They are one of the most important things about our content, yet they are also one of the most overlooked. A headline is what grabs your audience’s attention and tells then what they are actually going to be looking at.
This means that your headline had better be good.
There is actually a strong link between science and headlines. Tapping into this link can help you to create more appealing and more effective headlines. This can be a major boon to your site.
People often don’t bother with good headlines, because they think that their content speaks for itself. After all, the content is going to be the same regardless of whether the headline is any good or not.
Good content does speak for itself – but the problem is that no one will read it.
Most of the time, people don’t stumble across your content and start reading. Instead, they find your result in the search engine or find a message in social media.
So, someone might do a search, and end up with a list of results like this:
It isn’t the content that determines what people will click on, it’s the positioning and what people can see.
Most of the time, people will preferentially visit sites higher up in the list, but a good headline can shift this balance.
Personally, I would click on the third option:
The phrasing of the headline interests me, as is the use of “The FDA says yes” because the FDA doesn’t normally support weight loss pills. That is enough to get me curious and to get me to read the article.
That’s probably not the same for everyone, but it’s an illustration of how headlines can affect the decision-making process.
Overall, that particular headline has a good hook and will probably get traffic because of that.
Good Headline Approaches
A good headline is hard to define but easy to notice. Good headlines are the ones that make you think twice and make you want to see what lies behind them.
However, figuring out exactly how to write a good (or great) headline can be difficult. There are simply so many different things to take into account that it can be hard to even know where to start.
Thankfully, there are many people out there who have been writing headlines for many years, so it is becoming easier to work out exactly what works and what doesn’t.
So, without further ado, here are some of the best approaches for writing a good, or even a great, headline.
You don’t need to use all of these approaches, and certainly not all in the same headline, but just being aware of them can help you to make stronger headlines.
Questions in Headlines
Questions are a major psychological area. They force people to stop and think, and they often make people curious about the answer to the question.
So, a headline like:
Common Mistakes in Grammar and Spelling
Is probably not going to be as effective as something like:
Do You Make These Common Grammar and Spelling Mistakes?
However, you need to look for questions that don’t have easy answers. If you ask something like:
Do You Hate Cabbage?
You automatically lose any potential viewers who answered no.
In fact, yes/no questions are not normally a good idea in headlines, because you risk losing much of your audience.
You should only really use yes/no questions if you don’t mind excluding a group of people or if you are certain that the audience you want isn’t going to say no to the question. However, there are still many cases where this does apply.
In fact, phrasing a headline as a question has the ability to dramatically increase the clickthrough rate.
Putting Problems in Headlines
One specific approach to headlines is to use problems as part of your headline. This is even more effective if you include problems as part of a question.
Everyone has problems. Talking about problems in your headline allows you to connect with your audience, particularly the ones that have the problem you are talking about.
In fact, a lot of people use the internet to try to find solutions to problems to start off with, so this makes the approach doubly effective.
Presenting problems in your headline works much better than presenting solutions and this is another example of the link between science and headlines,
When people see problems, it’s easy to identify when it applies to them.
However, when they see a problem, people start to look at whether that solution applies to them. For example, if I was writing an article about the Paleo diet for weight loss I could talk about the problem (being overweight) or about the solution (Paleo).
There are a lot of people out there who want to lose weight.
But many of them will automatically assume that Paleo isn’t for them without listening to anything you have to say. Those people will ignore the solution-based headline but not the problem-based one – even if they both lead to the same article.
Using Negative Words in Headlines
This is an interesting one.
When writing headlines, people often use positive or negative words and phrases to describe things. This could be words like, ‘best’ ‘always’ ‘cheapest’ or it could be more negative words like ‘avoid’ ‘never’ or ‘don’t’.
Audiences actually respond to these words differently.
In particular, the negative words promote more audience engagement and get more people onto the site.
Why this occurs isn’t exactly clear.
However, one reason is that people may feel that titles using negative words are somehow more honest or less likely to be selling them something (which isn’t actually true).
Another reason is that negatives tend to make people feel like they are doing something wrong, and most want to stop this if they can.
In fact, this can be taken to the extreme, where more aggressive and negative words can increase interaction and click-through rates significantly. This includes words like death and fear.
This might be because those words are so uncommon, which also makes them really surprising.
Interestingly, this is even true when you consider more extreme words, like death, kill and murder. All of these words have very negative connotations, but they tend to be very shareable. For example, the following phrase has been bouncing around for a while now:
Is SEO Dead?
The aggressive nature of these words means that they won’t work well for all content or for all sites. However, they can be useful and shareable terms.
Surprising Your Audience
A good headline is one that catches your audience’s attention. Surprise is a good way of doing this.
Humans love new ideas and something unexpected is a sure-fire way to get people interested.
One way of focusing on surprise in headlines is to look at what people in your industry are doing and try to do something different. After all, people searching for a topic are going to run into your competitors.
Not only does surprise grab people’s attention, but it also makes them feel good. Getting people to your site when they are in that mood is a great thing.
Making Them Curious
In a headline, curiosity is what gives people a reason to click onto your page.
This often involves providing some information in the headline, but not all of it. This works particularly well when there is something unusual or surprising about the headline, because that makes people want to find out the answer.
However, you can even use curiosity in a headline when there is nothing unusual about your post – it takes a bit more creativity.
Either way, one of the key aspects is to emphasize what makes your post different than other ones out there, or different than what people are expecting.
For example, a headline like this gives barely indication of what the post is about:
This can make people curious very easily. However, it is important that you follow through with good and relevant content, otherwise, you will end up annoying your audience rather than making your post popular.
In contrast, the following headline provides more information about the content, but it still leaves the audience curious about what exactly is involved in the post.
Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that you have to be honest with your headline. That is one of the key aspects of science and headlines because people react very badly when they are being misled (or feel like they are).
Curiosity is actually one of the most interesting links between science and headlines.
Professor George Lowenstein used the term curiosity gap to describe the gap that exists between what people know and what they would like to know. This gap results in a mental ‘itch’ to fill that void, which drives people to click on posts that pique their curiosity.
It’s an interesting phenomenon because it means that people will often visit pages simply to resolve the gap, without any real interest in the content.
This can also be problematic as it means that some of the visitors to the page aren’t actually interested in what you have to say and may leave once they have found resolution to that single instance of curiosity.
This still means that making people curious is still valid as a part of a headline, but it is an approach that you have to use carefully.
Using Numbers in Headlines
Numbers are actually a fantastic tool in headlines.
This is partly why you see so many posts that use approaches like “10 reasons to” or “Best 5 ways to”. In fact, list posts often work particularly well, partly because readers have a clear idea of what to expect before they ever click on the post.
When you are using numbers, it is almost always better to use the digit rather than the word. So, “Best five ways to” doesn’t look as good as “Best 5 ways to”. Additionally, using digits tends to save you space, which is an advantage on its own.
It’s also a good idea to put the number at the start of the sentence when you can.
This helps to draw attention to the number, making it more effective overall.
Numbers in a headline suggests a list and lists are actually fantastic types of content that can be very engaging and tend to result in popular articles.
The official term for this type of article is actually a listicle, as strange as that might seem. A listicle is actually a form of content that uses a list-like structure but tend to include much more information than a simple list.
People visit websites because they want to learn new information. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother browsing the web to start off with.
Most content teaches or provides information to a degree, but this is rarely reflected in the headline.
Terms like “Introduction to”, “Easy Steps to”, “Beginners Guide” and “Learn to” are all ways of promoting the way that your post teaches people.
It is also a good idea to be specific in your post. Saying you are providing a five-minute guide or an in-depth review gives people much more of an idea about what to expect and this makes it more likely that they will actually click on the post.
Commonly, people use the term “How to” in headlines where they are teaching people.
At face value, this sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it doesn’t work that well.
“How to” is actually an incredibly common phrase, and it doesn’t tell the reader anything about what is in the article.
Additionally, there are so many “How to” articles already out there that adding one more to the mix doesn’t really have all that much impact.
Think about taking a “How to” title and rephrase it, such as focusing on your content as a guide or detailed directions. By increasing your specificity, you can dramatically increase the effectiveness of your headline – without changing a thing about your post.
In a headline, you really can claim just about anything.
You can make your claims as big or as bold as you like, but the trick is to back those claims up with your post.
Don’t claim that something is the best ever, if it is just the same as everything else.
Don’t call something revolutionary if it is something that has been done before.
However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make big claims.
Big, bold claims are fantastic tools for drawing in traffic – just make sure you actually back them up.
Words like best, new, fantastic and epic all have their place in headlines and they can really make a difference in your popularity. You don’t literally have to be the best at anything to use the word best, but you do want to make sure what you apply the word to is pretty good.
Otherwise, you may find that you get the complete opposite impact.
The concept of viral articles or viral headlines is a popular one – and with good reason.
A viral post is one that dramatically explodes in popularity, often by being shared across social media.
When a post goes viral it can drive a large amount of traffic to the website in question, often resulting in significant increases in profit.
Getting a post to go viral is highly desirable, but it is also very difficult to do. There are a huge number of factors that play a role in virility, and many of these cannot be predicted. This includes things like:
- Audience engagement
- Ability to be shared
However, there is still some information that we can find about creating viral posts – such as the headlines that these posts use.
Another important thing about viral headlines is the length. Viral headlines are frequently long, often averaging around 60 or so characters.
The length makes it easier for the author to create a compelling headline and it means that the headline actually has some information about what the post is about. While short headlines tend to be snappy and easily read, longer ones are almost always more detail focused.
Most people steer away from very long headlines because Google will cut off the end.
However, a post becomes viral through social media, not through Google, and social media doesn’t cut a headline down. So, if a long headline has the impact that you are looking for, stick with it, regardless of what Google will do to it.
For a viral headline, emotion plays a role. Don’t be afraid to let your human side show, and emotion will often call to a reader in a way that logic simply cannot.
For example, there are far too many people who write headlines in a strictly accurate way, like something you would read in a textbook or in a company memo.
Seriously, not a good idea.
People don’t like companies most of the time and they don’t go online to read something formal.
Interacting with your audience involves connecting to them as a human and the language you use plays a large role in this. This includes things like using slang, using casual language and using common phrases.
This also means that some words work very well in headlines because they inspire emotion. Words like hack, huge, science, critical or smart all have significant connotations and they make your readers think of very specific things.
This can work to your advantage – but only if your article actually aligns to the emotions that you are inspiring.
People respond instinctually to their emotions and this is a powerful tool that you should take advantage of.
If possible, take advantage of current events for your headlines and for your content.
This doesn’t work so well if you are developing content ahead of time, but often current events are very topical and very interesting to readers.
Finding a balance between curiosity and information is also important. You don’t want your headline to tell people everything there is to know about your content, but at the same time, you don’t want the headline to mislead them.
Ideally, this means that a headline should provide some of the information about a given topic, but not all of it.
Finally, using a discreet call to action can be very effective in a headline. This can include approaches like telling your audience to see something. However, the trick here is not to be bossy. If you start trying to command your audience, they will probably do the opposite of what you want.
Words and their Associations
The words that you use in your headline are significant and they will often have more of an impact than you realize. In many cases, the specific words you choose can be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful headline, even if the meaning is the same in both cases.
One important pair of words in these headlines is you and your.
Why is this important? Partly because it puts the focus back on the reader.
Anyone reading a post online does so because there is something that interests them. When you incorporate this into your headline, you have a much better chance of grabbing the attention of your audience.
In general, any content should be focused on your reader and this makes the term you so important in content and in headlines.
This emphasis helps to increase how connected the reader feels to your content and it also makes the content seem more relevant to them.
Another word is this.
It’s a bit of an odd one, but this indicates specificity. For example, you might say “this man” or “this dog”, which means much more than “a man” or “a dog”. As I mentioned before, being specific is a very good thing in headlines and people find it much more desirable.
Which, when, what and why are all words that play an important role in headlines.
In particular, these are all words that indicate a question.
As I mentioned before, questions are a really powerful tool in headlines and they engage your audience well.
Words aren’t the only thing with power, some phrases are also highly significant.
One such phrase is the most. This phrase suggests a level of authority. Additionally, it can put some visitors in an argumentative frame of mind, as they may want to challenge whether the phrase is accurate.
Although it might not seem like it, putting your visitors in an argumentative frame of mind is a good thing because they have to read your content before they can form an argument against it.
Some other phrases include what happens when, this is interesting and this is what.
All of these phrases suggest a level of discovery, something that tends to make your audience interested and curious.
Types of words are also relevant.
For example, the using verbs and adverbs instead of adjectives and nouns is particularly useful in titles. This helps titles to seem more active and more engaging.
For example, you might choose to use reduce instead of lower when talking about decreasing blood pressure.
No matter what tricks or techniques you use, some headlines will just perform better than other.
This might be because you got the timing just right on a headline, it might be because you had just the right combination of words, it might be because you stumbled on something without realizing it, or it might be for a completely different reason.
Needless to say, this makes it pretty difficult to work out exactly how to approach headlines. Even considering science and headlines only goes so far.
One approach is to test out headlines to find out which ones are likely to be popular.
Some sites do this on a regular basis using Facebook or Twitter. Basically, this involves posting an idea, a quote or a potential title. If the idea becomes popular, then that is the approach that is used for the headline.
The process is known as A/B testing, where you are trying to work out which is better, option A or B.
Additionally, you can even do this before you write the article, as a way of testing out what ideas are likely to be popular.
However, for this to work you need to have a decent following on social media, something that many people don’t have.
So, what do the rest of us do?
An alternative is to brainstorm headlines with a person (or people) that you trust. They might be able to give you some insight into what works and what doesn’t.
In fact, networking with other internet marketers can often help you find people to bounce ideas off and you can do the same thing for them in return.
Even if it is just you, it’s worth taking the time to consider different variations of a headline.
Some people find that it takes them upwards of two hours to write a headline for a post and along the way they might develop dozens of different variations before they decide which works for them.
After all – the more variations you have, the more likely you are to stumble across the right one.
A really good example of this is Upworthy. The site has become very effective at sharing its posts through social media, something that is particularly challenging as many of its post topics are not things that people would normally choose to click on.
Upworthy intentionally focuses on topics that are trending and spends a lot of time focusing on writing compelling headlines and descriptions, like this:
The titles are incredibly effective and Upworthy has managed to get many things to go viral that you simply wouldn’t imagine. Some of this comes down to the content they are sharing but most of it is related to their choices of headlines and the way they grab attention – like the headline below:
Upworthy is a real illustration of the power behind headlines and just how much traffic they can bring. Much of the content that the site shares are things that users simply wouldn’t normally choose to watch or read – yet the headline makes them want to,
Another site that does a similar thing is Viral Nova. Like Upworthy, the site has an emphasis on making content viral and has a strong focus on making good headlines.
The headlines certainly make people curious and interested, so it isn’t really a surprise that some of them end up going viral.
Ultimately though, how much emphasis you put on headlines is really up to you.
Certainly, you don’t have to spend hours writing headlines if you don’t want to. However, the headline is what initially grabs the attention of your audience, so getting it right to start off with is a good idea.
It’s also worth noting that writing headlines does get easier as you go along.
It gets easier to spot good headlines and easier to think of them in the first place. This means that over time the process will get faster and you will get more efficient.
As you’re focusing on writing headlines, it’s important to stay away from a specific type of headline, called clickbait.
Clickbait headlines are headlines that are designed to get people to click through without really providing any information about what the post is about. Often this type of heading is also very misleading.
This is basically an extreme version of creating curiosity through a headline. It is also an approach that is increasing in popularity, because it often does get a lot of interest.
One of the major issues with this approach is that you are getting indiscriminate traffic. This means that many of the people clicking the link aren’t going to be interested in the content that you offer and will probably leave shortly afterward.
Additionally, by not providing information about what the content is about, you risk not appealing to the actual audience you are targeting.
There is a fine line between a viral headline and clickbait, and sometimes clickbait is used legitimately. Personally, I would steer clear from it unless you are certain that your readers won’t be disappointed when they get to your post.
Another reason for avoiding clickbait is that Facebook is starting to clamp down on it, stopping this type of content from being so visible.
This can have a dramatic negative impact on you if you are using social media to network or gain traffic. It may also be an indication that other sites are clamping down on this approach in the future, suggesting it might not be effective in the long run.
At the End of the Day
All the points I’ve mentioned are important for writing good headlines, but you don’t need to include every single one of them.
In fact, you don’t actually need to include any of them.
More than anything else, writing headlines is an art.
It is something you get better at as you start to know your topic and your audience more, and as you learn what works and what doesn’t.
You might find that a particular approach works very well for your site, or you might find that different approaches for different content are what is needed. However, by tapping into some of the key features of science and headlines, you may well find that you can improve your traffic and get the traffic you are actually looking for.
One place that I like turning to for getting feedback on titles and on posts in general is the community at Wealthy Affiliate.
Now, Wealthy Affiliate itself is actually a training site for internet marketing and it is a good choice for anyone wanting to get started with building a website and/or making money online.
But, at the same time, Wealthy Affiliate also has the advantage of being community-based. This focus makes it possible for members to get a lot of advice and guidance from one another. That support applies to headlines but it also applies to any other challenge that you might face in building a website and making money from it.