April 30, 2017

Don’t get your head cut off

Web headlines must fit on mobile apps and more

Not everyone wants to play, “What’s the last word in the headline?” says Andy Bechtel, associate professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Web headlines must fit on mobile apps

Don’t mess with my head Write online headlines that don’t get cut off by Google, social media channels, mobile apps or your reader’s attention. Photo by Scott webb

So write web heads that don’t get truncated by Google, social media channels, mobile apps — or your reader’s attention.

How short? Make sure your web heads are short enough to:

1. Get seen on Google.

Google’s search results display only the first 63 characters of your headline. To avoid getting your head cut off on Google, keep headlines to 55 characters or fewer.

Remember: Google never bought a product, voted in an election or supported a cause. So write headlines for humans; optimize them for Google.

Search results with headlines cut-off

Big headed Readers get irritated when you make them play ‘What’s the last word in this headline?’

2. Get shared on social media.

How will your headline look when it shows up on Facebook, Twitter and other social sharing sites?

To avoid getting your head cut off on social media, aim for 55 characters or less.

In over your head

In over your head At 31 words and 254 characters, this head is 137 characters too long for Twitter and gets cut off by Facebook. But, really, who’d want to read it anyway? Might as well put a stamp on it: This headline’s written for Google, not for humans.

3. Get seen on mobile devices.

Mobile apps and websites often truncate long headlines. To avoid getting your head cut off on mobile apps, follow the Associated Press’s guideline and limit headlines to fewer than 40 characters.

Head count

Head count These headlines are too long to be seen on Apple’s News app.

4. Reach readers on the go.

You have only a few seconds to reach mobile audiences before they swipe left or leave for another site. They want to scan at a glance, not study for a minute.

Plus, long headlines get lost below the fold or take up too much valuable real estate of mobile screens.

To avoid getting your head cut off, keep your web head to 8 words or fewer, or about 40 characters. That’s the length readers can understand at a glance, according to research by The American Press Institute.

But online, shorter’s better. My personal preference is web heads of 6 words or less, or about 30 characters.

Off the top of your head

Off the top of your head Long headlines (left) take up too much valuable real estate on your mobile content page. Shorter headlines (right) leave room to give readers more information — in this case, a full image and two lines of the lead.

Get your head examined

Get your head examined Some headlines are simply too long for humans. So you might get found by Google, but you’re making it hard for people to read and understand at a glance.

Off with your head

Hey, all those extra words aren’t worth losing your head over. So when writing for mobile audiences, write headlines to go. Keep your head short.

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Sources: Andy Bechtel, “Writing Headlines for Digital and Mobile Media,” Poynter News University, Dec. 5, 2013

Eric Ulken, “Writing Online Headlines: SEO and Beyond,” Poynter News University

Eric Ulken, “Writing Headlines for the web 2010,” Poynter News University, July 29, 2010

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