Writing a great headline isn’t the same job as it once was. In some ways, it’s as important, if not more important, than the story itself.
Headlines are what help readers find your words online. Without the right elements within the headline, both the headline and article are doomed to be lost and buried under hundreds of other headlines that were written the right way.
Right and wrong have less to do with grammar and more to do with the goal. Naturally grammar is important. You don’t want to lose readers at first glance. But for headlines that get attention, the right way to go about it includes a bit of these three elements.
Avoid Complex, Verbose Headlines
Headlines in a newspaper print copy are not hard to find because they’re sitting on a newsstand or land on the front porch. Digital newspapers are a lot different. The longer the title, the less likely people are to find your story. The target audience is also less likely to read, even if they do find the story, if the headline rambles on.
Keep headlines simple and direct whenever possible. Your target audience needs the ability to search for it. With a wordy header, the odds are against you. If you’re optimizing an existing print headline for digital use, trim off the fat. Scrap the words you don’t need, or write a new digital headline altogether if the original one can’t be saved.
Matt Thompson for Poynter explains, ”Consider the cognitive load your headline places on users. The more complex the headline, the more difficult it will be for users to parse, the more likely they are to overlook it.”
Use SEO to Make the Headline Rank Higher in Search Results
Clever doesn’t always cut it anymore. The witty puns and wordplay that were the meat and bones of writing headlines for print copy aren’t searchable unless users already know the pun.
That said, you still need to grab the attention of readers. A strictly SEO headline would read very dull, indeed. Elisa Gabbert for Wordstream thinks you don’t need to remove all wit, you just need to use it judiciously.
Gabbert recommends saving clever wording for social media promotion, using it as a subheading, or, if you must include it in a headline, use the wit first and save the remainder of the heading for SEO.
Make the Headline Stand on its Own
Headlines either draw in the reader, or they turn readers off. The header should make sense on its own, and that’s where SEO can make things a bit tricky. It’s a delicate balance that Ian Lurie, for Portent, thinks is manageable.
You need those keywords to make the headline searchable, but the headline has the duty of making the audience want to read. When creating the headline, read it on its own to determine whether it summarizes what the reader will learn. If it doesn’t, it’s back to the drawing board.
You’re a writer, so naturally you take pride in the headline. Unfortunately, the audience isn’t always comprised of writers. Think like a reader, and you’ll find ways to make your articles easier to search.
Google Trends is a good way to learn what people are looking for and the terms they’re using to search it. Incorporating commonly used terms can help you rank higher. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that digital headlines are often more logical, and consequently more searchable, than their print counterparts.