Last month a scientific paper made (mostly short) headlines. Published in the Royal Society's Open Science journal, "The Advantages of Short Paper Titles" explores the correlation between title length and frequency of citation. For a quick overview of the study, listen to Scientific American's 60-Second Science podcast episode below.
Unlike previous studies, which used a relatively small sample size, this one looked at the 20,000 most cited articles each year, from 2007 to 2013. It also controlled for different academic journals' title restrictions and relative prestige of different journals. The authors found that from 2007 to 2010, there was a marked correlation between shorter titles and more frequent citations. They concluded that there is certainly a connection between paper title length and number of citations.
But what do academic journals have to do with your blog?! (And what the heck is a quantile, anyway?)
First of all, backlinks are the online equivalent of academic journal citations. And more backlinks have pretty positive implications for your content, including a broader audience and better search engine rankings. But choosing the right title for your blog post has myriad implications, from impacting how often an article is shared via social media, to influencing how often your blog subscribers open those automated email notifications. It's no wonder that direct marketing maven Drayton Bird suggests investing so much time writing exceptional headlines.
A few simple principles can help you craft the perfect headlines again and again.
Start your quest for the perfect headline with your editorial calendar, which should include a working title for every blog article. The working title will remind you of your purpose and angle, even if you put together your editorial calendar months ago. From there, refine your headline.
- Stick with objective language. Research shows that subjective language can reduce readership because it makes your article sound like an advertisement. Meanwhile, including statistics and numbers can improve your perceived credibility.
- Name your target audience if appropriate. For example, if your article on dating tips is aimed at women, add "for Women" to your title. That way you won't get clicks (and bounces) from men who come to your article and quickly realize it's not written for them.
- If you're writing for a specific geographic area, include that in the title. You might name the appropriate city or state, or you could try a demonym. A New York-based travel agent might title an article "A Manhattanite's Guide to Surviving a Rural Vacation."
- Most importantly, keep your buyer persona in mind. Not only should your title address a key challenge or problem that your buyer persona has, but you should also use the same language that your buyer persona should use.
Remember Your Purpose
Headlines perform differently in various contexts. A headline that fares well on social media might not perform as strongly in an email or in search. And some headlines work exceptionally as backlink text.
You've probably noticed that on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, people will share articles based on headlines alone. If you're going for clicks and shares, you may want to emphasize emotion over information. This doesn't mean that you should simply churn out clickbait. But do consider the emotional overtones of your headline. And keep length in mind. According to CoSchedule, the ideal title length varies by platform. Their research revealed that, surprisingly, shorter titles (about 40 characters) do better on Facebook and longer titles (71-100 characters)perform best on Twitter.
We all love blog subscribers because they receive our content almost as soon as it's published. And usually your article title will show up as the subject of the automated email subscribers receive. While MailChimp's study showed that title length has little correlation with open and click-through rates, CoSchedule's research showed that titles of about 50 characters performed best. These are pretty different findings, so conduct some A/B testing of your own to find out what works best for your company.
Google loves a great title! Furthermore, your title often shows up verbatim in the search results, so you want to make it as enticing as possible.
- Aim to incorporate your most important keyword in the article title, but don't include a keyword at the expense of making your title sound unnatural. Remember that readability should always come first. After all, search engines are designed to serve readers.
- Ensure that your title matches the article. This will satisfy both Google and your readers, who won't be disappointed when they discover your article is about something different than what the title promised.
- Keep character count in mind. While search engines have been showing more and more characters over the years, long titles might still get cut off. Shoot for about 70 characters. If your title is 55 characters or less, you can expect the entire title to appear about 95% of the time.
- Don't be afraid to change your title tag. Some experts suggest using an article's call to action as the title tag, instead of the article title. Do a little testing and find out which approach works best for your website.
If you're looking to collect backlinks, you'll definitely want to choose a short, punchy title. That way anyone linking to the article can more easily use the title as their anchor text. Consider this: It's much easier to incorporate The World's Short Attention Span, Quantified than it is to integrate How Dan Norris Went from Running an Agency without Business Systems and Processes to Building a Rapidly Growing Company That is Systematized! Don't force people to think about how they'll cite your article — they may simply move on to another source with a more manageable title, even if your content is superior. Or, possibly worse, they may choose backlink text that doesn't match what readers will find when they click through to your site.
Acknowledge Our Reading Habits
David Oglivy famously said, "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." And in the digital age, we've become even more accustomed to skimming. We tend to scan headlines, really absorbing only the first and last three words.
You could try for six-word headlines (potentially tougher than writing your six-word memoir). But that's often too short, if you're to maintain specificity and demonstrate value with your title. A more realistic approach: pay close attention to those first and last three words, and eliminate any extras in between. If a headline feels cumbersome, do a little creative editing.
Ultimately there is no magic formula for writing perfect blog headlines. But if you focus on specificity, remember your purpose and acknowledge online content consumption habits, you'll set yourself on the path for consistently strong article titles.