How to Write Great Headlines for the Web

3 Steps to Creating Effective Headlines for the Web

A reporter typing headlines
••• Photo © Christopher Robbins / Getty Images

Think of writing headlines and you immediately think of print media. But writing great headlines for the web is much different than writing one for your local newspaper.

A newspaper writer can simply insert "Smith Wins!" in large, bold font for a headline the day after an election. Writing an attention-grabbing headline for a website takes more planning and usually more than two words.

1. Focus on Descriptive Words and Phrases

Because of the nature of the web, "Smith Wins!" doesn't go far enough to tell users about the story. Who is Smith? Did he or she win a marathon, a lottery or the Republican primary for U.S. Senate? You've probably learned that short headlines grab more attention than longer ones, but for the web, short headlines can undersell your story and cost you clickthroughs.

"Roxanne Smith Wins Bitter Republican Primary Struggle for U.S. Senate" is a headline that is more descriptive and is more likely to be clicked. Keep in mind that if your headline isn't necessarily connected with a photograph or is transmitted automatically to social networking sites, you need to write something that can stand on its own.

2. Use Search Engine Optimization When Writing Headlines

Search engine optimization is another reason to write a longer headline than "Smith Wins." Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines use your keyword phrase to help readers find your story.

When writing headlines for the web, your goal should always be to have your story show up on the first page of a search engine's results. There are many factors in succeeding, but writing a headline that contains keywords for your story is a start.

"Roxanne Smith," "Republican Primary" and "U.S. Senate" are all terms that a search engine will notice and remember. Those are also words that a search engine user will likely type in a search box. Put the two together and your story on the election will attract more readers.

3. Draw the User Into the Story

We've all seen headlines that inform us but do not entice us to click through to read the story. If you're a website writer, that's a lost opportunity to build your stats. If I'm a reader and all I want to know is who won the race, "Smith Wins" answered my question. Unless I want details on the vote count, I will likely move on.

But by adding the words "Bitter" and "Struggle" to your headline, you will pique users' interests beyond the election night victory to get them to click through to the story. In some forms of media, this is called tease writing—you are teasing the user into wanting more information.

In this case, you did it by adding two words to a static headline. Why was the race a bitter struggle? You are forcing users to click through to find out.

Writing effective headlines for the web takes some thought. But with just a little practice, you can boost your site stats by building straightforward, yet compelling headlines that sell your story to the search engines and to your readers.