Headline Writing 101: Taught by TechCrunch

Ian Lurie

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.

sharks: "Yum! inaccurate headlines"

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.

"I had nothing to do with this"

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…

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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. As an email marketer I think many of the same rules apply… The emails that get opened the most are the ones that give a little description, but make people curios to find out more.
    I like to use digg and other popular sites to find good headline idea’s

  2. Just wanted to point out that you’re ranking #1 for Michael Arrington Wounded in Flying Piranha Rampage. Neat trick! If that ever actually happens you’ll have the inside track at tons of traffic.
    On a more serious note, I think you made a compelling case that writing inaccurate headlines is a nasty trick. You merely asserted that it was bad for business, at least small businesses. We all want to see the good guys win and the lying jerks suffer. But I don’t think you actually proved that that’s the case here.

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