Get clicked: Web headlines with clarity trump creativity

Despite the protests of creative headline writers, clear headlines drive online readership. Take a look at these reasons why.

There’s a lot of sniveling and squawking going on in the Web writing community. Consider these headlines:

What’s all the bellyaching about?

The fact that feature headlines don’t work so well online. Sad, but true: When it comes to writing headlines for the Web, it’s more important to be clear than clever.

Write for indexes

I recently saw this New York Times headline on my Twitter for iPhone app:

Considering Next Steps for ‘Wanted’

The content page made clear—with a “Television” section head, a picture of John Walsh and a cutline—that the story was about the future of “America’s Most Wanted.” But without that context, the headline alone did not.

How does your headline work on your iPhone?

Web heads migrate

Online, you never know where your headline will show up. That’s because microcontent moves—from your content page to these places, among others:

  • Search engine results pages
  • Indexes on your own website and others’
  • Twitter, Facebook and other social networks
  • RSS feeds
  • Google News, Yahoo! News and other news portals
  • Mobile apps and screens

That means your Web head has to stand on its own. Will readers understand it without the art, display copy and other context of the content page?

Write Web heads that stand alone

I love clever, cryptic headlines in print. But they don’t work online.

If your headline is “On the move,” for instance, readers might not be able to figure out whether your page is about:

  • Employee promotions
  • Relocation benefits
  • The new headquarters building

If they can’t tell, chances are, they won’t click.

To get clicked, write Web heads that are clear and explanatory. Clearly state what’s on the page.

Cut the fluff

Are your headlines clear or cryptic? Sometimes I can’t tell what Seth Godin’s posts, for instance, are about when I’m scanning my feeds:

  • “An end of magic”
  • “What (people) want”
  • “Share your confusions”
  • “How long is your long run?”

The point is to communicate, not to intrigue. So strive for clarity instead of creativity. Tell, don’t tease.

Good Web heads are clear no matter where they show up, in or out of context.

Ann Wylie is president of Wylie Communications, Inc., a writing, training and consulting firm. She is also the author of, and Wylie’s Writing Tips.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.