Too many bloggers treat their blog titles like an afterthought. Either they get lazy and offer an unappealing slug or they get too clever by half and try to implement “best practice” titling to encourage eyeballs. Not many provide titles that fairly snapshot the article’s content while providing a non-gimmicky invitation to readers.
A few months ago I read a blog post by a self-identified blogging/SEO “guru” (his term, not mine) who professed to offer tried-and-true tips for writing a killer post title sure to drive up site traffic. I looked at his suggestions and stepped away underwhelmed, but every now and then the subject flittered about the edges of my mind.
Were I to offer unsolicited advice on the subject, I’d merely say this: Compose titles that won’t turn off your most jaded readers. Skip the enigmatic hints and numbers and just provide a coherent synopsis of the article’s content.
I subscribe to almost 100 different RSS feeds across a dozen content areas. I actually read all the headlines every evening — I grab my TouchPad, a cigar and a glass of port then spend 60 to 90 minutes each night reading. To keep a loyal reader base, blog writers should pay attention to the RSS subscribers and not to the occasional Twitter hits. A funky title might draw an errant Twitter follower into reading a post, but eyeballs and loyalty come from folks to routinely read your RSS feeds or visit your site directly. For organic search, titles structured similarly to natural-language queries help capture the long tail provided they’re specific — and remember, searchers don’t query for the gimmick, they query for the subject.
Several feeds I follow have really tried to nail the conventional wisdom about best-practice article titling. The best example of this comes from Inc. Magazine’s online feed. The article titles are a veritable paradise of carefully curated titles that, when viewed in the aggregate by a cynical chap, strips the entire feed (and hence, Inc. Magazine) of its credibility.
You’ll see titles like this (pulled on the morning of April 15 from Inc.’s site):
- 3 Sales Mistakes to Avoid
- Secrets of the Most Productive People I Know
- Save a Struggling Business: 8 Tips
- 5 Tips for Managing Millennials
- 5 Reasons You Should Be on Twitter
- LinkedIn Will Outlive Facebook: Here’s Why
- The Worst Kind of Question You Can Ask
- Why Haven’t You Started Your Business Yet?
- There Are Only Two Kinds of Problems
I’m not picking on Inc. Magazine; many business- and tech-related online content follows this paradigm, and overall Inc. does a good job of tending to the needs of its market. The argument for using titles like this relates to some assertions from self-proclaimed experts claiming that different types of titles are more likely than others to encourage click-throughs. ProBlogger, for example, argues that posts should “create controversy or debate” or “ask a question” and “use keywords” (among other suggestions). Hubspot says titles should be “intriguing.” Blogger Nick Simard provides 11 reasons to use numbers in blog titles.
The problem with this advice is twofold. First, if most bloggers follow this advice, then the value of a headline as a market hook falls to nil — if everyone does it, then it’s not exactly a differentiator. Second, readers savvy to the paradigm see these for what they are: paint-by-numbers titles that almost always point to pedestrian content behind the link. After all, superior writers don’t need to follow a formula for titling content. Cynicism grows.
This cynicism is the killer. Some — maybe most — readers will bite at the hooks. Good for them. But there’s a segment of reader, perhaps more experienced in the subject or less forgiving of standard marketing pitches, who will be turned off. If you’re willing to risk the market of the smart-but-cynical crowd, then by all means paint your titles by the numbers.
In fairness, I did try to implement some of these generally accepted industry tips over the last few months, as a deliberate experiment to see if my traffic patterns changed. They didn’t. My experience is merely my experience, but it highlights the challenge of producing compelling content in the new-media ecosystem: Given enough time, a “best practice” championed by pros early in the innovation cycle becomes the mark of an me-too amateur as the cycle transitions into the maintenance phase.
My suggestions for crafting compelling headlines:
- Make sure the title provides a clear understanding of what’s in the article. Don’t be so cryptic that the reader has no context about what you’re actually writing about. An example from Inc.: “The Worst Kind of Question You Can Ask.” About what? In the workplace? On an airliner? While ordering at Burger King? I’d imagine that asking your wife if she has a bestiality fetish probably ranks as the worst, but since the article writer didn’t spare the words to at least localize his article to a subject area, we have no clue. And with no clue, there’s no interest in reading the content.
- Since everyone knows that these articles will typically run 500 to 1,000 words, you don’t have a lot of room for complex argumentation. Therefore, sweeping, controversial claims (e.g., “LinkedIn Will Outlive Facebook: Here’s Why”) are laughably absurd. No one knows what the future holds, and a short essay isn’t nearly enough space to fully address the subject. This kind of title feels bombastic, like the writer is so eager to be perceived as an expert that he’ll say anything no matter how divorced from common sense it may be. Or worse, how breathlessly he tries to relate trite ideas as if they were some new, penetrating insight. Skip the “masters thesis” titles.
- Choose keywords with care. Obviously, organic search matters (which is why the non-substantive titles are so mystifying) but prudence suggests avoiding non-salient keywords that may be overused or eventually penalized by Our Benevolent Overlords in Mountain View. Bonus points if you banish the following terms from your titles: Tips, secrets, hints, why, how to, [#] ways, strategies, reasons, lists, I.
- Avoid using numbers in your headline — titles with numbers, far and away, generally contain generic, derivative or substandard content. In fact, a title with an embedded number (e.g., “5 Tips for Managing Millennials”) is almost like a tell in poker: Odds are good that the writer is bluffing about having useful information to impart. It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve read an article with numbers in the title that provided a fresh perspective; usually, it’s just regurgitated content scraped from other sources. Often without the courtesy of attribution.
Writing headlines is an art. Current trends in online titling suggest that the art is trending regrettably Impressionistic. Nevertheless, it’s possible to craft compelling titles by providing a good summary of your content and avoiding gimmicks.
And who knows? You might just get the cynics among us to actually read your content.