Writing headlines on the web – forget the puns

I do like a good tabloid headline. My personal favourite: No Knobby Bobbie Given A Girl’s Jobby. The story? A transsexual policeman who was taken off frontline duties after it was discovered that ‘he’ was set to become a ‘her’. The tabloid? The Sun. I grudgingly tip my hat to the sub that came up with that particular literary gem – witty, yet totally offensive.

But take a trip to the website of The Sun or The Mirror these days and you won’t see much evidence of clever headlines, puns or witty word play.

According to an article in Media Guardian (Search For The Perfect Headline by Jennette Owen),  it’s the likes of Google and RSS news-readers which are killing the once great art of tabloid headline writing.   

Here are a few things that grabbed my interest in the article:

  • News websites get a lot of their traffic (30%-60% in the case of The Times) from the search engines.  [Comments: 30%? I would say the likes of Google or RSS news readers must surely acccount for  70%+ traffic going to many news sites. Those visiting front pages of newspaper websites are either pretty loyal to the brand or live somewhere where you can’t get the paper version]
  • Those skillfully written tabloid headlines rarely contain search engine friendly keywords [Comments: Give your news article (or blog post) a headline that actually describes what’s in the story.  There is an analogy involving an ad slogan for tins of  Woodstain (which I won’t mention). Keep it simple. The Knobby headline (above) gives  some idea of what the story is about, but you need a pretty good understanding of British slang to decode its meaning.

It seems that the tabloids are obeying the new rules for online headline writing. There wasn’t a pun to be read on the The Mirror’s or The Sun’s website front page  today. Instead, it was really quite dull:

  • Meredith Kercher suspect released
  • Maddy: Murat and friends accused
  • Unlike in the paper versions, headlines on the web don’t have to sell stories. The reader has already selected what they want to read. [Visitors to The Sun site aren’t  paying 20p a pop, so you don’t have to sell your splash.]
  • Headlines can be longer than on paper (around 70 characters) [Comments: This is not the classic textbook advice,  when writing for the web headlines should be kept short like the ones above.]
  • Intros and abstracts (around 200 characters) should summarise the story. [My Comments: I agree, Say ‘hello’ to the famous Ws  and ‘no’ to drop intros. Intros must be ‘stand alone’]

From The Sun’s website today:
July 21 Plotter Jailed

THE fifth July 21 bomb plotter Manfo Asiedu was jailed for 33 years today for
his part in the failed suicide plot to attack London’s transport network.

  • Make links: Use terms in your links that encompass the main topic of the article, as search engines pick them up. [Comments: Good advice]

Based on all this, you could be forgiven for thinking that the tabloids are going to become pretty dull. But the old advice remains true – keep the language simple. People don’t read articles online – they scan them. They don’t look for entertainment online, they want information served quickly. Use cross-heads and pull quotes to make body text accessible.

I would go further and banish clever headlines from the paper versions of tabloids too – it’s increasingly irrelevant. I may be wrong, but I’m guessing that few Polish builders and plumbers are well-versed in British slang or, indeed, 80’s pop culture. It may be time to say goodbye to outdated headlines – such as "The Age Of The Strain" (story: crap railways – but who can remember the ad slogan?), "Chuck a Khan" (story: Hugh Grant/Jemina Khan split – but can anyone name a song by the big-haired singer?) or "Zip Me Up Before You Go Go" (?????)

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2 Responses to Writing headlines on the web – forget the puns

  1. Sean November 21, 2007 at 1:23 pm #

    Online headlines *do* have to sell stories. People have a choice of what to click on (in their RSS reader or search engine, if not the newspaper’s front page). If people don’t click on it, the newspaper doesn’t get the ad impression. It’s not about selling the front page for 20p, but it is about getting readers in so the website can deliver value to advertisers.
    People read the web differently to a newspaper. Newspapers people spend time with. There’s time to let the story unfold, and to have a laugh with headlines. It’s infotainment. People tend to just look for what they need online though, and they can’t find it if it’s hidden behind a tricksy headline.
    I love punny headlines, though, and I’d be sad to see them go. Especially those that reference 80s pop culture.
    Oh, and from memory: I feel for you, and I’m every woman. 🙂

  2. Steve November 23, 2007 at 2:16 pm #

    Hi Sean, thanks for stopping by. I’m really interested in the way people read online, so thanks for the post.
    Do headlines needs to sell a story? Looking at the Mirror’s site today, the headlines seem famous name or keyword heavy.
    The link I was probably most likely to click on on was: “Clapton: My boozy sex life” on the Mirror site.
    Should headlines be written to ‘tease / excite’ or ‘explain’? Is it possible to do both?
    I’m sure a great exclusive will get the clicks whatever the headline.
    Regarding the 80s thing,my point with the Chuka Khan headline was that the “window” of people who actually “get” the reference is pretty tiny. My students are too young and my parents are probably too old! Factor in an international audience – well you begin to play with an even smaller percentage of your an audience.