BR Writer’s Tips: The Art of the Headline 2.0
It’s one thing to produce superlative sports analysis. It’s quite another to ensure that that analysis attracts the readers it deserves.
In the online publishing world, every writer has to be a salesman. The Internet’s a crowded place, and only by properly packaging and promoting your work can you expect to make yourself heard. That packaging and promotion, in turn, has to start with a quality headline.
The best headlines serve two distinct masters: automated search engines on the one hand and real-life readers on the other. First you have to construct your headline in such a way as to game the algorithms used by Google and other search sites. Then you have to make that headline palatable to the actual people who do the searching—because if they don’t click on it, all your effort goes for naught.
The good news is that the task doesn’t have to be a daunting one. In fact, great headlines aren’t all that hard to write, provided you adhere to Bleacher Report’s stylistic standards and pay close attention to the most fundamental selling points…
Impressing the Search Engines
Search engine optimization begins and ends with keywords. Articles with vague or esoteric headlines don’t draw many readers for the simple reason that they don’t appear on many popular search listings. If you want people to read your work, you have to put it where they’re going to find it—which means being mindful both of which keywords you choose and how your order them in the headline.
a. Choosing Keywords
In choosing keywords to include in your headline, it’s important to balance specificity and mass appeal. If your aim is too narrow, you’ll get buried in your own niche. If your aim is too broad, you’ll get lost in the World Wide Shuffle.
Personal names (both first AND last) are generally the most effective traffic-generating keywords. Events and team names (both city/school and mascot) are next on the list, followed by divisions, conferences, and leagues.
Your primary goal should always be to include first and last personal names in your headline. If that strategy isn’t a fit with your article, you should next target events and team names. If that still doesn’t yield a match, you should turn to divisions, conferences, and leagues as a last resort.
Poor choice of keywords: “Irish Eyes Are Weeping”
Better choice of keywords: “Notre Dame Football Drops the Ball”
Best choice of keywords: “Charlie Weis, Notre Dame Football Drop the Ball”
b. Ordering Keywords
Keywords at the beginning of a headline are weighted more heavily by search algorithms than those at the end. With that in mind, it’s important to lead with your “best” keywords—i.e. those which are most likely to attract readers who are going to want to read your article.
As a general rule, you should aim to order your keywords according to their effectiveness in generating traffic:
1. Personal Names
2. Events and Teams
3. Divisions, Conferences, and Leagues
If you work within that framework, you’ll give your article the best chance of earning a strong search ranking—and you’ll give potential readers the best opportunity to sample what you’re trying to sell.
Poor use of keywords: “NBA: Boston Celtics Ride Kevin Garnett to Finals Win”
Better use of keywords: “Boston Celtics Ride Kevin Garnett to NBA Finals Win”
Best use of keywords: “Kevin Garnett Leads Boston Celtics to NBA Finals Win”
Attracting the Searchers
Given the emphasis on search engine optimization in the online publishing world, it’s easy to forget that search engines are themselves merely conduits to real-live human beings. Sure, it’s important to appeal to the Google computers with your headline. But it’s even more important to appeal to the searchers who’ll actually be reading your work.
To that end, you should always be mindful of three distinct criteria in writing your headlines: specificity, readability, and “clickability.” Doing so will endear you to the living, breathing people on the other side of cyberspace—which if nothing else is a whole lot more satisfying than making friends with a search algorithm.
Remember, potential readers can only judge your article by the headline that gets listed with syndicated search results. With that in mind, it’s important that the title communicate exactly what the piece is about—in order to help searchers find exactly what they’re looking for.
As noted above, vague or esoteric headlines fail to generate traffic because they fail to advertise the product to search-engine users. As is true of any transaction, buyers (or in this case, readers) won’t commit if they don’t know what they’re getting into. Specific headlines convey precise and relevant information to searchers, and thus encourage those searchers to take the plunge with your work.
Vague headline: “MLB Prospects: You Will Know Their Names Soon”
Specific headline: “Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria Top List of MLB Prospects”
The importance of readability in headline text speaks to the fact that there’s an actual person on the other side of the search process. You’re not writing for an algorithm, after all; you’re writing for a human being, and to that end you should be sure that your headline reads naturally rather than mechanically.
The most natural headlines—the most “human” headlines—are those which present themselves as readable, keyword-rich units rather than mere amalgamations of keywords. Before publishing, you should always ask yourself whether your headline would make sense if you said it out loud. If it does, you’re in business. If not, it may be time for a rethink.
Awkward Headline: “NBA Draft, No. 2 Pick: Miami Heat Sitting Pretty”
Readable Headline: “Miami Heat Sitting Pretty in NBA Draft with No. 2 Pick
“Clickability” is the most abstract of the criteria outlined here, but in many ways it’s also the most obvious.
Again, Internet readers have plenty of options when they search for sports-related content. If you want people to choose you, you have to actively compete for eyeballs—which means using your headline to differentiate yourself from all those other hack writers out there.
A clickable headline is any which makes searchers want to read YOUR article instead of the next one. Although it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s clickable and what isn’t, there are four fundamental techniques that will help you put your best foot forward:
1. Take a Stand
Most Bleacher Report submissions are written with an editorial bent, and thus are naturally distinct from the bulk of generic, fact-based content on the Internet. The best Bleacher Report headline, in turn, is that which conveys the nature of an article’s editorial position.
As a general rule, Internet readers are drawn to articles that make arguments instead of merely regurgitating information. The more forceful a stand you take in your headline, the more likely you are to attract people to your work.
Bland headline: “NBA: Nets Acquire Yi Jianlin From Bucks”
Clickable headline: “With Yi Jianlin, Nets Primed for Run at NBA Title”
2. Ask a Question, or Hint at an Answer
Mystery is always more compelling than certainty. In writing headlines, your best bet is to hint at the substance of your article without giving away the whole story.
The strategy here often entails asking a question, or adding “Why” or “How” to your title. The bottom line is that you want to be suggestive in order to be provocative. Anything you can do to stimulate the curiosity of potential readers will help to drive search traffic to your work.
Bland headline: “Nick Saban Dismisses Jimmy Johns from Alabama Football Team”
Clickable headline: “Why Nick Saban Dismissed Jimmy Johns from the Alabama Football Team”
3. Make a List
For reasons known only to David Letterman and VH1, people love lists. That’s especially true of Internet readers, who will flock to headlines which promise “The Top Five” or “The Ten Best” of just about anything.
All list articles should be advertised as such in their headlines. You’d also do well to repackage non-list articles with list-like headlines.
Bland Headline: “Fantasy Baseball Pickups: Week Five”
Clickable Headline: “The Top Seven Fantasy Baseball Pickups for Week Five”
4. Overstate Your Case…Or Understate It
The final key to headline clickability lies in your choice of qualifying adjectives. To attract potential readers, you should always aim to either overstate or understate your position.
Hyperbolic headlines make articles more salient for search-engine users. The more dramatically you package your article, the more likely you are to drive traffic to it.
Bland Headline: “NBA Draft: Second Round Picks Who Became Stars”
Clickable Headline: “The Best Second Round Picks in NBA Draft History”
Understated headlines, on the other hand, play upon the general appeal of mystery and uncertainty. Understated qualifiers include words like “might,” “could,” and “should,” and can lend an air of intrigue to an otherwise plain title.
Bland headline: “Why the Chicago Cubs Will Win the World Series”
Clickable Headline: “Why the Chicago Cubs Could (or Should or Might) Win the World Series”
If there’s one lesson to learn about headlines, it’s that the title often makes or breaks the story. Given the search-centric nature of Internet traffic, you can’t expect to attract readers to your work if you don’t package it well. Whenever you publish, always be mindful of the extent to which searchers will judge your articles by their headlines—and always promote your submissions with as much effort as you put into writing them.
For further reading, check out Copyblogger’s “How to Write Magnetic Headlines” series.