Headings—which include headlines and subheadings—perform several important functions: They give readers a glimpse of your content, they organize that content into readable chunks, and they tell a story that makes it possible to grasp the gist of the content quickly.
- Headlines are the top-level headings that precede the main text. They’re coded <h1> in HTML (“Coding Basics”). Depending on your publishing tool, a headline may also serve as your page’s <title> tag, which becomes the linked heading in search results. And the headline may be the only snippet of text that people see in an RSS feed or in a mobile phone browser.
- Subheadings are the lower-level headings that organize text into chunks. They’re coded <h2>, <h3>, and so on in HTML.
Organize your webpage with headings
Headings are your basic page-organizing tool. The headline gives readers a glimpse of the whole story (Hansel and Gretel foil witch, escape), and the subheadings lead readers through the content by helping them understand what’s in each small section (Witch captures children, Hansel tricks witch, Gretel saves brother, Children arrive home).
Help readers distinguish different heading levels:
- Arrange headings in decreasing levels of importance—headline (<h1>), second-level heading (<h2>), third-level heading (<h3>)—much as you would in an outline.
- Distinguish each heading level visually. Headings are generally displayed in boldface so that they stand out from the text. The headline is generally the largest font, the second-level heading is smaller, and so on.
Write strong headlines
Successful headlines tell the gist of the story in a few powerful words. Headlines that don’t engage the reader are not successful. Inaccurate or misleading headlines are worse: Sensationalized ones may bring curious readers to your site but will soon drive them away and harm your site’s credibility.
To write an effective headline, you must read and understand the story and compress the most important information into a few meaningful words. That’s a tall order for a short bit of copy, but it’s a skill anyone writing or editing for the Web should try to master.
Follow these steps for effective headline writing:
1. Review the content thoroughly
Read the story, watch the video, click through the slideshow. Before you start writing, make sure you thoroughly understand the content so that you can give it an accurate headline.
2. Identify the content’s tone
Is the content serious or lighthearted, professional or confessional, matter-of-fact or over-the-top? Give your headline a tone that suits the content. For example, if you’re writing a serious story about a natural disaster, the headline should not be frivolous. The tone should also be appropriate for your audience and true to your site’s identity, standards, and voice.
3. Determine the point of the content
Why are you publishing this content? Why will your readers be interested in it? Figuring out the larger significance of a story, its unique angle, or what makes it different from similar webpages will help you write a headline that speaks to your audience. Consider the following examples focusing on a fictional product.
Griblak’s “CoolBlue” face moisturizer poses health risks (An article targeting health professionals highlights medical findings about a questionable product.)
Griblak’s “CoolBlue” moisturizer: Get out of my face! (A report and warning on the same product, for a breezy teen beauty blog, aims at preventing the product’s use.)
You should be able to find the story’s point in the first paragraph. If you can’t, edit your page to put the most important point at the beginning.
4. Consider where the headline will appear
Is the headline for the homepage, for a category or section page, or for an article? Will the headline turn up in RSS feeds, on mobile devices, in search results? Make sure your copy will work wherever it appears. Some tips:
- Story-level headlines are important to readers and search engines, and they show up in newsreaders and other content aggregators as well. Focus on search keywords for SEO purposes. If you have to choose between being clever and being clear, choose clarity.
- Section-level headlines should appeal to engaged readers who are interested in that section’s topic, helping them scan stories to find what they want. The headlines should balance keywords with enough intrigue to inspire clicks.
- Homepage headlines are often promotional: They sell content to casual readers. Again, favor clarity over cleverness, and employ search keywords to draw readers to your site.
- Mobile headlines should be as brief as possible, focusing on keywords and linking to the website for more information.
5. List five or six keywords that should be in the headline
If you have done keyword research for your page, you already know the words to target. Otherwise, ask yourself which words you would use in a search to find this story. Proper nouns—the names of people, places, and things—are good. Avoid abbreviations, because people tend to spell out words in searches. Then use those five or six keywords in a short sentence, which you will later trim to headline length.
Fab-U-Loz Chocolate, baby boomers, heart attack prevention, longevity
Study finds Fab-U-Loz Chocolate prevents heart attacks in baby boomers.
If you’re stuck, try pulling something out of the first paragraph of the story. But don’t cheat by repeating a sentence verbatim for the headline. Readers don’t want to see the same verbiage twice, and search engines won’t like the repetition either.
- Is your wording more compelling than your competition’s?
- Has anyone else used identical wording? If so, you probably want to change yours—you’d be competing directly, and the other story has already built up some search momentum.
- Look at the top results: Which keywords do they have in common? You probably want to use those, too.
- Is there a keyword or a story angle that the top results aren’t using? Take advantage of it.
6. Use a verb that’s strong, active, fresh, and accurate
Subject-verb-object (Hercules slays Hydra!) is often the best structure for a headline, because it puts the actor (subject) and the action (verb) first. Every word has to pull its weight in a headline, and a dynamic verb can do a lot of heavy lifting. Assuming both are accurate, which headline would you be more likely to click: “Peace talks end” or “Peace talks collapse”? Seek verbs that are:
- Strong. Use short, staccato, urgent, muscular verbs in your draft headline. The strongest have just one or two syllables, with stress on the second syllable to propel the rhythm forward. Examples: duck, win, hail, free, extol, sing, lash, reject, rout, stomp, shellac, seize, switch, destroy, save, urge, revive.
Greeks gain entry to Troy, win
Greeks seize Troy
- Active. Use the active rather than the passive voice, and the present tense unless past tense is necessary. Active verbs put the actor first and sound livelier than passive verbs, which can sound static or abstract.
Hare beaten by tortoise in footrace
Tortoise beats hare in footrace
- Fresh. Choose a verb that hasn’t been overused. Check a thesaurus when you need a shorter or more interesting verb, but be careful to choose a synonym that means exactly what you want to say. Synonyms can have slightly different connotations. For example, one word-processing program suggests airy as a synonym for fresh, but airy wouldn’t make sense as the bold heading of this bullet item.
- Accurate. Make sure your strong, active, fresh verbs represent the story accurately. Consider: The headline “Stocks crash” conveys a different idea than “Stocks fall” does. Remember: Your headline may surface in a feed on its own, with no accompanying story or image to give it context. Could someone misunderstand it?
7. Be concise, be specific
Refine your draft headline to make it brief, to the point, and more informative. Put the two most important words first, where they’re most likely to be read.
Gold medal goes to Jones (The gold medal is important, but it’s not the real point of the story.)
Jones wins gold medal (Even if this headline is shortened for space, the first two words will tell the story.)
8. Edit and proofread your headline
When you have a headline that’s complete, compact, and compelling, walk away from it for a few minutes—and then edit and proofread it one more time. Ask:
- Does the headline summarize the content accurately?
- Are the voice and tone appropriate?
- Are the most important pieces of information—the actor and the action—first?
- Is the sentence structure simple and easy to understand at a glance?
- Do strong, intriguing words compel a reader to keep reading?
- Is there any ambiguity?
- Have you checked the grammar, punctuation, style, and spelling, especially the spelling of names and keywords?
Establish heading styles
Your headings express your site’s voice, both in the words you use and in the way you style them.
Design may dictate how many characters you can allot to headings. Beyond this, however, you will likely have some decisions to make. Should you capitalize headings as you would a sentence, or as a title? Should you use full sentences or fragments? The heading style you choose is important, and so is sticking with it consistently throughout the entire site.
Consider the following when deciding on a heading style.
The three main styles of capitalization used in headings are sentence case (Governor signs the Virginia school tax bill), title case (Governor Signs the Virginia School Tax Bill), and all uppercase (GOVERNOR SIGNS THE VIRGINIA SCHOOL TAX BILL), which you should reserve for headings in plain-text emails. Whichever style you choose, be sure to use it consistently across your site. See “Capitalization” for more information on applying capitalization styles.
Headings don’t generally include periods or other ending punctuation. If you want to include question marks and exclamation points, be stingy with them.
- Question marks can be effective if the content answers the headline’s question. Generally, though, a direct statement is better.
- Exclamation points usually mark an attempt to add excitement that should be conveyed by strong words instead.
Are polar bears in decline? (For an article about a study finding that, yes, the polar bear population is in decline)
Scientists debate fate of polar bear population (For an article about a summit called to debate this issue)
Dolphin helps diver find sunken treasure!
Dolphin leads diver to sunken treasure
Are all your subheadings sentence fragments (one word or short phrases), or are they complete sentences? Used consistently, either choice is fine. But—unless there’s a very good reason for including it—one long sentence among several fragment subheadings will stand out, and not in a good way. Grammatically and aesthetically it can look sloppy.
- Headings of the same level should be consistent, but they need not match other levels. For example, you may decide that second-level subheadings will all be imperative sentences and third-level subheadings will all be questions.
- Try to start most subheadings with the same part of speech, such as a verb or a noun. This will make them easier to scan.
Holiday Gift Gadgets for Everyone (Headline)
Point the way with GPS (Subheading that starts with a verb)
Accessorize a mobile device (Subheading that starts with a verb)
Compact cameras with big features (Subheading that starts with a noun that could be misread as a verb—especially when it follows other subheadings starting with verbs)
Holiday Gift Gadgets for Everyone (Headline)
GPS devices for finding the way (Subheading that starts with a noun)
Accessories for mobile devices (Subheading that starts with a noun)
Compact cameras with big features (Subheading that starts with a noun)