style tabloid journalism, Quartz, the mobile-focused news site set up by Atlantic Media, has a strong reputation already for its editorial style.

Quartz has an internal editorial chat room where headlines are workshopped between writers and editors, where one writer recently put forward 25 different headlines for a story.

Quartz tries to avoid simple clickbait and has no single headlines strategy, according to an interview about the team’s headlines policy with senior editor Zach Seward, a former Wall Street Journal digital guru.

“Click-bait is optimizing for the click, which is cheap and easy, and therefore tends to over-promise what the story actually delivers. For us, if there is a single goal, it is writing something that will be shared. That’s a higher bar, but more effective,” he says.

Zach says the team does not want all Quartz headlines to look and sound alike, but says a couple of approaches that have worked well.

Those that start with “Why” and “How”, and therefore are better headlines, flagging stories that are more informative or will give the reader a strong signal that they are going to learn something interesting or important.

“The thing” is another approach, being a type of headline that focuses on one “atomic bit of information in the article”.

One that Zach says did particularly well was ‘59% of America’s ‘tuna’ isn’t actually tuna’ about food mislabeling in general, which used an alarming fact to lure the reader.

This approach, Zach says, requires the writer or editor ignore the common rule that a headline encompasses the whole piece. “Trying to capture everything in the headline is a mistake,” he adds.

13 more top tips for better headlines

Which of the following headlines would make you click on the link if you wanted tips to improve readership of your blog?

  • How I Think Blog Headlines Should Be Written. This might be the most honest headline but honesty is not always the best policy, particularly in headline writing. Unless you are a widely-acknowledged guru.
  • The Importance of Writing Headlines. This is straightforward and honest – almost an imperious sort of headline – it might work as an undiscovered Oscar Wilde play but it doesn’t have enough information to lure in the budding blog writer.
  • The Importance of Writing Awesome Headlines. This is more aspirational, how could people not be awestruck with the idea that some these headlines are going to be Awesome and need to find out more.
  • The Importance of Writing Awesome Blog Headlines. Now the potential reader and the search engines know its an article about blogs and they’re Awesome.
  • How to Write Better Headlines. This is a different angle, putting the emphasis more on that the article is going to be a How To, and may even to be a bit of a listicle (list-article) or hinting at the presence of bullet points. Also, this is what people might type in search engines and so is good for SEO, even more so due to Google’s recent emphasis on conversational search.
  • 17 Easy Ways to Write Better Blog Headlines. As this includes the word ‘easy’ it will have undoubted appeal to the time-poor, the lazy and the simple minded. Also numbers are a big seller. And apparently make them odd numbers – research has shown this gets more clicks than even, strangely.
  • Freddie Starr Ate My Headlines. Irreverent headlines have a strong appeal, especially as they can intrigue the reader and lure them into reading something they might not normally. While Google in particular has made concessions to enable headline-writing mavericks to go wild and still not loose too much relevancy, it’s less search-powerful to be less relevant in your headline, I think.
  • Eight is the magic number, according to GuardianResearch from Outbrain on the Guardian’s online media network, using data collected from 150,000 article headlines, found titles with eight words had online click-through rates that performed 21% better than average.

  • PHOTOS: 17 Easy Ways Kim Kardashian Says Will Give Your Blog Better Headlines and Make Them Awesome. Or forget about 8 and just go for it. This could be the Buzzfeed-MailOnline approach. Long, detailed, celebrities, photos, with some added numbers, awesome and easy.
  • Headlines with questions work well, or do they? More research from Outbrain found titles posing a query for the reader had higher click-through rates than those ending with an exclamation mark or full stop. I’m not sure about their advice to use three exclamation marks (!!!) instead of just one, even though they argued these headlines received almost twice as many clicks as those with other punctuation marks. This tallies in with the What, Why and How styles used by Quartz. See also Betteridge’s law.
  • Follow the BBC’s lead. If you’re not a fan of clickbait, the alternative is to do what web usability guru Jakob Neilson advises and follow the Beeb. He claims BBC headlines have the following characteristics: Typically shorter than 6 words; Information-rich; Starts with keywords; Understandable even out of context, Matches reader expectations

How to write online headlines for search engines

Some writers worry that SEO has meant the death of those great headlines built around a clever pun, from the sports page efforts like ‘From Russia With Gloves’ or  op-eds like ‘How Do We Solve a Problem Like Korea’. No one is going to search on Google for those exact terms to find those stories.

While Google in particular has made concessions to enable headline-writing mavericks to go wild and still not lose too much relevancy, it remains more powerful for SEO to have the relevant terms in your headline. But your headlines don’t have to be boring and you can still pen pun-based headlines and maintain sufficient SEO strength.

Or you can just follow the Huffington Post’s infamously crafty lead and reel in readers with ingenious bait such as: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?” or scowl at our new overlords like the New York Times did a while ago with ‘This Boring Headline Is Written For Google‘.

But if you have access via your content management system to alter your page-title in your metadata, then you don’t need to write the same headline for both the article and the page. The difference is that an article title is what you show your readers, and a page title is what you show search engines. Furthermore you can add a meta-description that adds further detail and SEO-relevant terms.

Helpful advice from the SEO whizzes at Mashable about how to optimize your headlines for both SEO and humans, recommends employing “a single title that blends creativity with SEO punch. The idea is to craft headlines that are both self-explanatory and catchy. The compromise here allows both creativity (integrity) and technology (impact). It kills two birds with one keystroke.” Some examples they give:

’15 Case Studies to Get Your Client on Board With Social Media’ from their own site. Bloomberg Businessweek‘s ‘Scott Forstall, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Apple’ and Gawker‘s ‘What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs”

There is a very good article on SearchEngineWatch along very similar lines, which talks about ‘marrying emotion with SEO’ (a beautiful concept of robot love) and writing trigger headlines, with intriguing stories rather than just content for content’s sake (Read more from the TIW blog: How to create engaging content and other important SEO lessons).

Writer Salma Jafri says: “To write effective headlines today, I believe we need to have a mix of keywords for context combined with story elements for clickability. The way to do this is to start with your focus keywords and then build emotional triggers around it.”

Her first example uses this story: ‘Facebook to Kill Sponsored Stories’, before she sprinkles atop some emotion to create this new trigger headline: ‘When Facebook kills sponsored stories, what will be your brand’s Plan B?’

The new trend for stories and emotion has been merrily mocked by The Onion’s new online-news satire Clickhole, which republished the entire 206,052 words of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick under the fashionable life-stories title of: ‘The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World‘ from the rising star of digital journalism, ‘Ishmael’.

Length of headlines is also an issue, as well as punctuation:

Media monitoring site, CyberAlert, recently found that Google had altered some articles published on its blog in the search engine results.

“The occurrence is isolated to headlines that begin with keywords and use colons.” For example, the headline ‘Brand Journalism: Writing Owned Media that Generates Earned Media’ was changed to Brand Journalism – CyberAlert, while ‘Newsjacking by Brands: Right Way vs. Wrong Way’ was changed to Newsjacking by Brands – CyberAlert.

This followed research from Brian LaFrance’s that found the changes aren’t always made just to shorten longer headlines: Google compares the page’s content, inbound links and queries to its title tag.

He found tens of thousands of random headlines that had not been changed and found that a headline that’s more than 70 characters will undoubtedly be shortened/changed by Google, while you had a better chance of not being changed if the headline was between 40 to 59 characters.  So there’s your optimum length for Google’s algorithm requirements.

Talking of length, this blog is easily long enough. Thanks for reading and well done if you got this far! Those insatiable for more information about producing content to boost your SEO should read our blog on the subject.

Written by

TIW's head of content. He writes things, mostly content for clients but also TIW blogs. Client content ranges from bespoke web copywriting to business and sports journalism for the likes of ITV, Digital Look, Reuters and the Olympic News Agency.

Comments are closed.