10 Forces That Shape Headline Writing

I remembered a great quote from an old colleague of mine: "The web is the only medium in which you must create content which impresses machines." This is especially true for headlines, and, increasingly, not only blog headlines. With online versions of traditional newspapers adding Digg Me buttons and incorporating automated contextual advertising and other technological novelties, the fine art of headline writing is under more and tighter constraints then ever before. Why and for what purpose are headlines written today?

  1. For others to read the article. That's what headlines and titles (there's a difference: headlines have verbs in them) have been invented for, after all: to attract readers' attention to the content under them. A corollary: it also needs to attract readers' attention when it is found out of its original context, for example, on someone else's site.
  2. For others to notice it in the RSS reader (this was a topic of a separate post on RSS usability last year).
  3. For the author to like it. This is straightforward: you wouldn't slap a subjectively ugly headline on your article (although in newspapers, copy editors often do) because you will be the one staring at it before anyone else sees it. And long after that, too.
  4. For the author to find it. How do you link back to your old posts relevant to the subject at hand? I use my own search box, and I got into the habit of using keywords that I'm likely to remember months or even years down the road.
  5. For others to find it. This is the non-profit SEO part where you write you headline so that it comes up for a search on the topic the article is about and helps someone out. This means two things: the article needs to be in the top search results, and the headline needs to prompt the click.
  6. For others to find it, for a different reason. In the for-profit world of SEO, you'll write your headline so that it drives people who search for something that your site in general (but not necessarily each particular post) is promoting. The real trick here is to make the headline keyword-rich without it sounding artificial.
  7. For others to find it again, in their own information universe. It is terribly difficult to locate something you've bookmarked on del.icio.us when your bookmark count is in the thousands unless you know (or, importantly, you think you know) what the title was (Tags, while invented for a good purpose, are a mess).
  8. For the AdSense funnel, where the searcher clicks on your link in the search engine, arrives at your blog, looks around, and then bounces off through a well-targeted AdSense ad that is closer to what he's been searching for in the first place.
  9. For AdSense robots to display the right ads. I don't really know how much weight is assigned by the AdSense and other contextual ad algorithms to headlines, but it has to be significant since post titles are also page titles.
  10. To influence social forces on Digg and other similar content microcosms. There are plenty of guides on writing Diggable headlines out there.

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