How To: Write an Internet-Ready News Headline

paulson-headline Featured

Ian Lurie Oct 20 2008

When you write a headline for an online news story, follow three rules:

  1. Length isn’t (as much of) a constraint. In print, you have to make your headline fit a certain number of column inches. Online, you can add a word or two. Or three. Or even four. Don’t keep a headline short and uninformative.
  2. Make the headline descriptive. It should stand completely on its own. It’s a micro-summary of the story. If written on a blank sheet of paper, it should tell the reader exactly what they’re going to learn in the rest of the story. Your headline will show up everywhere: In links, in search, etc.. Make sure it works in all those places.
  3. Remember the search engines. Make sure your headline includes the words that folks will use to find the story. You don’t need to be an SEO pro to figure out that folks are more interested in ‘bank bailout’ than ‘Paulson stock purchases’ (keep reading for the full story on that example).

How to: NOT Write an Internet-Ready News Headline

Someone at my office sent me this beauty today, courtesy of Associated Press:
paulson-headline.jpg
While I wholeheartedly agree that stocks should indeed make money, I know that’s not what Paulson actually said. His message: Taxpayers should make money on stock the government buys from banks.
This is a perfect example of print-centric headline writing taken online. In a print publication, saying “Paulson says stock purchases should make money” might make sense – the stories around it, the copy right under the headline, etc. will all help the reader instantly figure out what the headline really means.
Online, though, the headline must stand on its own. If I write the headline on a whiteboard with no other information, the reader should immediately know what the story is about.
Otherwise, the mystery headline shows up in search results, where it makes even less sense. If I read the search listing below, I still don’t know what’s really going on:
paulson-2.png
And, it forces the visitor to start reading the story. Otherwise they can’t figure out if they want to read it or not. Which is a bit silly. People don’t like to read text online. They never have. So you need to make it easy for them to make that read/don’t read decision quickly and easily, with the headline.
Finally, it’s an SEO catastrophe. Associated Press probably wants this headline found if someone searches for ‘bank stock bailout’ not ‘Paulson stock purchases’. But the current headline works for the latter, not the former. And it shows – the story is top ranking for ‘Paulson stock purchases’ but nowhere to be seen for ‘bank stock bailout’. Ugh.

Doing it Write (heh – get it?)

Following the 3 rules, I’d re-write the Paulson headline like this:
Paulson: Bank stock bailout may benefit taxpayers
Or something similar. It’s got the keyphrase, tells you what Sec. Paulson was really saying, and it’s not even that much longer.
How would you rewrite the headline?

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8 Comments

  1. Caleb

    “Paulson tries to pass of bail out as good for taxpayers.” ;)
    Sorry couldn’t resist.

  2. caleb

    But sincerely, your headline makes much more sense. I am often running into headlines of this (the one you call out as erred) nature.
    Perhaps it serves a purpose because I skim the story trying to find out what was meant.
    The article seems to be more of a continuation of a conversation. I get this sense often from headlines I run across. This is especially true for the more specialized publications.

  3. The rules have all been changed, and I believe for the better, with online media vs print media. The end goals are the same, but the way information is transmitted is far different. The rules need to change to fit the way we interact with this new medium.
    Great article. Thanks!

  4. Might this be clearer to those outside as well as inside the US & include timing?
    US Cabinet Guy: Bank stock bailout may benefit taxpayers …someday
    @GaryFPatton

  5. It’s a shame that we now write headlines for robots. While the practice of ‘SEOing’ copy arguably forces people to concentrate on being descriptive, it can also push context to its limits. (Not in the above case, admittedly.)
    Here’s my attempt:
    Paulson: Bank stock bailout may benefit BRITNEY SPEARS NAKED taxpayers
    Bet I get more hits.

  6. Poor AP headline writing, I think, is why we’re seeing a lot more article summary bullet points from news outlets like CNN. It’d be unnecessary if they’d just write better headlines, but that is one marginally good thing that’s come of this mess.

  7. Regarding Bank Bail Out, Paulson Suggests Bank Stocks Should Make Money.
    This post is very on time for me, I often cut corners with my titles and miss out on the SEO benefit.

  8. Mark

    One tip: make sure you run a grammar/spelling/punctuation check on your article. Nothing is as unprofessional and embarrassing as writing mistakes.
    There’s a service that does this checking for you:
    http://www.gramlee.com

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