Headline writing for online audiences (and search engines)

Somehow I missed this excellent post about SEO for online headlines, by Patrick Beeson, online for two weeks already! Read it and learn how to write headlines that will bring a bigger audience to your stories.

Lucky for me, one of my forward-thinking colleagues here at the university asked if I knew any good resources about search engine optimization that he could use in his lecture on headline writing. I knew I had seen some in the past, so I went into Google to see if I could find them again. Up jumped Patrick’s post. It’s suitable for reading in any journalism class — and any newsroom, for that matter.

One resource Patrick did not link to in his post is a New York Times article from last year, which claims that search engines are eroding the fine art of headline writing:

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” One click down: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” Another headline meant to lure the human reader: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960’s singer.” One click down: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

I think this is not true anymore — a quick look at the BBC News front today shows that the headline on the story is exactly the same as the link you clicked on the referring page. BBC headlines must be between 31 and 33 characters, including spaces, to accommodate all platforms — including videotex and mobile phones. Even with that strict limit, the BBC writes some of the best online heds in the world — the right keywords are there, and you can see at a glance what the story is about.

This not only gives the BBC great “Google juice”; it also helps you, the reader, make that split-second decision: Do I want to click on that?

5 Comments on “Headline writing for online audiences (and search engines)

  1. Thanks for the mention Mindy. My entry was more about the SEO implications of headlines rather than how to write for an online audience.

    But both are important considerations for the newsroom.

    I also recall that nytimes piece from awhile back. I’ll tag that one for future use.

    I hope to push out some additional entries on SEO for newspapers soon.

  2. Good distinction: You can separate the “writing for SEO” from “writing for people” into two separate sets of criteria. But it is going to be a single headline, in the end, so we have to consider the balance between the two.

  3. Thanks for bringing up Patrick’s post Mindy. SEO is one thing that is lost on so many web people. I still know online producers who believe that SEO is a myth. Ha! Another good resource for headline writing is Copyblogger’s magnetic headline writing series: http://www.copyblogger.com/magnetic-headlines/ -Although most of this is geared toward blogging, it really helps figure out the SEO part, how to write for people and even slips into writing headlines for linkbaiting (a whole other level I hope online news people catch on to soon)

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