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The ability to write stand-out headlines is an art form; it has to explain the story to the reader concisely but it must also hook them in and make them want to carry on reading. It can be a tricky skill to master, particularly online - where the headline is called an H1- as there is so much content to contend with.
So why call it an H1? H1 is the name of the tag given to the largest and most important heading on a page of content within HTML code. If you were writing a blog post, your H1 would be the title, if a news article your H1 would be the headline. Therefore, you want to write it to catch your reader’s eye but also so that search engine bots recognise its purpose, so they can display it in results for appropriate searches. By taking the time to optimise your H1 you might be able to make a difference to how many people see your content and decide to click on it.
As your H1 is so important, you need to put in the work and make it compelling. Unless it’s a news story that writes its own headline (for example, The Sun’s famous front page, ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster,’ - although Starr has always denied this), it’s not enough to state its aim so plainly.
The H1 is the first impression your reader has of your work. It is your opportunity to set your users’ expectations – of both the information they’ll get from the content, and of the quality of your work. If a headline is carefully crafted, your audience may (consciously or subconsciously) assume the same care has been taken throughout the content, and therefore be more likely to read on.
According to advertising guru David Ogilvy:
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
It’s clear then that headlines can make or break the performance of an article or blog, so it’s crucial you give it the best shot you can.
This post provides six simple rules for improving the way you write your H1s, to help ensure the content you have created gets the attention it deserves.
1. Tailor your headline to what you’re trying to achieve
The first point of your headline is to clearly explain to your reader what the aim of your content is and what format it’s going to take. Are you reporting news, or are you going to teach your audience how to do something? Think about why you are creating the content in the first place.
For example, if it’s a news story, the headline must be designed to tell the reader the angle in a quick and concise manner that is also exciting and makes the reader want to read on.
If it’s a guide, you need to explain that to the reader in the H1, for example, ‘How to Write Powerful Headers With Our 6 Need-to-Know Tips’ (see what we did there?).
If it is a profile about something or someone, framing your heading with phrases such as ‘Need to know', 'Who is...?', or 'Factfile' will make this clear.
Once you have the basics in the headline, you can then play around with different words and phrasing to make it sound as enticing as possible.
Take, for example, the news story ‘ UK economy in shock slowdown as ‘strong’ recovery loses steam ’ , from Telegraph.co.uk.
It is designed to inform, telling the reader something they didn’t know. This H1 tells the angle of the story (the ‘strong’ economic recovery has slowed down), and has made it exciting (using the words ‘shock’ and the phrase ‘strong recovery loses steam’). It is also very clear and concise, thereby indicating that it is a news story.
Compare this to The Guardian’s, ‘ UK economy weaker than expected – as it happened ’ .
This article is clearly covering the same story as The Telegraph, but The Guardian has signalled to the reader that this is not a straight news article. By adding, ‘as it happened’, the headline tells the reader that it’s a real-time style article. This demonstrates that including the format of the content within your H1 helps users know what to expect when they click on your heading.
Remember, when tailoring the H1 to your aims, you also need to consider the tone. This will be influenced by the website you are writing for and the format once again. If your article is serious, you need to express that through more formal language. If it’s a blog post, the language tends to be more casual and you can add personality into the content. If you are writing for a specific audience, such as the retail sector, you may be able to add jargon or industry-specific terms into headlines.
2. Solve a problem
The best articles are those that answer the reader’s questions, and so headlines that solve a genuine problem should always strike a chord with the relevant audience. You need to give your reader a good reason to click on your content.
‘How to’ headlines are a great way of easily communicating that your article is going to help the reader to do something.
Listicles, which online news and trends site BuzzFeed has spearheaded, are articles that list a specific number of things within a topic. The H1 signals that it is a listicle by including the exact number. Buzzfeed shows us how to do it with this genuinely useful pre-Christmas shopping guide, ‘27 Ridiculously Cool Gifts You Can Still Buy From Amazon’. Such H1s can be effective because they promise to tell the reader various ways to solve a problem.
Another way of ensuring that you are solving a problem for your reader within your H1 is to use the question that your reader is asking. This will indicate that your article will answer this query. Take Econsultancy’s ‘SEO trends in 2016: What do the experts predict?’, for example. It’s likely to be a key query for many in the sector at the start of the new year. However, be careful not to use a closed question within a headline that can be answered simply with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as it’s too easy for the reader to stop reading there and then as it hasn't peaked their curiosity.
3. State the benefit
What is your reader going to learn from your article? Your headline is designed to sell your story to the reader. It’s important to tell them how it will help them solve a problem, avoid a problem or give them something in return for their attention.
Think about using words such as:
- Need to know
- ‘What you need to know about Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs)’ , Moz.com/blog
- ‘ 11 beginner mistakes that cripple blogs in their first year ’ , Neil Patel’s blog
- ‘ Best web analytics 2.0 tools: quantitative, qualitative, life saving! ’ , Occam’s Razor by Avinash Kaushik
4. Surprise your reader
A great tactic used by newspapers to pull readers in is to include big stats, or shocking or surprising quotes in their headlines. This specificity of information should offer just enough detail to engage the reader and spark their interest but leave them curious for more. Take these headlines for example, ‘ The ASMR videos that give YouTube viewers ‘head orgasms - video’ ’ from TheGuardian, or ‘Cameron promises £40m to fix UK flood defences’, from the FT.
As well as listicles, personalisation is another trick BuzzFeed uses to engage its audience by specifying them within the headline, making it feel like a more tailored piece. For example, ‘ 18 things you’ll only understand if you live in a lazy house ’, by specifying the reader the article is able to sound more informative and has the power to create a strong connection with a particular group of people that it resonates with. It can also increase reader curiosity.
5. Be excited – but honest and descriptive
Your headline must convey a sense of urgency. The tense you write it in is crucial. News headlines use the present and future tense but never the past tense, and for good reason – it’s not exciting if a piece of news has already happened. The reader wants to feel as though this is fresh information and that they are going to learn something new.
Again, think about why you have written the article – you have a juicy piece of information to tell and you want people to read about it. Therefore, you want to do it justice and fill it with energy and action, so use verbs and exciting adjectives to describe your content. Pick the words for your headline carefully and tailor the phrasing so that the combination of words sounds exciting and engaging.
Headlines that make big claims are also eye-catching. For example, ‘ How Reddit’s Ellen Pao survived one of ‘the largest trolling attacks in history ’’ , by The Guardian, or Readwrite’s, ‘ How small changes to Google search can punch your web traffic in the face ’ .
But remember, never make claims that you can’t back up and ensure that your headline reflects your content. Don’t get carried away. You want to draw your reader in but if your header doesn’t reflect your article, the reader will soon realise it isn’t the content they were expecting, and will quickly click away to find an article that answers their question.
This is why click-bait headlines tend to be viewed unfavourably. This is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see. Facebook announced in 2014 that it was updating its newsfeed to weed out click-bait articles based on the amount of time the reader stayed on the article once they had clicked on it. Facebook explained that it recognises click-bait articles, “If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted.”
Bear this in mind when writing your headline.
6. Be technically correct
After all that crafting and honing, you want to ensure that your headline shows up correctly in Google SERPs. If your site is set up so your H1 is automatically the same as your page title, it will be displayed in SERPs. Therefore, when writing your headline, consider the pixel width limit Google puts in place for page titles in its SERPs. If your headline is too long, it won’t display in full.
As a guide, try to keep your headline to a maximum of 65 characters. Alternatively, craft a shortened version of your longer H1 for your page title, or, if you want to use a long headline, ensure that you can grab the user’s attention in those first words so it doesn’t matter if it trails into an ellipsis when displayed in SERPs.
Search engines use the H1 to understand what the content is about, so they know when to serve it up in search results. Because of this, your H1 needs to be SEO optimised. If you’ve followed the rules so far, the subject and purpose of your headline should already be present, making it easy for search engines to recognise your article and display it in front of the correct readers. Don’t artificially add keywords – ‘stuffing’ headlines will likely result in over-optimisation and lower quality assessment.
Instead, ensure that the headline grabs your reader’s attention as soon as possible. Make the first words as exciting and relevant as possible, and the whole headline as active and concise as possible. This will naturally make it pleasing to search engines and users alike.
Here are some more resources that may help you:
Fresh Egg can optimise the content and H1s on your website, get in touch today .