How to write online headlines

6 10 2009

What is the key to writing an online headline? If you’re thinking: ‘Surely it’s the same as a newspaper’ then you are wrong. Thankfully, there is someone who knows the answer.

When the pub banter inevitably falls to web usability, Jakob Nielsen is the bloke who will take the lead in the conversation. The New York Times called him ‘the guru of Web page usability’. So when Jakob Nielsen says he knows what makes a good online headline, it’s best to take note of his points.

According to Nielsen, online headlines should be:

  • Short (because people don’t read much online)
  • Rich in information scent , clearly summarising the target article
  • Front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items
  • Understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results
  • Predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

So, who are the best headline-makers? The general opinion seems to fall on the BBC. So let’s do some comparing: BBC, Mail, Times.

A story about phishing

A news item on all websites is that there’s been a major ‘industry-wide’ phishing scam affecting major email organisations. Here’s how it’s been dealt with:

The Mail tells the reader story and the appropriate details, as does the Times. The BBC’s doesn’t.

When I saw the BBC’s I thought: “That looks interesting.” When I read the Mail’s, I got bored before I started reading – in fact, I got bored halfway through reading the headline. Both are short, rich in information, front-loaded, understandable and predictable; the only difference is that the BBC’s grabs the reader more effectively.

The Times strikes the middle ground. The Mail uses 13 words, the BBC uses five, and the Times uses nine. The Times fits in the details without making the headline more like an intro.

While the Mail may be dull, it might have one advantage. It may have the upperhand in the SEO game (search engine optimisation). Any mention of one of the keywords in the headline in an internet search, and the user is more likely to fall upon the Mail’s article than the BBC’s. In practice, search for ’email security breach’ in Google, and it’s The Times that appears, not the other two.

Who does it best?

If Times Online strikes a reasonable middle ground, with more information than the BBC but less waffle than the Mail, does that make it better than the BBC and Mail?

I don’t think so. I think the BBC is still the best for online headlines. However, the absence of detail in the headline begs one question: does writing for the Ceefax reader and the mobile user (ie. writing within very right constraints) have a potentially negative impact on the headline?


This post was written as part of a digital journalism module at university.





2 responses

9 10 2009
Joe Jeffries

Glad to see your blog has come back to life! Agree with you about the BBC, their headlines might be short on info and occasionally misleading, but at least they make you want to click on them.

11 09 2012

I think people will read more online if it interests them. However they are more likely to scan what they read.

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