As an experienced blogger, Rachael enjoys sharing what she's learned from lived experience with others who are just starting out.
The title is the most important part of any article. It can make or break your article's success in terms of page views, engagement, and social media shares.
Think about it from the eyes of your reader. How will they encounter your article? First, they'll probably start with a question or problem. Then they will use Google or another search engine to find answers. Then, they will browse the first page of answers and choose the most appealing article out of around 3-5 possible choices.
So the headline, and the blurb you put or your fist lines of your article, are the main determining factor about what drives clicks and therefore the success of the article. Titles are important.
Note that here I'm using title and headline interchangeably. They were more distinguished from one another in the old print media world - a newspaper's title was the name of the newspaper; the headline, designed to grab the attention of newsstand shoppers, was the title of a specific article, referring to the fact that the title was at the top (head) of the page. Thus the name headline. Interestingly, the internet did not invent bait and switch headlines (called "click bait" on the internet) or misleading headlines, these were actually a long-lingering plague on print journalism as well.
So, if the headline is the main deciding factor in determining if a potential reader will choose to read my article over another article on the same search results page, how do I write a good title? And what should a good title have?
Use Passionate Language
This is the part that doesn't come naturally to me. When you write a headline, it will always be a lot more powerful and meaningful to potential readers if the words themselves are emotional. I'm a rational-thinker type, so naturally I'm inclined towards titles that while accurately descriptive of my content, are boring. That works for some people, but to get really impressive numbers of page views, you need a headline that evokes strong emotion.
Using an example from my own personal experience, my cringey article on why I hate Big Bang Theory. What is, in my opinion, one of my worst articles, is one of my most popular. When people criticize the article in the comments, I tend to agree with my critics. I came across as obnoxious and self-righteous in the article. My assessment of the show in question was based on feelings, not logic. And over time, of course, I got over those feelings, and realized I had made an ass out of myself. But, the article is still very popular. I attribute that success of the article to two things: First, the subject of the article, Big Bang Theory, is very popular. But also, the use of emotional language, which I don't normally use, conveyed a sense of strong passion, and people really responded strongly to that passion.
So what I learned moving forward is that an article isn't just a collection of fact-checked statements and grammar-checked words; it's a speech about what you're truly passionate about in life, and why. Even something that sounds dull, like an explanation of how to drive a stick shift, should be connected with something that will also emotionally resonate with your audience, to get large numbers of page views and shares.
If you struggle to come up with what to write about, think about what (within a niche you've chosen or in general) makes you the most happy, the most sad, the most angry, or what you're the most afraid of or disgusted by. These are the "big six" emotions, and I have another article on article improvement here that also talks about why tapping into them is so crucial. Does something offend you? Does something thrill you? Does something make you angry? Do you really wish something about your niche would change? What do you hate, and what do you love? Those should be your questions to ask yourself when dealing with writer's block. But back to the subject of titles, it's important that the strong emotion of the article is conveyed in some way by the title.
Would you rather read:
A Comparative Analysis: Princess Tutu & Revolutuonary Girl Utena
The Profound Sadness of Princess Tutu and Revolutionary Girl Utena: Tragic Heroines in Anime
The latter is what you're more likely to read for fun. The former is what we're taught to write like in college. And they wonder why English degree-holders have a tough time trying to make ends meet after college - it's because they're teaching us academic writing, which is vastly different from the writing people actually want to read for fun.
Think about it, the last time you read something for fun, was it from an academic journal? Or, I'm guessing, it was probably a novel, a punchy blog post, an emotionally-gripping news story, or a fun and inspiring little self-help book? What do all of these have in common? Not only are they all easier to read and using plainer, less esoteric language, they're also all written to emotionally resonate with the reader. This really is the difference between success as a writer and eating cat food as a writer.
BUT - The Title Has to be Accurate
I'm sure if you read a lot of news, magazines, and/or blogs, you'll eventually hit an inaccurate title - and that is an annoying, frustrating experience. You wanted X and you got Y, so you feel confused, perhaps even cheated. So as writers, you can understand that our job is not only to grab attention, but to then follow through on the promise of a headline with content that accurately reflect the headline. If my article were called "Why I Hate Cats", but I ended up talking about the many great points cats have as pets and why they might actually be better than dogs in some circumstances, I have not delivered on what my headline promised.
This often happens when writing your article changes your article. You start off talking about one thing, and it leads to another. Or, it can happen when you're editing your title for emotional impact, but not realizing that the emotional article title no longer accurately describes what your article actually contains. This is called "click bait" when people do it on purpose. That is, trying to get clicks at the expense of providing meaningful or valuable content. If you've ever clicked on an "article" just to see a slide show and a million ads, you've experienced the dreaded phenomenon of click bait.
Some may argue it's not even wrong - you make money by getting people to view ads or affiliate links right? But the problem is credibility. Reputation. Your goal shouldn't be to get people to click on a vapid, worthless article - and that will actually get you heavily penalized by HubPages and Google. The key to success in blogging is to build up a reputation for providing searchers with correct, useful, meaningful content. The most successful sites got that way by being able to do that, by matching what the reader wants to read. By doing so consistently, they become seen as authorities on their topics. So then, whenever someone has a related question, they will search for that site in particular, because they know that is the person or group of people they can trust to have the best answer to their question.
It's this way for many service professionals too, like mechanics. When you first get a new car, you'll go to any mechanic at all, or the cheapest one in your area available. But over time, you will end up becoming a repeat customer to a mechanic you come to know and trust. Being a successful blogger is like being that trusty, honest mechanic, and not like that shifty guy down the street.
And how do you do that? By making sure your content always accurately reflects your title, as well as making sure it is grammatically and factually correct. When you keep doing this consistently, you will build up your reputation as an expert in your field.
Numbers are Good
When I look at my own article history, the articles that do the best are almost always list articles with a number in the title. It's interesting to ponder the psychology of this phenomenon. Why do we like numbered articles so much?
It's probably because we like to know what we're getting. With videos, I always judge whether I want to watch them or not based on length. If I have only 10 minutes to research a problem before I have to do something else, I can't watch a 45 minute video on the subject. Similarly, people like to know about how long your article will be before deciding to read it. The very successful site eHow lets you know in most cases exactly how many steps or methods there are in each "how to" article. "How to" articles are very popular, and I do suggest if you do them that you have the number of steps required in the title.
When a list article contains many items, usually it won't have as much detailed information about each one. When a list contains only a few items, we worry that it won't be long enough to sustain our interest. There's no single magic number exactly, but there are many successful list articles and video lists that have ten items. It seems like people want to know the "top ten" of everything. It's a nice round number, everyone likes multiples of five, and we come away from it without too much or too little information. Top ten lists are simple and digestible.
But, for the sake of variety, to avoid boredom, I don't always do a list of ten. It's not always necessary or desirable to try to make ten examples when you really have say, six, or fifteen. In the former case, you'll end up making up examples that don't really add value or fit the premise. In the latter case, you could end up cutting out entries in the list that do add value. But, as a good general rule, shoot for five to fifteen list items. More than that, and people might be overwhelmed, fewer items and people might think you don't have a lot to say.
Sometimes, it's okay to do a longer list. The main reason would be if you want to do a list of the best works in a genre, or the best works by a certain studio, creator, author, etc., but there are many excellent ones. That's why I did a list of the 25 best sci-fi anime, and that article turned out successful. I couldn't have fathomed doing less than that, because there are so many sci-fi anime, and so many of them are good. I even had to cut out some series that were still very good. But, I feared that much more than that would not only make an already long article way too long, but that it would start to feel like a list of all sci-fi anime, as if I didn't have any discernment.
Tips for a numbered list article:
- Make sure you're not copying an existing list. Lots of people write these kinds of things. Try to think outside the box and make lists people haven't already thought of.
- Narrow your topic. Your article on the ten best films of all time will likely get buried. Give us the top ten independent Canadian films. The top ten black and white films with themes that are still relevant today. The top ten most memorable female performances from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And so on. If your topic is broad, it's likely that someone has already done it, and it's not going to be as interesting to people who are interested in your niche.
- Define clearly what should and should not be included in your list. You will see people who get a bit upset if the thing they really like did not make your list (some people take this crap way too seriously). So it's helpful if the article, usually in the introduction, clearly shows the criteria for the list.
- Use honorable mentions. This can be a table or a callout capsule in HubPages. Basically, you list everything that came close to making the list, but not quite. This will hopefully help the aforementioned butthurt fans who will get mad at you for not including their favorite thing on your list. It's also a way of showing that while a certain work didn't meet your criteria, it came close enough to earn a respectful mention in the article. Video countdowns also tend to use the honorable mentions part to build a suspenseful wait for number one.
Don't Try to Be Popular
This one is going to sound counter-intuitive. I mean, the goal of trying to blog is to be popular and get my name out there, right? Well hold your horses. (Or whatever animal-friendly phrase you prefer instead.)
Trying too hard to be popular means you'll end up being generic, redundant, cliché. You need to stand out from the millions of monkeys at their typewriters worldwide. To do that, chasing what's popular and copying popular blogs will also hurt your credibility as a source of information and entertainment.
There is temptation when writing about popular fiction to focus on the most popular works of fiction. That which has the most sales, makes the most money, and has the largest fan community. But there's a rich joy in helping people discover books, movies, and shows that are good, but unpopular. In my blogging experience, I have come across some truly remarkable shows like Kaiba, Mushishi, and Mononoke, that are barely heard of, even within the anime community. At the last convention I went to, I learned of Penguindrum, an anime by the genius behind the girl-power classic Revolutionary Girl Utena. Almost no one in the panel had watched it, but it's brilliant. One of the best joys in writing about anime is in championing these overlooked treasures.
So to recap; don't just list everything that's popular. You want repeated views, and that means you want to have credibility and stand out as unique. If you follow trends or copy others, you're not going to stand out as an individual and get people searching for you specifically, or caring about what you create.
Subtitle Your Sequels - Instead of Just Using Numbers
This is something I see from time to time on YouTube or on blogs. When you have someone make a sequel to a previous post, they'll usually just title it "Previous Post Name: Part 2" and so on. But they're missing something crucial that would help me better make an informed decision about watching it or not: a subtitle. The subtitle would tell me what the second (or 3rd or 4th or so on) video/blog post will talk about that was not included in the previous one.
Why I'm No Longer Going to Anime Conventions - Part 2
Why I'm No Longer Going to Anime Conventions - Part 2: Long Lines and Crowds
The second title tells me more about what's going to be covered in the post or video. If I saw the first one, I want to know what the sequel post or video is going to add to the topic. I want more specific detail about the topic. That will help me decide if I want to read the post or watch the video.
Titles: The Right Length
The right length of a title is tricky. Shorter is better, but too short runs the risk of not being specific enough. I use a free tool called the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, which allows you to just type in the headline you want to try and see if it matches up to their criteria for a good headline, including length and emotional impact. Generally, I go for around eight words. The CoSchedule tool also lets you see how your headline will look in search results, in a social media post, and in email. So you get to see how your headline will look to your potential readers. Try playing around with wording the same headline in different ways and see what happens with that tool! They recommend a title of around 8 words and around 55 characters. You can be a little longer if you want to, to be more descriptive and to contain more emotionally impactful or attention-grabbing words. But overly long titles will bore the reader, introduce redundancy, and make you seem less intelligent. Too long and you make it seem like you don't know what you're talking about, or like your article lacks clarity and focus.
- Ouran High School Host Club: Why This Anime About High School Life is Amazing With Its Over-The-Top Silliness
- The Charming Humor of Ouran High School Host Club
- Ouran High School Host Club Review
The first one is too long, the last one is too short (not descriptive enough), and the one in the middle is just right. It tells you that the article has a specific area of focus, but it's not a rambling mix of too many words.
Writing articles online is a difficult task. Selecting just the perfect headline for the title can mean the difference between your article going viral and lingering in the dust. Even if you have great ideas, people won't read them unless you have a good title. It's like designing a book cover for a novel - yes it kind of sucks how people are shallow and judge things by such superficial characteristics. But, because they do that, you have to learn to sell to them by having not just good content, but a title that appeals to people. It's all a matter of getting people to click on your article over other articles that show up in search results. Again, I definitely also recommend the above-mentioned headline analyzer from CoSchedule. I've personally used it to come up with new titles for old content, and changing the title alone of an old article has dramatically increased each article's page views.
Just to go over what I said before:
- Use passionate language.
- Make sure your article's content matches the title.
- People enjoy numbered lists. It doesn't have to be a top ten list every time, but lists of ten or around ten items are very popular.
- Don't just chase trends - if you do that, there's a good chance you will fail to stand out among the competition in your field.
- When you do a follow-up to a previous article, try adding a subtitle that designates the specific content of the sequel article, not just a number.
- Not too long, not too short. Make it descriptive and interesting without it being an unfocused word salad.
That's all I've got for now. Good luck on improving your articles!
- 55 Easy Ways To Write Headlines That Will Reach Your Readers
8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will click. Learn how to write headlines that stack the odds for success in your favor here.
- 5 Easy Tricks to Write Catchy Headlines
The most important part of an article is the headline. Same principle applies to blog posts; the title is where your focus should be. Here are five easy tricks.
© 2019 Rachael Lefler
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 10, 2020:
Thanks for this look at what makes a captivating title when it comes to reading an article. I will take a look at the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer you recommended.
Cygnet Brown from Springfield, Missouri on November 07, 2019:
I am getting ready to focus some time on improving my articles as well as writing new ones. In this article I see several ways I can improve the titles (and subheadings as well) I particularly like the information about title length. I am going to try to put them more within 61-100 character range. Thanks!