We old print journalists often grumble under our green eyeshades about the differences between writing for print and for the Web. That’s especially true when it comes to headlines. As previously noted here, I love writing headlines for our print media, compressing a story into a few words, often with a wry twist that may elicit groans that we editor types tend to hear as amazed appreciation.

The Web doesn’t love wry. Unless (and until) your Web site or blog develops a following, your prose must signal passing search engines “hey, over here!” to be noticed.
A search engine encountering a headline I saw a couple years ago — “Skywalkers Cross Han Solo” — will likely not report it to a reader looking for stories about an annual tightrope walking competition over the Han River in South Korea.
Get noticed by search engines by remembering these rules:

  • Headlines are “microcontent” — they must quickly and accurately describe what the post or article is about.
  • Search engines want headlines that serve the facts straight up, no twist.
  • Shorter headlines are better than long ones, both from the perspective of catching a search engine’s attention and also that of the reader.
  • Ideally, the first word of your headline should be the most important in order to have the highest possible priority in a search.
  • Headlines should not bait-and-switch — your content better deliver what the headline promises or your credibility will nosedive.

Does all the above mean you can’t have fun? Not necessarily. Just be creative.
Take the headline on this article — please. I could have said “How to Write Web Headlines,” but saw a chance to play on words a bit while still being straightforward. Someone searching for information on this topic will likely use some or all of the terms “headline(s),” “online” and “guideline(s).”
For more detailed suggestions on writing headlines for Web content, try sites such as useit.com, The Engine Room or Copyblogger.com.