Dry as a bone?

Must web heads be dull?

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

Dog wearing glass and rubber nose

Google never laughs How can you write headlines that rank high in search and amuse your readers? Image by Braydon Anderson

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.’”

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

Or, as Steffen Fjaervik, contributing writer for Poynter Online, suggests:

“If there is a choice between boring and useless, I suggest going for boring.”

But maybe those aren’t the only options.

Four 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:

a. A literal kicker with a clever headline. Corporate communicator Kevin Allen writes:

“Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over”

b. A clever kicker with a literal headline. “a book review headline in The Guardian was topped with this headline:

The Guardian headline: High Hitler

And some smart editor at NPR wrote:

NPR web headline - Picture this: 'Selfie' is the word of the Year

c. A topic word subject with a clever verb phrase. “A Wired copyeditor writes:

Wired headline - meteor impact theory takes a hit

And a Kansas City Business Journal writer comes up with

Mutual of Omaha Bank will deposit full-service branch in Kansas City.

4. A reversed mullet.

Put the business in the front, party in the back with headlines like this one, from CNN:

The Science of Hungry, Or Why Some People Get Grumpy When They're Hungry

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 headlines and other display copy or microntent and metadata with the stories. 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 are 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 Ideas Off the Screen

    Get the word out, even to nonreaders

    More than half of social media followers spend, on average, fewer than 15 seconds on a page, according to a study by Chartbeat. In this environment, you need to get your message across to skimmers, scanners and other nonreaders.

    Lift Ideas Off the Screen in Los Angeles

    Reach even ‘readers’ who won’t read your paragraphs.

    At Get Clicked, Read, Shared & Liked — our in-house Social media-writing workshop — you’ll learn to use microcontent — links, subheads, decks and more — to reach even people who don’t read your paragraphs

    • Avoid writing headlines that get filtered out by Facebook.
    • Write better listicles with our 6-step list-writing makeover.
    • Bust the myth of page view time. Help readers understand better, remember longer and enjoy your piece more — in half the time.
    • Tear down obstacles to reading your post by passing the Palm Test.
    • Write headlines that rank higher in SEO and entice readers with wit and whimsy.


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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