Tip No. 3: Craft your headline.
In the online publishing world, the most successful writers are salesmen at heart.
The Internet’s a crowded place, and only by properly packaging and promoting your work can you expect to make yourself heard. That packaging and promotion, in turn, have to start with a quality headline—and every quality headline is the product of a three-step creation process.
1. Identifying keywords
Articles with vague or esoteric headlines don’t attract many readers for the simple reason that they don’t appear on many popular search listings. If you want people to read your work, you have to put it where they’re going to find it—which means above all else that you have to be mindful of the keywords you include in the title.
As noted elsewhere in this tutorial, Google Trends and the B/R Hot Keyword Database provide high-level daily overviews of the Internet’s hottest search terms. Beyond the specific terms identified by those two resources, you can optimize your headlines for search placement by including (in order of effectiveness) (a) personal names (both first AND last); (b) events and team names (both city/school and mascot); and (c) titles of divisions, conferences, and leagues.
Poor choice of keywords: “Hot Times in South Beach”
Better choice of keywords: “Miami Heat Set the NBA on Fire”
Best choice of keywords: “LeBron James, Miami Heat Set the NBA Southeast on Fire”
2. Ordering keywords
Keywords at the beginning of a headline are weighted more heavily by search algorithms than those at the end. With that in mind, it’s important to lead with your “best” keywords—i.e. those which are most likely to attract readers who are going to want to read your article.
As a general rule, you should aim to order your keywords according to their effectiveness in generating traffic:
(b) Personal Names
(c) Events and Team Names
(d) Titles of Divisions, Conferences, and Leagues
If you work within that framework, you’ll give your article the best chance of earning a strong search ranking—and you’ll give potential readers the best opportunity to sample what you’re trying to sell.
Poor use of keywords: “NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers Ride Kobe Bryant to Win”
Better use of keywords: “Los Angeles Lakers Ride Kobe Bryant to NBA Finals Win”
Best use of keywords: “Kobe Bryant Leads Los Angeles Lakers to NBA Finals Win”
3. Appealing to human readers
Given the emphasis on search engine optimization in the online publishing world, it’s easy to forget that search engines are themselves merely conduits to real-live human beings. Yes, it’s important to appeal to the Google computers with your headline—but it’s even more important to appeal to the searchers who’ll actually be reading your work.
Whenever you sit down to craft a headline, you should always be mindful of three distinct criteria of reader-friendliness: specificity, readability, and “clickability.”
Vague or esoteric headlines fail to generate traffic because they fail to advertise the product to search-engine users. As is true with any transaction, buyers (or in this case readers) won’t commit if they don’t know what they’re getting into.
Specific headlines, on the other hand, convey precise and relevant information to searchers, and thus encourage those searchers to take the plunge with your work.
Vague headline: “The Best of the Best in Today’s NBA”
Specific headline: “Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James: Ranking Today’s NBA Stars”
The importance of readability in headline text speaks to the fact that there’s an actual person on the other side of the search process. You’re not writing for an algorithm, after all; you’re writing for a human being, and to that end you should be sure that your headline reads naturally rather than mechanically.
The most natural headlines—the most “human” headlines—are those which present themselves as readable, keyword-rich units rather than mere amalgamations of keywords.
Awkward Headline: “Miami Heat in NBA Playoffs: The Team To Beat”
Readable Headline: “Miami Heat Are the Team To Beat in the NBA Playoffs”
Internet readers have plenty of options when they search for sports-related content. A “clickable” headline is any which makes searchers want to read your article instead of the next one—and although it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s clickable and what isn’t, there are three fundamental techniques that will help you put your best foot forward.
i. Take a Stand
As a general rule, Internet readers are drawn to articles that make arguments instead of merely regurgitating information. The more forceful a stand you take in your headline, the more likely you are to attract people to your work.
Bland headline: “NBA: LeBron James Signs with the Miami Heat”
Clickable headline: “LeBron James Signing Makes the Miami Heat the Best Team in NBA History”
ii. Ask a Question, or Hint at an Answer
Mystery is always more compelling than certainty. In writing headlines, your best bet is to hint at the substance of your article without giving away the whole story—by asking a question, for example, or by adding “Why” or “How” to your title. In the end, anything you can do to stimulate the curiosity of potential readers will help to drive search traffic to your work.
Bland headline: “NBA: LeBron James Signs with the Miami Heat”
Clickable headline: “Why LeBron James Signed with the Miami Heat Instead of the Cleveland Cavaliers”
iii. Make a List
For reasons known only to David Letterman and VH1, people love lists. That’s especially true of Internet readers, who will flock to headlines which promise “The Top 5” or “The 10 Best” of just about anything. In that vein, all list articles should be advertised as such in their headlines—and you’d also do well to repackage non-list articles with list-like headlines.
Bland Headline: “NBA: LeBron James Signs with the Miami Heat”
Clickable Headline: “6 Reasons LeBron James Signed with the Miami Heat”
If there’s one lesson to learn about headlines, it’s that the title often makes or breaks the story. Given the search-centric nature of Internet traffic, you can’t expect to attract readers to your work if you don’t package it well.
Whenever you publish, always be mindful of the extent to which searchers will judge your articles by their headlines—and always promote your submissions with as much effort as you put into writing them.