Like most multimedia journalists, I pride myself in being able to wear a lot of different journalism hats. But the one thing I have never gotten a grasp of is writing headlines. I can write a 1,000 word story in my sleep, but ask me to write a couple of words to sum up what I’ve written and I draw a huge blank.
I’ve asked around and searched for advice and here is what I’ve learned. The first rule of writing web headlines is that they differ incredibly from print. Whereas a newspaper or magazine piece can have a flowery, pun-filled headline, an online headline has to be concise, attention-grabbing and chock full of keywords that will grab the casual reader.
Take the Arizona Daily Sun headline Fire-prone homes under fire. It caught my attention, its great for anyone searching for “fire” and “home” and it has the word fire twice! Gotta love that.
If the headline must be flowery because it, for example, is identical to a print story, it is wise to have a subhead that has the keywords in it like the Newsweek story “He’s Not as Smart as He Thinks” where the subhead reads “A British researcher reports that the male ego is often larger than his actual IQ. But you might be surprised by what women think of men’s intellect.”
Now when I’m struggling to come up with the perfect headline I think of the keywords that are in a story and then put them together in a cohesive sentence. In the end, it’s all about search engine optimization. Because a lot news traffic comes from search engines like Google and social news sites like Digg and StumbleUpon, the headline is a huge factor in whether a story is read or not.
The New York Times has a great article on the importance of SEO in online headline-writing that is worth a read. And I’ll keep working on my copywriting skills.