For as long as anyone can remember, supermarket tabloids have been writing headlines that are designed to shock—and of course pique enough the interest of people to pick them up—of anyone who reads them. Now that school of headline writing has already crossed over to the Internet, with sites like BuzzFeed and ViralNova screaming headlines that may not be as sensational as those in supermarket tabloids, but are just as long-winded, brimming with emotion and to a certain extent ridiculous.
The thing is, headlines like “29 Most Canadian Things to Ever Canada in Canada” or “Can You Make It Through This Post Without Feeling Sexually Attracted to Food?” both seem to be designed to be clicked by anyone who sees them. For someone who believes in the teachings of usability guru Jakob Nielsen, the idea of clicking and reading those headlines seem revolting. After all, Nielsen sings the praises of the headlines you can see on the BBC website.
Characteristics of effective headlines
According to Nielsen, there are certain characteristics that BBC headlines possess that make them the best. For one, they are short, typically five words or less. Each headline is also loaded with information. They often start with keywords, and are often quite understandable, even out of context. They also tend to be predictable. Whatever readers expect of them, the BBC headlines always match them.
The headlines you commonly see on BuzzFeed, on the other hand, go against everything that BBC headlines stand for. They’re long, and in most cases, rambling and incoherent. Each headline is loaded not with information, but emotion. Keywords are rarely used, and they are typically non-contextual. Most obviously of all, these headlines rely on shock to trigger the curiosity of people.
Writing and editing snobs could easily turn their noses up at those headlines, but there is one thing about them that could never be denied: they actually sell. They catch the attention of people, and they get the clicks that they need. Millions of them.
Marry SEO with emotion for effective headlines
So what does the success of long and often rambling headlines mean? Does it mean the BBC standard of writing effective headlines isn’t that viable anymore? Of course not. Far from it. We could still write headlines that are just as great as the ones from BBC yet still be BuzzFeed-worthy.
Taking all the information above into consideration, I now believe that we should marry SEO with emotion for effective headlines that Google will pay attention to and people will be interested in and click, read and share.
For online marketers like us, we are completely aware of the marketability of stories that invokes emotion. People these days love to share stories that elicit shock, hilarity, disbelief and a wide range of other emotions, and they often go viral. Still, there’s big ol’ Google to please, and keywords form a big chunk of what makes Google happy.
And that’s why I believe that we can get the best of both worlds if we combine a mix of keywords for context with story elements that will get people clicking. That, in my opinion, is the only way to write effective headlines today.
If you’re considering taking this approach towards writing effective headlines, maybe you’re going to need some practice first. A good exercise would be to look at the past headlines of your site or blog—the ones with “BBC” written all over them to be precise—and try to build emotional triggers around it that you think would resonate with your readers. Let’s see what you can come up with.