One of the biggest mistakes some print journalists make in their transition to the Web is to assume that a headline should be preserved across all media. The problem is, headline styles vary wildly across platforms, so using the same headline in print, on a website and on a social network makes about as much sense as putting on a T-shirt and shorts and wearing them on a ’round-the-world trip to New York City, Egypt and Antarctica.
To get the most out of your content, you’ve got to tailor it to whatever platform you’re presenting it on.
A big part of my job is to rewrite print headlines to be more SEO-friendly on the web, so I thought I’d offer a few tips on how to do that.
The biggest thing to remember with Web headlines is that search engines rely a lot on what we call keywords, so you shouldn’t generalize (“local man,” “team,” etc.). If I hear there was a shooting in my neighborhood last night and want to know more about it, I’m not going to Google “local man shot,” I’m going to Google something like “Ballard shooting.” So unlike print, use full names, use proper names, etc.
Much like proper names, locations give more context to your stories (such as in my previous example: Ballard shooting). Offer up a context that’s pertinent to your readership, too. If you write for USA Today, “Seattle man” is probably fine; if you write for the Seattle Times, break it down by neighborhood.
Stack your keywords toward the front of the headline
OK, now that you’ve got keywords down, you should learn to put them more toward the front of your headline. I don’t know what the exact number is, but most search engines put more weight on the first four or five words in a headline. So something like “Late-inning surge results in 10-1 Mariners win” would be better written as “Mariners win 10-1 after late-inning surge.”
Similarly, if you’ve got a “slug” of some sort (is that what it’s called? J-school was a long time ago) attached to your headline—”Police Blotter,” the title of a column, etc.—you should push that toward the end of the headline, behind whatever unique phrase you’ve thought up.
Write for whatever platform or device you’re using
Once you’ve gotten used to rewriting print headlines for your site, you should start giving some thought to rewriting headlines for other platforms:
- On Twitter or Facebook, @ mention people instead of using their real names (that way, they’ll definitely see your link). Also, if necessary, replace events/trends/etc. with their corresponding hashtags.
- On Digg, highlight the unique part of your story (even if it isn’t the most prominent or newsworthy) to set it apart from everything else.
- On Fark, be funny.
- Do all this in moderation.
Change your headlines to find what works
Once you’ve changed a headline, see if you can change it again. For a story with really good content, don’t leave it alone. Keep tweaking things till you find something that really pops.
I’ve mentioned a lot of good, general guidelines, but sometimes a headline works so well that you can pretty much throw the whole toolbox out the window: