The importance of good titles and headlines

One of the aspects of writing online that I am constantly surprised so few people pay attention to is the critical importance of writing good headlines, good titles that help readers identify the topic of the piece and whether it’s something they should read or not. There’s a secondary benefit too for those of you savvy about search engines, but even without that, I wanted to just write briefly about the critical importance of good titles.

At its most basic, a headline is intended to draw you into the subject, to highlight whatever it is you’re saying and give people a very, very brief synopsis of the content of the article.

The title to this blog entry, for example, wasn’t “don’t be witty” or “good titles = good” or “brevity is not your friend” or even “blog entry for Thursday”, was it? By my writing The importance of good titles and headlines you knew immediately what I was going to talk about, you were given a promise, in essence, that it’s now my task to deliver. If you weren’t interested in headlines, you knew you could safely skip it too, an added benefit.

This subject came to me as I read through the 200-odd RSS feeds that I consume daily through Feedly. Here’s a snapshot of what I see in the mix:

rss title examples

Let’s start by picking apart a classic grammatical mistake…

Grammar? Yes, grammar.

This gaffe shows up on the otherwise terrific Marriott on the Move blog written by company leader Bill Marriott. The title? Courtyard by Marriott Opens its 800th Hotel in Shanghai, China.
This is a really good title, actually, telling you exactly what’s going on. Except it really desperately needs a comma because I’m pretty sure that there aren’t actually 800 Courtyard by Marriott hotels in Shanghai. Instead: “Courtyard by Marriott Opens its 800th Hotel, in Shanghai, China”

Picky? Yeah, probably. But you need to pay attention because your blog title is going to be out there forever.

What If You’re Recommended?

The next title I want to pick on is Fan-Shaped view of what opened what. What the heck does that mean? Knowing it’s from Liz Blankenship’s engaging TabViz blog, where she’s talking about the design and implementation of tabs in user interfaces (how’s that for a narrow topic?), gives us a context, but I suggest that instead the title itself should give us more information. How about “Tabs as visual cues: fan-shaped view of what opened what” as a way to tie the title to the blog topic?

There’s an interesting secondary issue with this blog title too, because I don’t subscribe to Liz’s weblog. This showed up in my reader because my friend Andy Edmonds had recommended it. Titles therefore cannot be written assuming the reader has a known context: until I dug further into the blog I’d never seen her weblog before.

To spin this another way, how much attention do you pay to the serendipitous discovery of your content by people who aren’t already subscribers or fans?

Brevity? No thanks.

Now I do read, and greatly enjoy Brad Feld’s Feld Thoughts weblog, but his latest entry Making the Rounds is not a good example of a functional title. What rounds? Where? What’s the metaphor he’s tapping here, an intern at a hospital?

The first sentence in his blog entry tells the story, actually: “I’ve been spending more time talking in public recently.” I suggest that a much better title for the article itself might have been “Spending more time talking in public…” or even “Speaking, speaking, speaking” if brevity and wit are also desired.
If you have an international audience, also be careful of your metaphors. A classic Americanism, for example, is to use a baseball or football metaphor like “make a touchdown” or “hit a home run” and then be surprised when your overseas audience has absolutely no idea what the heck you’re talking about!

Technology Can Prove a Barrier

BusinessWeek’s Amy Choi has a delightful example of how brevity – and technology – can be your worst enemy. On the Small Biz blog, her latest entry comes up in my RSS reader as What I Learned in the Trenches.

To understand why this is a problem, check out this screenshot of exactly how it appears in “expanded” view in my reader:

rss title what i learned

It’s not until you click through to the story itself that you get the subtitle “Veterans-turned-entrepreneurs offer advice”. Suddenly there’s a context and it sounds like a very interesting story to boot! Military veterans who have become entrepreneurs and the advice they offer up to the rest of us small business owners? Well worth reading.

Why, though, isn’t that part of the title of the piece? Without taking the time to click through, I’d never have had a clue about what “trench” Amy was talking about and why I’d care.

When you’re creating titles, remember that your reader is busy and overwhelmed by information sources so you do need to put in the extra effort to create something both informative and engaging.

Good Titles Convey Key Information

Even über-blogger Robert Scoble isn’t immune from pedestrian titles. His latest blog post is entitled Keeping Kids Online Safe. Read the piece itself, however, and you find out it’s really about “How Symantec aims to help keep kids online safe” (or, more grammatically correct, “help keep kids safe online”).

Again, there’s the sense that you can omit some critical information in the title because you just know people are going to click through and read the article. But what if they don’t?

Since Robert spends a lot of time writing about startups, knowing that a major corporation like Symantec is getting into this space is more interesting than the generic headline “keeping kids online safe”, which could go in any of a hundred different directions.

Search Engine Optimization Is Your Friend?

Notice in this entire discussion I haven’t said a word about SEO. For many people who are hip to the online world, ensuring that you have a good keyword or two in your title is of utmost importance. Ironically perhaps, it’s also a smart way to ensure that you end up with a good title for humans too.

Think about it: the titles that haven’t worked are those that lack a specific noun or subject. This also means that they lack a keyword or key phrase. Instead, focus on the single most important concept, idea, product, vendor or topic in your blog entry or article and then ensure that appears in the title too and you’ll be well on your way to creating good titles.

Final Thoughts

A few more quick thoughts: how long should a good title be? Well, not too long but not too short. “good titles” is not as good, for example, as “how to create good titles”, which can still be improved with “how to create good article and blog titles”. Get to “Everything you need to know about how to create good article and blog titles for both human readers and search engines (SEO)” and it’s probably grown beyond a reasonable length. 🙂

I won’t say I’m the end-all expert on titles and headlines, but I hope these give you some things to contemplate next time you’re working on crafting the perfect title for your blog entry or online article.

6 comments on “The importance of good titles and headlines

  1. Interesting topic.
    Personally, I use a mix of tactics. If I am writing about a topic that I hope to have rank well in search engines, then I ensure the title includes appropriate key words that it will be clear to Googlers what it is about.
    However, sometimes I know a post isn’t going to be a blockbuster hit and it is intended more for my regular readers. In those cases, I may choose a clever or punchy title even if it doesn’t reflect the contents 100%.
    In some cases, my titles are intended to make people mad enough to click on them, only to calm them down with the contents of the post.
    With regards to the “Keeping Kids Online Safe” (agreed that it should be “safe online”), if Scoble is looking for search engine traffic that might be a better title than something about Symantec because it suggests that the post is broader than just pushing/reviewing the solution of one company (which I might avoid clicking on if I was looking for more objective/well-rounded info on keeping my kids safe).

  2. Keeping kids safe on-line is a parent’s job. Software filters can be helpful but should not be regarded as a substitute for knowing what is going on…and limiting same.

  3. Nice article. Any recommendations for the best way to capitalize letters of some word in your title ?
    Have a good day,

  4. Scott, interesting comment in as much as it demonstrates the unintended consequences of any sort of title you create: misinterpretation of intent.
    Michel, I suggest you check Google as there are a lot of resources about capitalization. For example, NASA has a useful page here:
    Look in particular at section 4.3 in that document.

  5. Dave – you are completely correct. “Making the Rounds” was a crummy title. It’s fascinating to see it in Google Reader and see how bad the title is and how good the first sentence is. Oh well, there will always be another blog post.

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