Once the province of news editors and copywriters, the art writing a great headline is now an important skill for small business owners. Whether you’re composing a corporate blog post, writing web page titles for search engine optimization (SEO), or updating your business’ social media accounts, understanding the mechanics of headline writing can insure you catch the reader’s attention – before the competition does.
Here are my some of my top considerations for web headline writing, summed up in a handy little acronym, LOCK (patent pending).
LENGTH: Find that “just right” Goldilocks length. Too short and you won’t be able to get all of the elements of the headline in that will make it good for the reader and good for search engines. Too long and you make it harder to read, and insure that Google cuts it off in search results. Google shows 70 characters of the page title (usually mirroring your headline) on search results pages. I like seven to 10 words. I’ve seen national news outlets blow this one, to the degree that the whole meaning of the story is lost when the critical keyword is beyond the 70th character.
OPTIMIZATION: Every element mentioned here contributes to good search engine optimization (SEO), but it’s worth keeping SEO in mind in a broader sense. Taking a look at Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner you can easily see whether there might be synonyms for your keyword that have a higher search volume. For example, I used to be the publisher of an aerospace magazine, and we wrote a good deal about “unmanned aerial vehicles.” The problem is, that term has a very low search volume. You can guess what’s higher – “drone.” In fact, drone has 2,400 monthly search volume compared to unmanned aerial vehicles’ measly 10. Now I’m not saying use an incorrect or misleading word. There are some cases where two close words are interchangeable, and some cases where they aren’t. Use good judgement and don’t sacrifice accuracy.
CONTEXT: You can’t be assured that your clever, punny headline is going to be read in the context with an accompanying photo, subhead, or even the first paragraph of the post you’re writing. On social media shares and search engine results, there’s a great possibility your headline will need to stand alone. If you can’t write your web headline on a blank sheet of paper, hand it to someone and have them understand what the story is about and be intrigued enough to want to read it, you need to write it again.
KEYWORDS: For both SEO and readability reasons, you want to get your keywords as near to the front of the headline as possible. In this context, keywords mean the words essential to conveying the meaning of the story, not any kind of technical metadata. For example, if you’re writing a post about a new kind of inground pool filter your company is selling, you don’t want a headline that says, “Save time with Filterex” or “You’ve never seen your water sparkle like this before!” (I know, you would never actually write anything that bad, but go with me here.) A better choice would be, “How Filterex inground pool filters reduce cleaning time, save you money.”
Finally, remember that every rule of writing is worth breaking and now again. It’s as much art as science. At the risk of sounding like Polonius pontificating to Laertes in Hamlet, be engaging, witty, clear in any context, concise, surprising, intriguing, accurate, honest, use good aesthetic judgment and “above all, to thine own self be true.”