Longer headlines are better headlines

To improve your first shot at writing a page headline, add a few more words. Preferably keywords.

Forget advice to write headlines as short as possible. That guideline tempts writers to produce teeny tiny headlines that just don't work. Intranet managers sometimes ask their authors to write really brief page headlines because they recycle the same headline as a menu item. Bad idea! Menu items need to be short but headlines need to be long.

Short headlines tend to be vague and generic. Examples:

  • Application form
  • Who are we?
  • Our approach

Read those and you are none the wiser about the page's content. They are a waste of space: headlines should tell us something!

The New York Times (and every experienced newspaper sub-editor) knows how to write headlines that are genuinely informative. Moreover, though a sub-editor dreams up thousands of headlines in a lifetime, every headline is almost certainly unique.

That's what we need on web sites and intranets: informative, unique headlines for every page. If those headlines happen to be re-used on search result pages, they are genuinely useful. It's a miracle if this can be achieved with a short headline.

What do I mean by 'long'? Here's a breakdown of the number of words in the front page headlines of the New York Times, 1 March 2007.

  • No headlines had 1, 2, or 3 words. There were only 2 headlines with 4 words and 5 with 5 words.
  • Headlines with between 6 and 9 words were way more common. 15 headlines had 6 words, 12 had 7 words, 14 had 8 words, and 11 had 9 words.
  • Headlines over 9 words were less common. Only 5 had 10 words, 5 had 11 words. There were 2 headlines with 12 or 13 words.

Judging by this evidence, I'd say the New York Times regards 7- to 9-words headline as the ideal length. And that is pretty long, compared with the majority of headlines on business and government web sites. To fix a rotten headline, add more words.


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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2 Comments

Robert
Robert

March 02, 2007

I agree completely. It’s a common misunderstanding in webwriting that every thing has to be short. Much more important is that every thing has to be understandable out of context. And that needs some words. According to the report from Jared Spool “Designing for the Scent of Information” (published in 2004), the best link length is 7 to 12 words. That’s not far away from these NYT headlines.

rachel
rachel

March 02, 2007

Spot on, especially as links so often double as headlines and Spool’s trigger words, ‘words or phrases [users] associate with the content they’re seeking’, are keywords.

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