Here’s a topic that you may immediately shrug off as being unimportant to your online writing efforts: article and page titles. Give me five minutes, though, and I’ll show you why not paying close attention to this can be a terrible mistake that can not only affect what percentage of your subscribers actually read your content, but also how it has a direct relationship to whether search engines can accurately identify the subject of your material and drive traffic to your site in the first place.
MAINSTREAM MEDIA AND TITLES
In the newspaper world, titles are considered so important that there’s often a “title editor”, someone whose only job is to come up with concise, pithy, interesting and enticing headlines for stories. Of course, you usually only notice this when they’re too alliterative (e.g.. “Two Tiny Tots Testing Telephone Technology Turns Tragic”) or they’re actually not correctly matched to the story (a story on celebrity weddings entitled “Brad and Jen Bail On Nuptials” when the piece is about more than just those two celebs).
The reason that titles are so darn important is because of how we scan information and make snap decisions on whether to dig into a story further or not. It’s the same reason that bold and italic are so, so radically different in perception, even if most modern writers barely distinguish between the two. (for example, in the world of HTML, is <strong> going to be bold or italics? Well, that’s a darn important thing to know if you’re using it in your prose!)
The difference is easily illustrated by picking up a local newspaper and giving yourself just a second or two to glance at the entire broadsheet. Now, what do you remember? It’s the material in bold, the material that’s placed there specifically to be a ‘visual hook’ that catches your attention. That’s what bold is for, to create “jump outs”, while italics emphasizes material but is typically invisible unless you’re already caught up in the prose.
THE WORDING OF TITLES
There are two key aspects to page titles that I want to discuss, and let’s start by clarifying that I consider the title of a company’s Web site home page just as important as the title of their latest blog entry or wiki page. It may seem like I’m just talking about blogging, but what we’ll consider is generally true of any written material, online or off.
Since I don’t want to be accused of being some sort of search engine hacker, let’s start by talking about the kind of headlines that catch people’s attention.
Obviously, there are specific words that are always going to draw your eye, and these are used – ad nauseam – in advertising. The most common? Sex. Yes, you know you already saw that on an informal scan of the page and have had to come back to this paragraph to see and identify the context, right? Uh huh.
Should you use these high engagement words in every headline on your site so you can maximize the chance of engaging readers? No. Just like seeing twenty adverts that each suggest you’ll become sexy and have gorgeous fun-loving friends if you consume that particular product, you’ll just end up creating fatigue in your readers and it will backfire as they recognize that what you’re doing is trying to manipulate them rather than help them identify whether a given article is worth reading or not.
On the other hand, if there are specific words in your marketplace lexicon that are considered high engagement, I would definitely encourage you to use them at least once in a while. For example, artists are drawn to “gallery” and “exhibit”, just as musicians are drawn to “gig” and “studio” and programmers like “open source” and “hack”.
If you were scanning a musician’s weblog, for example, wouldn’t you find an article entitled “The dirt on my new studio recording” far more interesting than “Finished up the new CD”? (there’s a secondary title writing technique at work here too: offering an “inside” view, scoop or secret. Even if it’s not really “the dirt”, it still creates a sense of intimacy with the reader that’s appealing to just about everyone on the site)
Keywords are important too. I have to admit that I hate articles with titles like “The coolest gadget you’ve ever used” or “Huh?” or similar just do not engage me in any way. The problem is that there’s no *information* in the title. How much better to have “The New Sony HDDVD43R: The coolest video camera you’ll ever use” as a title. Now you know what the article’s about, what product is the focus, and can make a much more informed read/skip decision.
An interesting nuance with keywords in your marketplace is whether certain spellings or variations are in fact more common than more formal words. An easy example: are people more likely to search for “cellphone” “cell phone” or “mobile phone”? Knowing which is most popular and then using that as part of your titles helps people recognize your material.
TARGETING THE SEARCH ENGINES
Probably more important with the difference between “cellphone” and “cell phone” than human readers is search engine results, actually. If people search on “cellphone” as one word 7x more frequently than as two words (and yes, that’s indeed the case) then does it logically follow that using “cellphone” in your titles will help people find your content when they’re doing searches? You bet it does!
As it turns out, the page titles and article titles are two of the most important places on a Web page where search engines can figure out what an article is about, so every word in your title should be carefully considered. You can see this by doing some searches on Google or your favorite search engine, then go and closely examine the top few matches to see what of your search words or phrases are in the page title and/or the article title.
That’s why Web sites with home page titles like “Welcome to Acme Widgets” are so terrible: there’s nothing to help people find the products and services offered by the company. By comparison, a title like “Plug-in Applications for the Web 2.0 World: Acme Widgets” offers considerably more information and will unquestionably help the company gain more visibility in the search engines.
The other common mistake that people make with page titles is that every single page should have a unique title that describes that page of information, not the site overall. You’ve seen these sites, where every page is boldly titled “Acme Widget Corporation of America” or similar, even though any given page might be about the executive team, recent press coverage, how to apply for a job, and more.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
Okay, so you’ve given me five minutes of your time. Did I convince you to pay more attention to your page titles, your Web site title, and your blog or article titles? Are you going to dig around with some keyword research tools like Nichebot Classic and find out what words and phrases are most commonly used by your customer community when they search for your products and services? I hope so!