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!
Great points, Dave.
Two other considerations, specifically for blog entry titles or heads for article-style content, are feed readers and blog aggregators.
For instance, I subscribe to several blog and search feeds in my feed reader NewsFire. However, I tend to skip over postings with titles that don’t clearly indicate the topic of the posting.
Here’s an example of a non-explanatory blog headline that virtually guarantees I’ll give the posting a pass: “The Great Bubble Debate.” What the heck is that? I don’t know and I don’t care.
In contrast, “Has Google forgotten all about MeasureMap?” is a clear and compelling post title — and therefore engages my interest and leads me to read it.
The same principle works when searching blog aggregators like Technorati or Icerocket, of course.
I figure, online you should never assume your audience is willing to invest more effort than skimming your headlines. You need to make that experience rewarding in order to earn further attention in the attention economy.
– Amy Gahran
In this age of info overload, I often scan the papers and read all the headlines, about 10% of the articles and scan through all the ads.
It’s a bit of a strange perspective for me, because as a ex-journalist, who’s working to up his copywriting skills, I see that most copywriters spend the bulk of their time on the headline, and a little less on the subhead.
The obvious implication is that if your headline doesn’t hook the reader, the body copy doesn’t get read.
In most newsrooms, the sub-editors or copyeditors come up with the headlines (The journalists submit their stories with a suggested headline). Often the headlines are edited – compressed or expanded – to fit the space available (depending on where it’s slotted on the page).
On the web, unfortunately, it seems like the bulk of bloggers (and article writers) seem to spend far too little time on their headlines (or are hypnotized into the keyword stuffing cult).
Considering that the time creating the content gets flushed down the tubes because of a weak headline, it’s quite sad actually.
In this increasingly fast paced environment many people may find it cliche but headlines indicating that the article itself can be scanned (10 best..) are often winners. Also, questions in headlines are a love/hate thing – thoughts?.
You raised some great points on how to improve the use of title tags, help not only in the search engine rankings, but to help ‘real’ visitors get a quick overview of the page content, and to encourage them to stay a bit longer and read the page in more detail.
I’ll be using this post as required reading for all my clients that insist that the title to the home page should read ‘Welcome to xyz companies website’.
Also thanks for the link to Nichebot Classic, I just had a quick look at it and I think I’ll be using it a lot more than the Overture (oop’s sorry – Yahoo!) search marketing tool.
Hey DAve; some really good tips here. Here is a question maybe someone knows; what is more important to the search engines? The meta tags in the (html) or the actual title of the article.I was reading an article in a computer magazine that one good technique is to miss-spell your meta-tags; for example: Conferense instead of Conference, because when people key in a search they miss-spell their words sometimes. thankyou for your time and blog. Frank Devito
Surprised people are saying that to you, Frank. All that I hear from the SEO experts I track is that meta tags are almost, if not completely irrelevant for the major search engines nowadays… Also, be careful deliberately adding misspellings as that can seem spammy to a search engine.
Ohh ok, that’s interesting because when I first learned about getting the search engines attention to your web-site was to put in some attracting keywords in the metatags. That was a few years ago though. Thanks for the tipping me off , I thought the metatags was the main part of interacting with the search engines algorithm.So over the last couple of years the Algorithms of the search engine has been getting more sophisticated. (guessing). So when it comes to the blogsphere what search engines are looking for is activity and a good Title.Good stuff and stay away from misspellings because I might get put into the spam catagory of the search engines.
Ok thanks Dave; getting more of a grip of this stuffffffffff :O)
Hi Dave, I just noticed that this blog has been inactive since January 20, here is a question; are rss feeds set to automatically tell you when the blog has been updated? and by updating is this a technique for the search engines to recognize you more due to the extra activity going on. thankyou sir, Frank
Careful about your nomenclature here, Frank. The Blog is very active, it’s just this blog *entry* that hasn’t seen a comment for a month or two. 🙂
Generally, RSS feeds are automatically rebuilt every time a new entry is added to a blog, and it’s your blog reader that sporadically queries if there’s anything new. Make sense?
Oh Ok; thanks for clearing that up for me DAve. I hear what your saying.The Blog is still active; just that comments have not been put here. (I had to look up nomenclature(thnx for the new word).
blog reader that sporadically queries if there’s anything new.
Is the blog reader extra software I have to load on my computer or is that built(plug-in) into wordpress.
thanks for your time Dave; It does make more sence.
Wow…thanks for producing that post. It’s useful and clear why those word selection is important.
Too often I’ve been sidetracked by the article titles at msn.com. They work (for me), and they are a good place to look for title or headline ideas. What’s more, they are short enough for email subjects, too. Today’s harvest includes:
“Money Trouble? It’s Your Fault”
“Cruise ship survivors speak out”
“Anaylsis: Not a Masters disaster.”
“Profit from rising gas prices.”
“The best places to smooch in the U.S.”
you learn new things everyday. I learn few today after reading your post Dave. I think keeping track of latest search trends also helps a lot to produce new articles in demand. SEO is a trial and error till you succeed.
Great article. I remember when I first started focusing on marketing I studied a lot of Dan Kennedy’s work and fortunetly he is a master at writing headlines and titles and always stresses the importance of it. With the online world it’s even more important because of how short the attention span is for most reader’s.