December 18, 2017

Watching paint dry?

Must web heads be dull since Google never laughs?

There’s a lot of sniveling and squawking going on in the web writing community these days. Consider the headlines:

Watching paint dry?

No colorful web heads? Can online headlines be both witty and wise? Image by Mike Petrucci

What’s all the bellyaching about? The fact that feature headlines don’t work so well online. Sad, but true: When it comes to web heads, it’s more important to optimize for search engines — and optimize for real people — than it is to be clever.

“Part of the craft of journalism for more than a century has been to think up clever titles and headlines,” writes Ed Canale, vice president for strategy and new media at The Sacramento Bee. “And Google comes along and says, ‘The heck with that.’”

How bad is it?

Back in the day, when The Washington Post ran an article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC, the original, print headline said:

“Better never than late”

The web version:

“Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno”

That’s what happens when we optimize headlines for Google and work to reach real readers online. We move proper nouns, keywords and full names to the front of the headline, crowding out wit and whimsy.

That also makes it easier for searchers to make sense of our headlines on search engine results pages and other indexes.

“If there is a choice between boring and useless,” writes Steffen Fjaervik, contributing writer for Poynter Online, “I suggest going for boring.”

But maybe those aren’t the only options.

Three ways to write creative headlines for the web

Here are three ways to work around the SEO and scanning restrictions of web heads:

1. Use your title tag and URL.

Your title tag gets more Google juice than your web headline. So put your literal headline in the title tag and put the feature headline on the content page. The New York Times, for instance, sometimes packs keywords into its title tags, but not into the page headline.

Put your wit where the reader is

Put your wit where the reader is … Write a creative headline for humans and put it on your content page. Write an SEO headline for Google and put in your page title.

2. Use the deck.

You could also use the headline for the literal story, the deck for the creative or benefits-focused one.

  • Literal headline: [Topic word] does what
  • Benefits-oriented deck: You benefit how
  • Creative deck: Clever wordplay or twist of phrase

3. Be witty and clear.

You’re brilliant, right? Why not write a headline that’s both creative and telling? The pros are pulling it off by writing:

No, there’s no danger that readers will injure themselves in a laughing fit, but these writers do manage to make their headlines both literal and creative.

How to manage all of these headlines

So how do you handle content management with all of these headline options? Ask the writers to provide print, web and metadata headlines with the story. Writers understand the story best, after all, and this approach keeps the webmaster from frantically repurposing everything and the end of the process.

And if you’re publishing and posting, include the print headline in the web metadata. Print readers will look up the story using the headline they saw in the publication. Even if it’s not the headline you post on the content or index pages, they should be able to find what they’re looking for.

  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen

    Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?

    Use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Denver on May 1-2, 2018At Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on May 1-2, 2018 in Denver — we'll debunk destructive writing myths. You'll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Denver on May 1-2, 2018

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

Kevin Allen, “Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over (because of SEO),” Ragan’s PR Daily, May 13, 2011

Amy Gahran, “Smart Headlines: Beyond Shovelware,” PoynterOnline, March 3, 2011

Arthur S. Brisbane, “Glimpses of Online Journalism, From Inside and Out,” The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2010

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

Eric Ulken, “Writing Headlines for the web 2010,” Poynter University NewsU web course

Eric Ulken, “This headline not written for Google,” OJR: The Online Journalism Review, Oct. 20, 2009

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