Writing great Web headlines

If you aren’t already reading any of Jakob Nielsen’s work about online writing, you should start.  Just recently he published his pick for the news organization with the best Web headlines. And the winner is….the BBC.

According to Nielsen, good headlines should have these characteristics:

  • short (because people don’t read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

In speaking about the BBC’s work in particular, Nielsen provided a list of strong headlines from the site and  noted “the average headline consumed a mere 5 words and 34 characters. The amount of meaning they squeezed into this brief space is incredible.”

Each headline conveys the gist of the story on its own, without requiring you to click. Even better, each gives you a very good idea of what you’ll get if you do click and lets you judge — with a high degree of confidence — whether you’ll be interested in the full article.

So, who needs to know all this?  Anybody who wants people to see their work.  As individual journalists become more and more responsible for the presentation of their own work online, it’s going to become increasingly important that they know and understand how headlines drive traffic and how to write the most effective headlines possible.


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