Writing great headlines

Main headlines

When you are making a WordPress post, there is a rectangular space at the top waiting for your headline. It is more important than anything else you write, even more important than your lede. Do not blow it off. Some websites call this the title. Most journalists stick with the word headline.

The headline serves three main functions on our site:

  • The headline should arrest the attention of casual readers and make them jump to click open your story. Headlines shout, “Woohoo,” look at me!” But they never lie.
  • The headline is one of the most important elements that will give you “Google Juice.” The more enticing your words are to search engines, the more clicks you will get. There are other considerations and most people now get their news through referrals, but headlines are still very important. Having the words that much someone’s search can get you noticed.
  • On our site, the first few words of your headline become part of the post’s url (Uniform Resource Locator). This is another way to get more Google Juice.

So, your headlines must serve two needs: the human reader and the Google robots that are spidering the web all the time, picking up the words and other clues that tell people what posts are about, making them come up high in search for people who actually want your content.

This means we can neither write exciting headlines that do not have good keywords nor pack our headline with keywords, giving us gobbledygook that makes the human brain mushy.

Let’s try this story:

There is a $50,000 fire at a tavern on Grand River

This is too bad for the bar, but good for us. For some mysterious reason, people like too find stories about bars and restaurants in East Lansing. Especially on Thursday and Friday. We are serious. So let’s begin by dumping the street name for “East Lansing.” That’s what people search for. not street names. And we will call this tavern a bar. That is higher in search, too. Now, for more power, put them together as a likely search phrase and move it to the front of the headline:

East Lansing bar …

Now, we need a verb. We MUST have verbs.

A headline without a verb is just a label. People need verbs. Google’s spiders don’t care much for verbs, but humans love them. Verbs are the engines of good sentences—and headlines. So:

East Lansing bar burns

And now we need a big finish. More nouns would be good. Adjectives and other modifiers are a waste in headlines. Stay concise. A second verb won’t do much for us, either, so let’s not use any more:

East Lansing bar burns, damages equal $50,000

That should work pretty well for this story.

Generally, a good, newsy sounding headline has a subject-verb or subject-verb-object construction, just like a strong declarative sentence: Bar insurer rejects claim.

Now, a few mechanical things:

  • Capitalize only the first word of the headline and, of course, the proper nouns of things like people, businesses, teams and places.
  • Do not spell out numbers, even if they are under 10 (exception to AP).
  • Drop little helping words like articles (a, an, the) and, usually, conjunctions (and, but, or).
  • Write in present tense. This makes the story sound urgent, and readers are used to seeing headlines in present tense and stories in the past.

Subheads attract skimmers, scanners

Little headlines ahead of sections in your article can be very helpful to readers, who by and large are skimmers. A good, arresting subhead every four or five graphs can break up what looks like a gray, boring story and encourage someone to read more deeply. A good headline can encourage a person to start reading a story someplace in the middle, even if they skimmed top.

You should follow the same rules for subheads, but can generally toss in a label now and then (but life has more zest with verbs.) Subheads are just a line of bold type. They look heinous if they are more than one line long. Be brief.

Subheads are a typographical device (like the bullets we used in two places above) and they help human readers. Spiders will not pay much attention to subheads. Spiders tend to crawl just the top of the story. Their algorithm-masters, which are always getting tweaked, tell them that if something is not near the top of the story, that something is probably not a very important part of the story.