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Aug 29 / Tim Wood

How to write the perfect Bleacher Report headline

I know nothing.

That’s what I learned 45 minutes into my first shift with Bleacher Report.

I came in thinking that with nearly two decades in the media business under my belt, headlines were my strong suit. I even have the AP awards plaques for headline writing to prove it.

You wanted snappy, funny New York Post-style attention grabbers, I was the guy. I’d immediately make my impact in this arena, I thought.

Editor-in-Chief Joe Yanarella had other ideas. I made my impact.

A big ol’ thud.

“Those are mighty cute headlines. Well done. Now write me something that will get results,” he said.

The more I learned from Joe, the more I realized that my previous experiences meant nothing in the world of search engine optimization. Now I find myself crushing the souls of other new recruits the same way Joe put me in my place.

Kidding aside, this need not feel like torture. That’s the first point we make with the writers on B/R’s Trends and Traffic instant analysis writing crew (TNT, for short).

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO

There are plenty out there who still see search engine optimization as a four-letter word, despite it being a mouthful to say. Shortened to an acronym, SEO, it’s still only three.

Traditional journalists—a label I’m not that far removed from—view SEO headline writing as a “black hat” practice. It’s voodoo, evil, and if they even make an effort there, they’re acknowledging that they are slaves to this nebulous machine of the future.

Web journalists know that SEO headlines are the very key to building their personal brand.

So what does SEO mean? It marries the concept of the snappy newspaper headline with the mind of the Internet surfer.

You have 10 words, 72 characters at most, to pull people out of the Interwebs and on to your article. To do that, you need to be clear on the point you’re trying to make and know the right way to phrase it.

The most effective pattern that we’ve seen to date is the Keyword: Hook structure.

The bigger-brain folks at B/R spend a great deal of time crunching analytics numbers to make sure we know how folks search for information so we can predict how they’ll do it in the future.

Those keywords are a huge part of it.

When I look for new writers for paid positions at B/R, knowledge of headline structure is one of the two keys that makes folks stand out. Ledes are the second and equally important factor, but that’s another blog post.

The sooner you can understand that you are a fisherman, the quicker you’ll be able to master headlines.

SEO expert Dean Hunt makes a great analogy here when he compares search knowledge to fishing. The best fishermen always seem to know where the fish are. It’s no coincidence. That’s because the best fishermen spend time getting inside the minds of the fish.

Sounds hokey, but in SEO terms, the more you understand how folks search for your work, the better chance you’ll have of getting them to your story without any help from front-page programmers.

There are no absolutes with keywords, but you can rarely go wrong if you take an event and add the year to it, like “Little League World Series 2011.”  If you’re focused on a player like LeBron James, make sure he’s the before-the-colon keyword.

Don’t be cute

As for the hook, don’t be cute. Here’s a recent example of a hed that came across my desk:

Barcelona-Real Madrid Fight Video: Watch Marcelo Almost Break Barca’s New Toy

Many of my friends loved this headline to describe the fight between Marcelo and Cesc Fabregas.  It gave me indigestion.

There are some signs of hope here. Overall, this is proper structure, yet there are little things, as in this case, that can make the difference between 5,000 reads and 100,000 reads.

First, Web searchers rarely type in hyphens. They will either type “Barcelona Real Madrid” or “Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.”  A little trick, but the Web really hates the hyphen.

That fixes the keyword. The real issue is with the hook. Folks will never search for “Barca’s New Toy.”  They’re searching for Cesc Fabregas. Get that in the headline.

And never give away the plot in the headline. Using “Almost” kills the suspense of watching the video.

So we corrected it to:

Barcelona vs. Real Madrid Fight Video: Watch Cesc Fabregas and Marcelo’s Battle

Elements of a great headline

So once you get past not being cute, what makes a great headline?

1)   Make it compelling. Ask a question, make a bold statement, set readers up for a strong and informed opinion.

2)   Keep it simple. If you’re trying to say LeBron James is the most overrated player in the NBA, say it. “LeBron James: Why He’s the Most Overrated Player in the NBA.”

3)   Pick a side. Fence sitters and wafflers will never build a brand. Don’t use words like “could,” “may,” “might” or “can.”  Be definitive with “will,” “won’t” and “can’t.”

4) Use buzz words. Again, this goes to being the fisherman. Bold predictions, expert picks, epic fails, worst ever in history. These are all great words, as long as you can back it up with your story.

5) Think forward. The Web is always thinking ahead, so you should too. Yes, breaking down history is an interesting read in its own right. But Web readers are more interested in what’s next. Don’t tell them why Donovan McNabb failed in Washington. Tell them why he’s going to be a success or even bigger failure in Minnesota.

I’m telling you to be brief and to the point with headlines, but I could go on for another 1,000 words. I’ll leave you with one more trick we often tell TNT writers.

When you’re wondering if you have a good headline or not, go to Google and type your topic in. If your headline is close to the results that came up on the first page, you’re on point.

And if not, don’t be afraid to borrow. You never want to copy a headline. Instead, examine the key elements of the headline that worked and tweak it to fit your cause.

Most of all, don’t think of this as a chore. Today’s successful Web writer knows he or she is more of a content packager.

Headlines just happen to be the most important and most fragile components of that package.

* * *

Tim Wood is Bleacher Report’s Trends and Traffic Optimization Editor. He leads a team of instant analysis writers who write about breaking news and trends.

  • Nedu Obi

    Great information. More of the same please.

    • Anonymous

      You bet. Tim’s headline piece marks the launch of a weekly feature here on the B/R Blog that I’m calling “Textbook.” (I was calling it B/R 101 for a while, but I think it’s too confusing to call it that because there’s also a B/R U.)

      Each of these weekly blog posts will be a basic primer on some fundamental activity, either fundamental to sports journalism, fundamental to writing for Bleacher Report, or both. The idea is that the chapters, taken together, will become like a textbook for Bleacher Report writers. We’d earlier done two “chapters,” on lede writing and on attribution, sources and avoiding plagiarism. Click “Textbook” under “Categories” at the bottom of this page to see.

      For now, that’s how to find the Textbook posts. When there are a few more, I’ll create a dedicated page that will look more like an organized table of contents.

      I’ve got a plan mapped out for the Textbook, but if there’s anything you’d like to see addressed, let me know. I might have overlooked it.

  • Mark Jones

    I agree with Nedu. This was really informative and helpful. Even as an FC for over a year, headlines have always a bit of a puzzle for me and that can really damage a good story. I will try to implement some of these tips in future articles and I hope that it pays off. Thanks very much for the post.

  • Carl

    Awesome stuff…more please.

  • Karlo Sevilla

    Thanks! Right after reading this, I changed my article title from “Tito Ortiz vs. Rich Franklin: Finally, Someone the Bad Boy CAN Bully” to “Tito Ortiz vs. Rich Franklin: Finally, Someone the Bad Boy WILL Bully.” :-)

  • Pkleiss

    This was exactly the type of tutelage I was in need of. Great job!