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Friday, February 4, 2011

Headline Writing 101: Taught by TechCrunch

When you write a headline for an online news story, follow three rules:

  1. Length isn't (as much of) a constraint. In print, you have to make your headline fit a certain number of column inches. Online, you can add a word or two. Or three. Or even four. Don't keep a headline short and uninformative.
  2. Make the headline descriptive. It should stand completely on its own. It's a micro-summary of the story. If written on a blank sheet of paper, it should tell the reader exactly what they're going to learn in the rest of the story. Your headline will show up everywhere: In links, in search, etc.. Make sure it works in all those places.
  3. Remember the search engines. Make sure your headline includes the words that folks will use to find the story. You don't need to be an SEO pro to figure out that folks are more interested in 'bank bailout' than 'Paulson stock purchases' (keep reading for the full story on that example).

How to: NOT Write an Internet-Ready News Headline

Someone at my office sent me this beauty today, courtesy of Associated Press:


While I wholeheartedly agree that stocks should indeed make money, I know that's not what Paulson actually said. His message: Taxpayers should make money on stock the government buys from banks.

This is a perfect example of print-centric headline writing taken online. In a print publication, saying "Paulson says stock purchases should make money" might make sense - the stories around it, the copy right under the headline, etc. will all help the reader instantly figure out what the headline really means.

Online, though, the headline must stand on its own. If I write the headline on a whiteboard with no other information, the reader should immediately know what the story is about.

Otherwise, the mystery headline shows up in search results, where it makes even less sense. If I read the search listing below, I still don't know what's really going on:


And, it forces the visitor to start reading the story. Otherwise they can't figure out if they want to read it or not. Which is a bit silly. People don't like to read text online. They never have. So you need to make it easy for them to make that read/don't read decision quickly and easily, with the headline.

Finally, it's an SEO catastrophe. Associated Press probably wants this headline found if someone searches for 'bank stock bailout' not 'Paulson stock purchases'. But the current headline works for the latter, not the former. And it shows - the story is top ranking for 'Paulson stock purchases' but nowhere to be seen for 'bank stock bailout'. Ugh.

Doing it Write (heh - get it?)

Following the 3 rules, I'd re-write the Paulson headline like this:

Paulson: Bank stock bailout may benefit taxpayers

Or something similar. It's got the keyphrase, tells you what Sec. Paulson was really saying, and it's not even that much longer.

How would you rewrite the headline?

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