Learning the hard way how to write web content headlines

When I first started writing my theatre blog 11 years ago my headlines were rubbish.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

I was trying to be clever or witty, sometimes using puns or a play on words.

But the more I learned about writing online content, the more I realised my approach was entirely based on what worked in print rather than online.

My experience and background was magazine journalism after all.

An article in a magazine or newspaper has images, graphics, tables, box-outs, subheadings etc. which help grab attention.

And an article in a magazine may already have context.

If someone has picked up a copy of ‘Window Box Weekly’, they are probably interested or at least curious about window boxes.

Try to find your own content

A big test was trying to find my own theatre blog content using Google. I knew I’d reviewed a particular production, but my ‘clever’ headlines meant it wasn’t coming up in searches – certainly not on the first few pages of results.

For example, I saw a play called Grief by Mike Leigh, and the headline of my review was ‘Good Grief?’

See what I did there? It might work if the piece sat in the theatre review section of newspaper or magazine, alongside a production photo and a subhead.

But out of context and with just two words to go on, it didn’t work so well.

Getting savvier about online search

As I started to understand how people find stuff to read online (search engines, social media etc.), I realised my headline style needed to change so that people could find my blog posts.

And know what they were about from the headline.

Out went the clever play on words and in were key search words such as ‘review’ or ‘interview’ which helped define and explain what the piece was about.

If I was searching for a review of the play of Grief, I would most likely use search terms including: ‘Review’, ‘Mike Leigh’, ‘Grief’, ‘play’.

Writing the headline on my Grief review today I might use:

Review: Mike Leigh’s new play Grief, Cottesloe Theatre – good or good grief?

You can write the most brilliant piece of content, but if you don’t include words that will most commonly be used in a Google search, particularly in the headline, then it is much harder for people to find.

No ‘just in case’ clicks

And if your headline does pop up but doesn’t give an idea what your content is about or what to expect people are less likely to click through ‘just in case’.

Take a look at the headlines on your online content – do they include relevant search terms and make sense on their own?

What is great about digital content is that you can tell if your content is being read, if the page has been visited and for how long.

The stats are brutally honest and often not good for the ego but at least it means you can experiment, learn what works and is of interest.

For an article in print, unless you see someone reading it, there are very few ways to tell if it has been seen.

What has been your best headline?

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