Editor’s Corner: A Heads up on Headlines: 4 Rules for Maximizing News Visibility

October 7, 2013

Guest Post: Zara McAlister & Ciaran Ryan/Toronto newsroom

Headlines are like first dates. If you don’t pique your suitor’s interest early, he or she might take a fake phone call in the middle of dinner and claim their house is on fire. It takes time and effort to keep your date interested. The same goes for headline writing. A title should grab your audience’s attention and give an idea of what’s to come.

Follow these four tips to make your headline count:

Make it Short

The best way to appeal to a journalist is to write like one. Journalistic headlines are short and punchy, around five to six words and no more than 10. Columbia School of Journalism advises its budding journalists to use action verbs.  Humour is fine, but avoid clichés like the plague. That’s a good rule of thumb. Slang is also a no no.

Keeping a headline short isn’t just about looking good. Databases such as Yahoo! will cut off lengthy headlines. Your Business Wire editors will accept four lines of a headline or 264 characters.

Put Your Name on it for Google’s Sake

A headline that includes a company name helps to ground a news release in search engines and adds traction. A release with the headline, “Lab Develops Time Machine” is vague and misleading. What lab is it? Instead of leaving your reader hanging off a cliff of suspense, drop your company name in the headline. Something like “ABC Lab Develops Time Machine,” gives credit where credit is due. This release is more likely to pop up when a journalist or investor plugs in your company name to a search engine.

According to a 2010 PRWeek Media Survey, 95% of journalists use search engines to research a story. Google recently launched a new search algorithm dubbed Hummingbird. Hummingbird looks at your search query as a complete phrase and not as a collection of individual keywords. Having a detailed headline will make your release more searchable.

Think Before you Link

Hyperlinks belong in the body of the release, not the headline. Google’s algorithm searches for blocks of text that look like a typical headline. So headlines that contain hyperlinks to a company’s website for instance may confuse the algorithm into thinking it’s a random block of text, preventing the headline from being included in Google News. Same goes for Yahoo! and CBS Marketwatch which may not recognize hyperlinks in headlines.

Follow the Rules

Punctuation and grammar matter. If you don’t believe us, take a look at any online forum, newspaper comment field, or a friend’s Facebook status. You will likely find someone correcting someone else’s grammar.  Journalistic writing is simple, straightforward and grammatically sound. Do the same. Avoid flowery, jargon laden headlines.  And watch out for common mistakes, such as unnecessary periods at the end of headlines.

Style is also important. Your company’s news may be so exciting that you want to scream it from the mountain tops. But please, step away from the caps lock button. IT’S NOT YOUR FRIEND!!! All caps conveys an aggressive tone, much like shouting at your audience. That’s a big faux pas to avoid.  Your headline should not have anything in common with the social media musings of a teenager on the subject of Justin Bieber’s present fall from grace. So keep your headline title cased. Associated Press (AP) style dictates capitalizing principal words and prepositions that are longer than four letters, and maybe think twice about adding that exclamation mark.

These are four simple rules every writer should follow to ensure the best news visibility and engagement possible.  Have any other tips to share?  Let us know!

Will New, Longer Google Results Affect Your Traffic?

March 24, 2009

Google today announced two changes to their search results pages.  The first is a refinement to the suggested searches at the bottom of the SERPs — Google will now offer semantic-style suggested searches*, where its system has a better understanding of related concepts and where to find them.  (And it will do so in 37 languages!)

The other is a little more significant:  In order to help users who are using longer queries and search strings, the longer the search you enter, the longer the “snippets” Google will show you underneath the dark blue linked results.  As they explain it:

Suppose you were looking for information about Earth’s rotation around the sun, and specifically wanted to know about its tilt and distance from the sun. So you type all of that into Google: [earth’s rotation axis tilt and distance from sun]. A normal-length snippet wouldn’t be able to show you the context for all of those words, but with longer snippets you can be sure that the first result covers all those topics.

Mashable — one of my top sources for web- and social-media related content — mentions these changes briefly, and refers to the semantic results as the more important of the two.  “Not so fast!” says Marshall Kilpatrick at ReadWriteWeb — these changes could affect whether people actually click through to your page:

It’s pretty simple, really. If you’re shown a link to another Google search query, you’re more likely to perform another search instead of going offsite to visit the first results links you were shown. If you’re shown 3 lines of excerpts instead of two, you’re more likely to get the full answer to your question without having to visit the page that the answer is on, off-site.

Two very different reactions, so I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.  I don’t necessarily think it’s in Google’s best interest to develop search results strategies that keep people from visiting other pages, but, as Kilpatrick also points out, 80% of searches are informational in nature, while only 10% are navigational.  If you get the information you need right there on the SERP, why click?

On the positive side, longer snippets could potentially put to rest any confusion the usefulness of your meta keywords and meta descriptions.  If your content is well-written and well-organized, and you’ve used your keywords wisely, then as average query length increases, you’ll stand to benefit from the longer snippets returned from the search.

I tested this myself, using a four-word phrase that isn’t searched for very often, relatively speaking, but which is important to our business.  The Business Wire home page was the #2 natural result, a deep page using the search phrase was #3, and a blog post on the topic was #7.  Can’t see as we have any reason to complain!

Seriously, beyond that little self-serving test, Business Wire will keep a close eye on this and other search-related topics — one of our goals remains to ensure that your press releases help to drive consumer, investor and media traffic to your site.  As the search game changes, we’ll always offer the clearest advice to you to ensure that you continue to benefit from our distribution technology.

What are your thoughts on this?  What positives and negatives do you see, and what ways can you think of for changing those informational searches into navigational and/or transactional searches?  Might this affect they way you write content for the web?  Let us know what you think in the comments.


*The alliteration there was completely unplanned, but worked pretty nicely.


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