People. We need to have a conversation about headlines. Some of you – and I’m guessing you don’t actually know who you are, yet – aren’t doing them right. It’s not your fault. The conventional digital marketing wisdom stresses how absolutely vital headlines are without ever spelling out what constitutes a good headline, how many headlines you actually need in any given piece of copy, or how to know when you’ve reached the dreaded headline horizon. So we’re going to cover all of that, right now.
What Makes a Good Headline?
Headlines are important in your copy for two reasons. The first is that most people skim, rather than read, copy: your big bold headlines might be only messaging your potential customer sees. The second is that Google’s search engine algorithms pay more attention to the content of headlines than body text: if it’s a vital part of your strategy to be found for a specific phrase such as “Anytown Jewelry Store,” it’s a good idea to have those words appearing in a headline on your site.
Creating a good headline is a balancing act of achieving your search goals and capturing customer interest. It also needs to be short – think between 6-8 words, max! – and unique enough to stand out in a world absolutely filled to overflowing with articles, infographics, special reports, white papers and more.
How Many Headlines Do You Actually Need?
Headlines attract attention because they’re scarce and special – or at least, they’re supposed to be. We group headlines into two categories: top of page and internal headlines. Top of page headlines appear at the top of the content in question, while internal headlines appear in the body of the text. In this blog post, “When Everything is a Headline, Nothing Is” is a top of page headline; these are sometimes followed by subheadlines which are often used to clarify or reinforce the top of page headline. “How Many Headlines Do You Actually Need?” is an example of an internal headline.
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Every piece of content needs a headline. After that, the situation gets tricky. The use of subheadlines is a stylistic preference; as a rule of thumb, if they add value or clarity to your piece, use them, but if you’re creating them simply for the sake of having them, it’s probably a mistake. Avoid using subheadlines to cram every conceivable search phrase into your article: meaning matters, especially at the top of the page.
The way we use internal headlines has changed as readers have transitioned to increasingly smaller and smaller screens. Having a headline appear every two to three paragraphs aids readability on mobile devices.
The Dreaded Headline Horizon
If one headline is good, then two must be better, right? And if two headlines are better, four would be excellent, right? Well, not necessarily. There does come a point where you can have too many headlines for the amount of text you’re presenting to your reader.
If you are creating an extremely short piece, such as a social media graphic, that has less than 75 words, you need one headline. That’s it. I know you want more, but control yourself. In longer pieces, a good rule is to take your total word count and divide by one hundred. If you have a 500 word blog post, the maximum number of headlines you want, including top of page and internal headlines, is 5.
Bonus Tip: Do you have a hard time creating headlines? Take a page from the pros and start a headline collection. When you see a great headline in an article, blog post, or even advertisement, save it – Evernote is a great app for this! Then when you’re stuck creating a headline for your own material, you’ll have some great inspiring material to jump start the process for you