Headline Writing 101: Taught by TechCrunch
Ian Lurie Jul 13 2009
I’ve written about headlines before: A good headline can vitalize your entire page.
A bad headline puts your page in a coma.
Then there are the headlines that chop your page into small, bloody, fist-sized chunks and throw them into the ocean for hungry sharks to peck at.
And that, everyone, is what we’re going to talk about today.
TechCrunch published an anonymous post today. I’m not going to link to it, because it doesn’t deserve the juice. Nor am I going to pick apart the many problems in it – lots of other folks will do that.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Rule Number One of headline writing:
Thou Shalt Write Headlines That Relate To Your Story
The story in TechCrunch talks about why the government should regulate Google.
The headline is:
“The Time Has Come To Regulate Search Engine Marketing And SEO”
If you’re an internet marketer, you see the problem. If not: Google is a search engine. SEO and Search Engine Marketing are service offered by people who don’t have anything to do with Google.
It’s a bit like saying that, because Dominos had employees blowing their noses on pizza, we’d better regulate the mozzarella cheese industry.
Thou Shalt Write Descriptive Headlines
A headline must accurately describe the story. ‘Accurately’ means that, if you write the headline on a blank sheet of paper, the reader can figure out exactly what they’re going to read.
So, better headline would have been:
“The Time Has Come To Regulate Search Engines”
“Google is a big bad meanie” (dammit, I said I wouldn’t critique the article)
Either one describes the article far more clearly.
Thou Shalt Resist Temptation
Why’d they write such an odd headline? It’s not hard to guess: Linkbait. Google’s unlikely to get their knickers in a twist about a rambling, poorly-written blog post (argh, there I go again).
SEOs, on the other hand, are guaranteed to start screaming if they read a headline implying we’re evildoers.
So the editor wrote an inaccurate headline in the name of linkbait. Anger-bait, actually.
I wag my finger at you and say thou shalt resist the temptation to twist and bend your headlines in the name of traffic. A headline should be informative first, provocative second.
The moral of this story
Unfortunately, I can’t say this story is an object lesson. TechCrunch has received more comments on that post (239) than any other post today. And the buzz around it is, well, buzzing.
So the moral may appear to be: “Screw with thine headlines, and riches will be yours”.
Hold on a second, though. TechCrunch already has an audience of 9,999,999 lemmings (including me) hanging on their every word. They can afford to occasionally, uh, bend the truth a bit in their headlines.
You can’t. You’re still growing your audience. You’re still building your business’ online brand. Screw up like this and it could follow you around for a long time.
So write accurate, descriptive headlines.
Now, I’m going to go change the headline for this story to “Michael Arrington Wounded in Flying Piranha Rampage” and see how that does for generating traffic…
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More