A lot of the time, writers are so focused on the body of text that they forget one of the most important elements of the article, blog post, press release or whatever it is they’re writing.
I’m talking about the headline of course (or title or heading—whatever you want to call it).
The funny thing is that this disregard is often why browsing users don’t read the content. In fact, many professional copywriters advise spending up to half of your writing time on crafting an enticing headline.
What Power do Headlines Hold?
- Using relevant keywords in headlines helps with SEO
- They set the tone and expectations for the actual text
- Good ones bring you more traffic and make you stand out among the never-ending crowd of content
- Headlines are sometimes the only descriptions used when sharing content, especially on sites like Twitter
- They are the first thing that people see in search results, in snippets of your posts on social media sites, etc.
So there are several reasons why, as a content creator or marketer, you should be paying close attention to your headlines. Now let’s take a look at some guidelines for creating headlines that will get clicked on.
Recommendations for this vary quite a bit, and with good reason. It mainly depends on what you hope to achieve with the headline: Are you trying to cater for readers with short attention spans? Do you want to summarize the whole article in one line? Or is SEO your only concern here?
WordPress, for example, suggests a minimum character count of 40 and a maximum of 70. Google usually truncates titles that exceed 66 characters; however, this limit tends to vary slightly according to word count and length, capitalization and so forth. The safest bet is to aim for middle ground, so let’s say between 45 and 60 characters. Ultimately, optimal character count depends on the platform/medium you’re writing for, e.g. social media sites, email marketing, etc.
Word count can also be a factor here, and many online resources suggest that approximately 6 words in the title will get you clicks. (When people skim through content, they tend to take in the first and last 3 words of a headline.)
I’ve also seen writers use a whole sentence or two as a heading, for example: “Wondering why recruiters keep throwing away your resume? The answer may shock you.” Although they’ll be cut off in search engine results, these often get surprisingly good results in terms of CTR.
Headline Style, Tone & Content
Diction: Your choice of words is powerful. Experts say that using strongly positive or negative words get great results: think “The 7 Deadly Sins of Web Design.” Powerful verbs and adjectives will get you halfway.
Questions & Commands: Asking a question in your headline provokes internal responses and encourages clicks. Yet imperatives like “Increase this – -” or “Stop Doing – -” generate plenty of interest too. “Why – -” and How-To headlines also work well (most of the time).
Numbers: Although everyone is doing them these days, list posts almost always perform well in relation to your other content. Numbers are practical, concrete and usually get straight to the point. Many people like structure and facts. Using numbers in your headline also indicates to readers that the text will be easily scannable.
Keywords: It can be annoying to ensure that every single one of your headlines contains relevant keywords, but it’s important for SEO. Moz suggests placing these words close to the beginning of the title, which helps with ranking and makes it more likely to be seen in search results.
Call to action: Create a sense of urgency through your headline: “6 Passive Income Streams that You’re Missing Out On” or “In just a few minutes, you’ll find out why no one likes you.” Make a promise in your title and then deliver on it.
- Create curiosity
- Make it personal by using words like “you”
- Be as specific and as clear as possible
I’ve read many (good) arguments against adding anything to headlines apart from words. However, sometimes it can work.
A well-placed comma or period, for example, can really drive the point home. And you can’t have question headlines without a question mark! Exclamation marks, though, are a danger zone—unless you’re producing sensationalist content.
Other formatting/styling such as underline, bold, italic and using color are generally not recommended. A good, strong title can stand out on its own without any decoration.
Here’s another question: To capitalize or not to capitalize? This one is completely up to you and what your readers and style guide prefer. In the past, I would only capitalize the first word and proper nouns in a headline. And I can’t stand it when people tweet article headlines that are capitalized.
Now, however, I capitalize all my headlines. This also seems to be the norm with many popular sites and I have to admit it looks better too. Here are a couple of useful title capitalization tools that you can use: TitleCap and Capitalize My Title.
But, whatever you do, don’t put the whole headline in uppercase. IT IS EXTREMELY ANNOYING VISUALLY AND USERS WON’T BOTHER TO READ IT, LET ALONE CLICK ON IT.
Which brings me to the things to avoid when writing headlines…
What Not To Do
- Don’t make it hard for people to read your headline. All caps is one example of that; another is making your text a bright blood-red.
- In your desperation to get noticed, do not go in the clickbait direction. Misleading, inaccurate headlines are a quick way to damage your credibility. Your audience will certainly not appreciate it.
- You may have just created the best, most exciting headline to ever grace human eyes, but it’s all for nothing if it contains an error. Spellcheck, spellcheck, spellcheck. If you can’t be bothered to use the language correctly, potential readers probably won’t bother clicking…
If you’re interested, here are a couple of interesting tools for evaluating the effectiveness of your headlines:
Keep in mind, though, that these analyzers are not the be-all and end-all that determine whether your headline is wonderful, acceptable or horrible. Only your readers can decide that!