Headlines can propel content to stardom or kill it at birth.
- hiding the meat
- repeating formulas
are just some of the most common headline mistakes even professional publishers make.
I’d like to explain why each of them is actually disadvantageous and whatalternative techniques could be implemented.
As you probably know I’m frequently blogging on behalf of clients. I pitch several blogs each month with 12 or more headline ideas. Ahrefs usually reserves four of them. I start writing and submit the post to the editors based on the headline that has been agreed upon for weeks.
On Ahrefs we tend to agree on the headline ideas quickly and the numbers have been on our side thus far. Nonetheless sometimes editors of other blogs decide to alter the headlines in the last minute to adapt them to the actual article for example, or for them to fit in with the overall strategy of the publication.
Sometimes the headlines get optimized just for Google. These editors and publishers have years of experience. It is, therefore, not easy to convince them that the headline I chose was perfect the way it was. I’ve blogged for over a decade and before that I had been a freelance journalist so I’m not easy to convince either. Especially as I witness the same mistakes made by these professionals over and over.
It’s really hard to optimize for all the audiences you need to optimize for:
- you have to “wow” the social media audience
- you have to provide the search audience with the keywords they will search for
- your returning audience who read your blog regularly and do expect something new that is elaborating on past articles ideally
As a result, my headlines are a well-balanced compromise of those three in the best case. Sometimes they cater to just two or even one audience and neglect the other one/s on purpose.
In any case every word in a given headline is significant. Replacing it or adding more words is a huge change that can break the original headline and distort the message of the article completely. I see it elsewhere too. Both blogger and publishers make the same mistakes I know from my own experience with editors and publishers. Of course, I learned myself the hard way, too. Years of trial and error led me to believe that I know what’s working currently.
One of the most obvious mistakes I’ve seen again and again is summarizing in headlines. A headline is a promise. It’s a teaser. It’s trying to convince you that you need to read the article in order to get the message. In case you decide to put the whole message into the headline, why should someone feel the need to read your article? That’s like giving away the movie outcome in the teaser video.
The only reason to give away the outcome beforehand is when your artwork is epic (not dramatic).
The epic form of writing is about giving away the outcome in order to explain the path how the protagonist got there. You know that that hero died in the end but you wonder why. In all other cases you don’t know whether there will be a happy ending or not and thus your curiosity is stirred up and growing as the story goes.
Just compare these headlines:
- This Man Got Cancer, then he Died [summarizing]
- This Man Got Cancer and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next [dramatic]
- This Man Got Cancer and Died 50 Years Later [epic]
In the first case there is nothing to read it seems. A man got terminally ill and as expected he died.
In the second case the patient got cancer too but the outcome is left in the open. The headline even suggests that it’s an astounding or downright unbelievable outcome. Naturally we get curious and want to know what happened. What might be different from what we expect (that he will die of cancer)?
In the third case the man died too but 50 years later so apparently he either got cured or he was able to live with a tumor. We know the outcome that he died eventually but we wonder how he managed to stay alive for so long despite his illness. All three headlines could be used for the same story of an atypical cancer patient!
Hiding the Meat
I have to confess, I’m an aspiring vegetarian. What does that mean? One day I will overcome my meat addiction. Until then I eat more vegetables and less meat for the time being. When I don’t see meat, I rarely have appetite for it. When it’s on the plate and smells tasty, I’ll eat it. Despite or because of that I will use the meat metaphor in a way everybody understands it. Hiding the meat may work when it comes to eating habits but not for writing. When you hide the meat in a headline, the potential readers will skip your article and get the meat elsewhere.
What do I mean by hiding the meat? Let me show you an example headline:
- Four Types of Impressive How to Content
It’s almost a real life example, just slightly adapted so that it doesn’t look too rare. Now what’s the problem here? Just count the words. It takes all the 7 words for you to know what the article is dealing with in the first place. To make it clearer, let’s take a look at the representation of this headline as the reader’s brain perceives it:
You might argue that nobody cares for the word order as long as there is a juicy keyword in it. Here’s it’s “content”. Sadly usability studies have shown that the average person just skim the first 6 words of a headline before making the decision to read on or not. Thus you need to provide some meat early on. I love the “colon” solution:
- How to Content: The Four Types that Impress Most
Do you notice the changes? Despite all the fluff I made, the headline was enticing enough to get more people to read the post actually. On a side note: the second version will work far better in search too because the relevant keyphrase is upfront. I also removed the biased adjective “impressive” and replaced it with a much stronger and truthful verb “that impress”.
How many ultimate guides have you read in recent years? I have seen many. I’ve ignored most of late because they tend to over-promise and in many cases mistake quantity for quality. There are at least two pitfalls with the “ultimate guide” headline formula (even I have advised to use in the past): not meeting the expectations and meeting the expectations with such an amount of information that you might overwhelm potential readers. Besides, the original meaning of ultimate is the last one. Is this guide really the last one on the topic? Probably not. So you can’t successfully keep the promise.
I have over-promised in many less severe cases in the past too. “The Best [Insert Your Topic Here] Blogs”, “The Top 10 [Insert Your Topic Here] Tools” are typical headline formulas probably every second blogger has used by now. After a few years of blogging, I realized that I would lie to my readers if I use my own judgement to tell them something is the “best”. There is no objective way of determining what the best is. What’s best for me may be under-performing for you and vice versa.
Readers have become smarter over the years.
When someone claims to be the best-seo-company-india.biz, they probably won’t accept that claim as truthful. Similarly, headlines are treated with even ever increasing grain of salt. That’s the reason I have chosen to become more modest and more truthful over the years. I’d rather blog about “Some of The Best [Insert Your Topic Here] Blogs to Subscribe” and admit that I can’t really figure out any of them as better than those best blogs. At the same time I may still rank on Google with such a headline because it has best [x] blog in it too.
Over the years there have been literally hundreds or even thousands of posts that offered us “proven headline formulas” for social media, landing pages, massive traffic, etc. In the early years of my SEO 2.0 blog, I have been advocating a lot of such formulas myself. Once they became mainstream and everybody started using them, readers got tired of the same old boring headlines though. You’ll find top 10 this, top 10 that everywhere. Even very specific headline formulas like the above mentioned “ultimate guide” became so wide-spread that people started overlooking them.
Publishers are still clinging to the recent past of the proven headline formulas. They have seen the proof, maybe even proven themselves that it worked. However, when there’re 1000 similar articles later, the formulas might not work as desired anymore despite all that proof from three years ago.
Even A/B testing results can be misleading.
Why? Well, just think more about it: 50 clicked the “Leading Design Blogs to Subscribe to” while 100 clicked the “Top 10 Design Blogs” headline. Based on these numbers can you really tell whether these people actually believed what they read? Can you distinguish whether web-savvy users clicked them (probably not) or just newbies who didn’t know which one would be better? Can the A/B test show you how much trust your blog has lost because of missing at least three design blogs that would deserve to be listed in a top 10?