Why Gawker writes the best headlines on the Web

The six things the site does right when it comes to writing memorable and effective headlines.

It’s nearly impossible not to click on a link to a Gawker article.

It doesn’t matter if you see one on Twitter, your RSS reader or scrawled in Sharpie on the interior of a bathroom stall, it’s a moth-to-fire, trance-like pull.

You could say it’s because it has the best content on the Web (although 98 percent of #wjchat would probably disagree), or you could give credit where I think it’s due: to the headline.

The headline is arguably the most important factor in visibility for your content online. And Gawker writes some of the most visible ones. Here’s what’s right with its headlines.

1. They’re provocative without being entirely NSFW.

Gawker headlines grab the heart of the matter from a story and squeeze it in their hands. They answer the “why should I care about this” before you even finish the sentence. The headlines are aggressive, direct and descriptive.

2. They include some context, but not enough that you don’t have to click.

They pique your interest, give you a reason to click, and let’s be honest, play to our often-quiet darker selves.

3. They name the person, place, or thing that matters most.

Not only does this tap into the cultural zeitgeist, but it taps into trending topics in search and social media. It makes the piece sticky to parts of the Web (and culture) that normally wouldn’t care about an article. It forces these persons, places, and things to take note. And it doesn’t hurt from an SEO perspective.

4. They don’t adhere to a character limit.

“Oh, there’s a character limit for writing headlines? Why don’t you tell me all about it in my comments section, in the article you’re currently reading, with the headline you followed to get here?”

5. They’re written like real people talk.

Meaning gets lost in the brand-speak filter. You don’t need to sound “official” for people to take you seriously. In fact, the more you dress up your language, the less you appeal to real people.

(Note: I understand that some brands and audiences require a more high-minded approach, but a conversational tone, especially on the Web, allows you to be more accessible regardless of your academic rigor and standing.)

6. They (usually) deliver.

The cardinal sin on the Web (and the thing that gets users to spit vitriol with the intensity of one thousand suns) is to bait and switch with your headline.

If you promise free beer, there better be free beer when those you promised it to arrive. Or else? Chaos, resentment, and abandonment.

You don’t have to “be like Gawker” to get an audience on the Web. But it couldn’t hurt to pay attention to the site. It has the market cornered on attention.

It doesn’t matter if you’re B2B or B2C, Gawker’s headlines speak to the human at the other end of the connection like an actual human. They intrigue and pull an emotional trigger in readers.

Oh yeah, and they get clicked. They’re not perfect, but they don’t have to be.

Which site do you think writes the best headlines?

Andrew Hanelly is the director of digital strategy at TMG. A version of this article originally appeared on the TMG blog.

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