Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Writing online headlines that grab your audience

Several years ago, I was at a briefing by a search-engine optimisation (SEOSEO (Search engine optimisation)The process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a mobile web site…//read more ) expert, and he was praising the BBC, which I had only recently left, on the headlines on their news website. He said that journalists there must have had excellent SEO training because they did everything to write a headline that would perform well on search engines. Some of my colleagues at the BBC News website might have had SEO training, but most of why our headlines worked well is that we included key elements of the story in the headline: the who, what, where and when. It was pretty standard journalism really. By British newspaper standards, BBC online headlines were impossibly dull, very American (the most contempt-laden epithet that a British print journalist can possibly use when referring to a headline).

The headlines we wrote at the BBC might have been boring, but Google loved them, which was the point that the SEO expert was making. BBC stories appear very prominently in Google News. Of course, the BBC News website also attracts a huge and loyal audience so that doesn’t hurt either in giving BBC stories prominence in Google and other search engines.

Regardless, many newspaper headline writers remained unconvinced. They want to continue with their clever, often pun-filled headlines. Frédéric Filloux, noted French new media analyst and general manager of the French ePresse consortium, calls this a story of pride versus geekiness.

Traditional newspapers that move online are about to lose the war against pure players and aggregators. Armed with the conviction their intellectual superiority makes them immune to digital modernity … When I discuss this with seasoned newsroom people on both sides of the Atlantic, most still firmly believe the quality of their work guarantees their survival against a techno-centric approach to digital contents.

He gives one gripping example of how traditional media is losing out to these digital upstarts: the Wall Street Journal versus the Huffington Post. The Wall Street Journal had a column looking at US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s position on Barack Obama’s healthcare reform with the headline “Romney’s Tax Confusion” – a headline which Filloux describes as “dull and generic”. The Huffington Post, as it often does, summarised the Wall Street Journal’s 1000-word column using a short excerpt and 300 of its own words with the headline “Wall Street Journal: Mitt Romney Is ‘Squandering’ Candidacy with Health Care Tax Snafu“. The much sexier headline not only told readers more about the piece, but it also was much more effective on Google. The result? The original Wall Street Journal piece netted 938 comments, quite a healthy number by anyone’s standards. However, the summary of the piece on the Huffington Post received 7000 comment, more than seven times the original, and was shared on Facebook almost 600 times.

The choice of headline isn’t down to simply a more web-friendly house style, but mathematics. The Huffington Post has a custom built system that scores headlines based on search terms on Google. The clever system even suggests more sought-after keywords based on what people are searching. They are constantly gauging the performance of both their headlines, but also of their images, in a process called A/B testing where two versions of a headline or two different images are compared with metrics like traffic and social sharing.

Stuffing headlines with search terms can be overdone, of course. UK’s tabloid The Daily Mail has risen quickly to become the world’s most read English-language news site. Just like the Huffington Post, they are constantly monitoring popular search terms. However, they are so aggressive in terms of chasing traffic that they do some things that many journalists would consider bad practice. The Australian marketing and media site, The Drum, reviewed the Mail’s SEO strategies and had this to say:

I’ve seen the Mail do all kinds of things with content to attract unique users, including pushing out stories that have already been published, which they alter slightly and publish again. It’s fishing for readers.

Also, these overdone traffic-grabbing techniques can turn off readers. The comments on Filloux’s post show that readers are getting wise to SEO-heavy tactics. Commenter Paul L said:

Thanks for the insight the reveals how I, as a reader, am not very tempted by SEOed headlines. I, at one time, perused Huff Po often and had it in my RSS feeds. But these sensationalized and often misleading headlines frustrated me into dumping it from my feeds and ignoring it altogether. I just want headlines that summarize well the content of the article.

All of this isn’t to suggest that you start writing sensationalist tabloid headlines but to say that for journalists coming a newspaper background, you need to rethink your headlines when publishing online. Instead of tabloid tactics, simply write headlines that include key elements of the story, as we did at the BBC. The style is different, but the result in terms of traffic was very similar. The Daily Mail only recently eclipsed the BBC in terms of global traffic, and the BBC doesn’t have the benefit of all those bikini-clad celebrities that help drive the Mail’s traffic figures.

To write headlines that attract online audiences, here are a few tips:

• Write clear headlines that answer who, what and where to be displayed prominently on Google and other search engines.

• You can monitor popular search terms using Google Insights. You can break down your results by country and even state or city (not available for all countries). This will help you understand what search terms people are using to find stories you’re writing.

• Use strong, but not necessarily sensationalist verbs.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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