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5 tips for writing better web headlines

Crafting the perfect web headline has always been a touchstone of news coverage.

Journalism classes have been taught on headline writing, books on the subject have been written, and just when we thought everything that could be said about headlines had been said, Google came along and all the rules changed.

Let’s talk about headline writing for the web, because if you haven’t noticed yet, ye olde school way of writing headlines for print just won’t get very far in the digital world.

This isn’t just an SEO guide. These are tips you can use to write better headlines for search engines, social media, aggregation apps, and — believe it or not — print.

1. Use Keywords

One of the biggest differences in writing headlines for the web vs. writing headlines for print is that in print, you already have your reader. They have purchased your product or picked it up and they are reading. Your headline needs to convince them to read an article. On the web, you don’t have your reader yet. Your headline needs to contain words or phrases they might be searching for.

We’re not talking about keyword stuffing, where you just put as many irrelevant keywords as possible into a miles-long headline. Your headline needs to contain words or phrases readers are looking for, but it also needs to make sense for humans to read.

Let’s compare a print and web headline as an example:

Print: POTUS signs economic recovery bill

The assumption with this headline is that your reader is going to have already picked up the paper, would be familiar with what POTUS is and would be further motivated by the picture paired with the story. For the web, we need something more specific.

Web: Joe Biden signs Build Back Better Act

Notice for the web, we’ve chosen to give the president’s first and last name, and we’ve given the common name of what he signed. This way, readers could arrive at your article by searching for “Biden,” “Joe Biden,” “Build Back Better,” or “Biden Build Back Better.”

Generally speaking, a good web headline for local news will contain the names of people, cities, counties or places found in the article. Where you might have written “BOC” in a print headline, you would consider “Cook County leaders” or “Cook County Board of Commissioners” in a web headline.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Question Marks

There are some print publications that consider it bad form to ask readers a question or to phrase a headline in the form of a question. This isn’t Jeopardy after all. Those more familiar with the digital world might even find questions in headlines to be clickbait.

Your old school editor is wrong on this and needs to change quickly.

When search engines first showed up, people searched using words or phrases. In the last 15 years it has become more and more common for people to search using questions. If your headline contains the exact question that someone typed into Google, it’s going to float to the top of the results.

Your readers are asking questions. If you want to answer those questions for your reader, your headline should ask them to.

If you’re not familiar with Google Trends, visit this website and bookmark it right away

Google trends allows you to track the popularity of search terms over time. If you were using it, you would know that with the exception of a brief time in April of 2021, more people search for “coronavirus” than “COVID-19.” This information would tell you that your headlines about the pandemic should contain the word “coronavirus” instead of “COVID-19.”

Google Trends tells you what words and phrases your readers use. Those need to be the words and phrases you use, since as a journalist you are trying to communicate with your readers. This is an excellent way to make sure your words and articles are understood by your audience.

4. Yes, Include Location Information

I can hear the old curmudgeon-y editor types now: “What? Say the name of the county in the headline? Our readers know what county they’re in.”

Yes, yes they do. But online they will be searching for the name of the county. “Cook County teen arrested for burglary” is going to be more likely to be found by readers in Cook County who know a teenager was arrested for something last night than if you just do “Police arrest teen for burglary.” The latter search result could come up for any search from anywhere, USA.

It’s fine that your print headlines don’t have the name of your county or city in it because the name of your county or city is on the front page, but for the web you need to break tradition and realize that your readers are trying to find information that you’ve published but they will never find because the headline is too bland or vague.

5. Avoid ‘Headline-Speak’

Newspaper headlines are written in choppy English with words left out. Let’s not forget that this is done for space and not for art. Your digital reader may be younger and hasn’t picked up a newsletter and therefore isn’t familiar with this style of writing.

We leave out words in print so that we can make headlines fit the space allowed for them, but on the web we don’t have to worry about this as much. While there is a character count that is considered search engine-friendly, you have a little more liberty with web headlines.

Let’s compare a typical print headline with a web headline to give an example of what I mean.

Print: Springfield Council to vote on zoning, road work
Web: Springfield Council to vote on zoning and road work

Or if you want to get really crazy, make it read like a sentence:

Example: Springfield’s City Council will vote on zoning and road work Monday

Which of these three headlines resembles the way your readers talk in conversation? Make your web headlines reflect your readership and you can’t go wrong.

Your web readers are younger, more tech-savvy and less print-savvy. Headlines that sound like actual sentences a person would speak are going to be more appealing to them and even if your article doesn’t come up first in the search results, by being reader-friendly, it may just be the headline they click on.

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