Apr 032010

Hollis Gillespie’s 20 Hit-Boosting

Headline Tips!

In the web world, your headline not only has to appeal to human eyes, but to search engines as well. The more clicks you get, the higher you rank on Google, the more you make with whatever it is you’re selling (cupcakes? books? custom underwear?)  Below are 20 tips and examples to help make your headlines become CLICK MAGNETS:

1. Be Concise
Search engines are not known to get fancy. “D.C. Politician Murdered,” works a lot better than “Community Shocked at Body Found in Dumpster,” but “Murdered D.C. Politician Found in Dumpster” works best.

2. Include key words and phrases

At https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal Google provides you a great tool to help find the most searched phrasings on any subject. For example, if you want to write about Pandas, simply enter “Pandas” in the search field, and you’ll see that “Panda Bear” and “Baby Panda” are by far the most popular search phrases, so you’d make sure to include one of those in your headline. “Panda Bear Kills Man Who Tried to Eat Baby Panda.”

3. Keep headlines under 65 characters

This is the text length that will appear in Google search results. Anything extra will be dropped. Headlines can be longer as they appear on your blog, but because Google won’t read any more than 65 characters, it’s important to get the keywords across in the first few words.

4. Use the full names of people and places
People search for specific things. If you are writing about George Clooney getting married, for example, don’t headline your piece “Burly Ex ER Star Weds.” Make sure you use the full name and a place name if applicable: “George Clooney Marries Las Vegas Stripper Lola Lusty Jugs.”

5. Include Details of the Story

In traditional media, a headline will often hide details of the story to pique the audience into reading further. On the Web, a headline that hides details of the story does not work, because web readers are generally either hurried or lazy or both. They want to be told what they can expect right away, otherwise they will just click on the next item on the Google search page. Bad web headline: “Senile Feline Enthusiast Dies.” Better web headline: “Dead Crazy Cat Lady of Dayton an Undercover CIA Spy.”

6. Example: The Direct Headline
This is the headline that states the purpose of the post directly, without any bells and whistles. Example: “Austin Opens Depot for Discount Pornography!” It’s designed to cut to the chase and grab the eye of anyone on Google. I found it also works great as an ironic push button. I once used this method to shock people into action with a blog post titled, “Child Rape Now Legal in Atlanta!” in which I described how the trafficked children of Georgia were being jailed while their abusers were set free.

7. Example: The Indirect Headline

Example: “Akron Firemen Confess, Baring Your Chest Works Best!” This type of headline brings the reader right to the center of the topic with a tease that makes them want to read further. The above headline could be about local firemen posing for their annual calendar for all we know, but the fact is that we wanna know, and that’s the important thing. I know this seems to go against Tips 1, 13 and 19, but you gotta mix it up.

8. See What’s Trending
A sure-fire hit booster method is to go to http://google.com/trends and see what the trending topics are for that day. Let’s say Tiger Woods is at the top of the list, but you want to write a consumer piece on cars. “The Car So Safe Even Tiger Woods Can Drive It,” would be an example of how you can twist that to your favor. It’s cheap but very effective.

9. Example: The How-To Headline

“Hot To” headlines are another cheap and quick way to get people to click onto your site. Web readers like their content to be direct, they don’t want to have to sift through chapter after chapter of nebulous information in order to get to the gist. Wrong: “The History of Hammer Toe.” Right: “How to Cure Hammer Toe.”

10. Write in the Active Tense
Words like “is,” “was,” “are,” “were,” “have,” “had,” and “has” should not be in your headline. Wrong: George Clooney has Married. Right: George Clooney Married. Wrong: Crazy Cat Lady Has Been Killed. Right: Crazy Cat Lady Killed. You get the idea. (An exception is the How-To approach above. “How to Cure Hammer Toe” is passive to the more active “Cure Hammer Toe,” but “how to” is unique in that it is a highly searched phrase and you want to benefit from that.)

11. Example: The “Secret” Headline
Headlines that profess to reveal secrets about a certain undertaking are another cheap and easy way to boost traffic to your site. Say you want to write about air travel, “The Secret to Surviving Holiday Airline Security,” or “The Secret to Charming Your Way to a First-Class Upgrade” would be more click-able than simply, say, “Travel Tips.”

12. Example: The “Do Something Like Something” Headline

The is a variation of the “how to” headline but more descriptive: “Seduce Women Like a Soap Star!” “Lose Weight Like a Castaway!” “Land Movie Deals Like James Cameron!” This is a good way to incorporate Google Trends as well, “Date Blond Hotties Like Tiger Woods!”

13. Make It Sensible Out-of-Context

Web headlines are often seen out-of-context, such as on Facebook pages or contrasting blog and/or media sites. They have to make sense as a stand-alone entity without accompanying copy in order for the audience to want to click on it and read further.

14. Don’t Mistake a Web Reader for a Newspaper Reader

A Newspaper reader is invested in the paper at (physical) hand and will take the time to enjoy a clever word-twist of a title by reading into the body of the text to back it up. A Web reader is unlikely to read past the cute-but-vague title of your piece before moving to the next item on the search page to click on that instead. A Web headline needs to act more like a label that effectively summarizes what the reader can expect.

15. Cross Check Against AdSense
This is a shortcut to determine if your headline is conveying what you want it to convey: Once you publish your headline and post, check the AdSense column along the right side of the Google page results to see if the text ads that pop up are of good relevance to the topic you wanted to convey. If so, you’ve written an effective web headline.

16. Avoid Repetition
Even with keywords, too much is not a good thing. Don’t repeat keywords and phrases within the same headline, and don’t repeat the headline’s exact phrasing within the body of the article. To do so is a bit of an insult to web-savvy readers, who will immediately recognize the attempt to trick search engines into placing it higher on the results page. Ideally, your post should land at the top of the search results due to clicks from people who enjoyed reading it

17. Example: The Stand-By “Top 10”
The top-10 list is so effective and overused it’s skewered by webphiles and comedians alike. I once even blogged a “Top 10 Reasons to Stop Using Top 10 Lists,” and David Cross devoted a chapter in his recent book titled “Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists.” But the fact remains, the “Top 10” headline draws an easy audience (much like “20 Hit-Boosting Headline Tips”).

18. Do Not Use “a,” “an” and “the”
These articles take up valuable space that could be better served informing the reader on what to expect in the post. Bad: “A Venezuelan Piranha Devours an Olympic Swimmer.” A better headline would be “Venezuelan Piranha Devours Olympic Swimmer.”

19. The 10-Words Rule
Consider this: If someone were to read your 5-10 word headline, would they know what the article is about? This is important because you’re competing with a long list of other posts promising similar information.

And lastly,

20. Don’t Be a Keyword Whore
I feel obligated to include this because blogging is a creative endeavor and if you put more importance on mongering the placement of keywords than you do on your natural narrative you risk losing your audience. People will follow your blog because your voice resonates with them. So find a balance so that your voice is stronger than your keyword placement. This NYT piece is a great read on the travails of forsaking a real audience for some gaggle of software bots.