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How to write darn good headlines for the web: Stop acting like a newspaper

Good headline writing anywhere is part poetry, part Western Union — the idea is to attract, inform, and maybe surprise the reader with very few words. But the real goal is to get them to read the story.
And while the underlying principals are the same, their application to print and web headlines should produce very different results.Headlessbodypostcard

In print we depend on the context the printed page lends to the story: the photos, the sidebars or pull quotes, kickers and subheads, all of these provide a wealth of contextual information for the headline itself. Good print headlines are snappy, clever and sometime humourous. Often they require the reader to fill in a blank, to "get it" before the headline’s full meaning is revealed.
On the web that headline is likely to be displayed on an index or list, or retrieved via a search engine or aggregator and all of that context is gone. Often, so too is the meaning.
That doesn’t have to mean that all web headlines should be dull, factual affairs, but just that they have to be read, and judged, as something that stands all by itself. Does it attract, inform, surprise? Most importanly does it give a reader enough of a reason to click through to the story?
And once you’ve got that part right, then you have to start strategizing around search engine optimization (SEO to the marketing geeks).
This really useful CNET story on the topic points out that some newspapers are conducting special research and training to ensure their headlines will not just work on the web – but drive traffic to their site. He quotes the Boston Globe’s Boston.com editor as pointing out their website is the 4th most popular US newspaper web site, while their print circulation puts them down around 15th.

"We’re regularly beating the bigger boys, like the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal…and part of the reason is SEO," said David Beard, Boston.com editor. 

Patrick Beeson has a post that urges Newspapers (and bloggers) to think Search Engine Optimization when composing headlines and  offers some practical suggestions and useful links on this topic. Beeson, a youngish online news geek for the Scripps chain summarizes his advice thusly:

"A good tip for writing effective Web headlines is to think: “How would
someone searching for this story find it? What keywords would I use in
Google?”

That is about as good advice as there is on that topic.

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