Web headlines are unique. They break most, if not all the rules of traditional headline writing. And why not. Web is another medium. It has its own grammar, and you need to understand, and respect this reality. Here are some of the key characteristics that every web editor must keep in mind while writing web headlines:
# 1. Web headlines must satisfy two masters
Your first master is the human being who reads the headline written by you, and then clicks on it to reach the news report. This will only happen if the headline fires the curiosity of the human being to learn more. This is why web headlines are called virtual gateways. They have to be immensely attractive for web visitors to “click open” the gate.
The second master is the search engine. This is a very unforgiving master. It will display only those headlines on the search page that accurately match the search keyword entered by the web user. Your skill lies in second guessing the web visitor as to which search word he will use, and make sure that the same keyword is present in your headline. Not only this, the search engine will be happier if the keyword is positioned at the start of the headline. In SEO terms, this is called frontloading the headlines, and the chances of such headlines being displayed on the search page are higher.
# 2. Length of web headlines should be less than 70 characters
The length of the web headlines is also dictated by search engines, Google to be precise. You only have to view a Google search engine results page to realise the hold that Google exercises on web headlines. You will notice that Google stops all headlines at the 70-character mark. Any headline that is over 70 characters is ruthlessly chopped off. So, you must make sure that your web headlines don’t go beyond the 70 character limit unilaterally set by Google. Otherwise, Google will insert an ellipsis after 70 characters. The rest of the headline will be incomprehensible to your readers.
You may now ask what is the ideal length of headlines if they are to win Google’s approval. The ideal web headlines should be between 35 to 70 characters. In words, they should be between six to ten words.
# 3. Web headlines need proper nouns
Another area where the writ of search engine runs large is the use of proper nouns. All web headlines must use a proper noun if they have to be indexed by search engines or figure in web searches. For instance, the chances of the following headline to be listed on top of a search engine results page are virtually zero:
Fares to go up
Whose fares? That’s the first question that comes to your mind when you see the headline. Imagine the state of the search engine. It will be even more confused.
You need to give the organisation’s name if you want the search engines to find your story.
Delhi Metro fares to go up
This is one characteristic of web headlines that no web editor should ignore.
# 4. Limited variation in Point Size
The web headlines use two point sizes. The headlines published on the story page are written in a large point size. However, the headlines on the home page, category page or landing pages, where several headlines are displayed, are written in a small point size. This enables the editors to showcase the headlines of more stories on these pages.
# 5. Web headlines establish freshness, not news value
Unlike print headlines, web headlines don’t establish the news value of a story. The reason for this is that web is an instant medium. Barring the top two or three stories of the day, all other news headlines are displayed in a chronological order, with the last headline published on the top.
The headlines may therefore establish the freshness of the news, but they don’t establish their news value.