Headlines that Suck and What You Can Learn from Them

The Poynter Institute, Eyetools Inc. and the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media used eye tracking equipment to study the way people read webpages and came up with some interesting information to help website owners and bloggers everywhere. The study, called Eyetrack III, studied 46 people for an hour as they read online. They found that a headline that is dominant will draw the eye and even more so if they are located in the upper left corner of the page.

In addition, a headline that has specific wording, such as some of the examples Jerry Low provides in his article titled Write Headlines Like Brian Clark, Neil Patel, and Jon Morrow: 35 Headline Samples From The A-List Bloggers, will grab a reader’s attention.

One of the best ways to learn what you should do when writing a headline is by looking at headline fails. By studying what doesn’t work, you’ll learn what not to do when writing your own headlines.

What Makes a Headline Suck?

There are some very specific things that make headlines suck. Sometimes, you just don’t realize something sucks until you read it and realize how bad it is, though.

Too Short

You’ve probably heard the advice to “K.I.S.S.” (Keep It Simple, Sweetie), but even good things can be taken too far. Although a headline shouldn’t be three lines long, it also shouldn’t be so short that the reader only has an extremely broad sense of the topic. You want the reader to know exactly what your article is about when she starts to read it.

Let’s use this article as an example. My headline is “Headlines that Suck and What You Can Learn from Them”. Hopefully you know you’re going to learn about what not to do in a headline and get some instruction in writing better ones.

What if I’d used a different headline that wasn’t as clear? What if I went with:

“That Sucks!”

While that might grab your attention for a second, you would have no idea what my article was about. I could be writing about anything

Too Long

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the headline that is far too long. Like a crazy run-on sentence, it keeps going and going and going.

Gothamist points to a New York Post headline as possibly one of the longest ever. On May 18th, 2013, Josh Saul’s column went up with the following headline:

Gospel singer suing McDonald’s after she allegedly bit into piece of glass while eating chicken sandwich, which she claims ruined her voice

Wow! That wouldn’t even make a good sentence, much less a headline. This headline could be fixed by focusing on the key points:

Gospel Singer Suing McDonald’s for “Ruining her Voice”

Here is another headline that sucks because it is far too long:

Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay pub after she waved at man dressed as a Snickers bar

Okay, I kind of understand why the reporter wanted to use all that in an attempt to grab the reader’s interest, but it was just too much. Instead, better to write something shorter like this:

Woman Assaults Ex-Girlfriend; Snickers Bar Involved

Too Ridiculous

There are times when a headline is so crazy and ridiculous that it fails to entice the reader to peruse its pages. After all, if the headline sounds insane, then the article probably is, too.

Ridiculous headlines usually occur when the writer either exaggerates or fails to use the proper punctuation.

According to the Huffington Post, the following headline appeared in the Petersburg Progress-Index, a Virginia newspaper:

Skydiver lands on beer vendor at women’s cole slaw wrestling event

While that most definitely qualifies as ridiculous, I’d probably read that article. What is more concerning are the headlines where incorrect grammar changes the meaning of the headline. If you are going to double and triple check your grammar anywhere, do so in your headlines!

They may be talking about golf in the following headline, but how can you be sure? I mean, ouch! Poor grandchild. She must not have liked that one.

Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One – Slinky City

When writing headlines, keep in mind any double meanings the reader may get from that headline.

Grammar errors might be something that some of your readers never notice, but if you forget to use commas appropriately, etc., some of your readers WILL notice and it will drive them insane. Think about some of the examples you’ve seen online, such as:

We’re eating Grandpa.

That’s horrible! Is your family cannibalistic? Remember to use commas.

We’re eating, Grandpa.

The main way to avoid these issues is to be aware of your headlines and perhaps have a second set of eyes look headlines over to make sure they aren’t ridiculous.

Too Manipulative

Some headlines try to manipulate the reader into reading the article. While you can “entice” the reader, you don’t want her to feel manipulated. She will resent your site for manipulating her, particularly if you get her there under false pretenses and then the article fails to deliver.

Example:

Read This Article Right Now if You Want to Survive Another Night

I don’t know about you, but that sounds almost threatening. I likely wouldn’t bother to read it and would chalk it up to a sensationalist journalism approach.

Too Spammy

For years now, readers have gotten spam in their inboxes and looked at subject headings that are spam in themselves. They are familiar with click-bait type headlines that simply seek to get clicks because the headline is shocking or provocative. Readers avoid these headlines.

Words to avoid in headlines

Outbrain's data demonstrates that readers are becoming more savvy to the spammy tactics used by some advertisers. According to their study, titles with the following words (Free, easy, etc) get lower engagement.

Outbrain’s data demonstrates that readers are becoming more savvy to the spammy tactics used by some advertisers. According to their study, titles with the following words (Free, easy, etc) get lower engagement.

According to Outbrain, consumers avoid specific words. For example, words like “Magic”, “Free” and “Must” have a negative reader engagement ranking.

Some examples of spammy headlines include:

You Must Read This Article Before Your Next Meal!

I guarantee you that the reader will go ahead and eat dozens of meals and still won’t read your article with a headline like that.

The Magic Formula that Will Earn You $1,000 by Tomorrow

How many spam emails have you gotten that are very similar to this? As a reader, would you bother to click on an article headline with this type of lead-in?

Last summer, Facebook changed its news feed algorithms to push spammy headlines with certain keywords down in news feeds. That means that only relevant, well thought out headlines will have decent reach on the social media giant.

Since top-notch headlines are what you should be writing anyway, this simply forces the issue on this platform. It is a positive move by Facebook and has cut much of the spammy headlines that seemed to be overtaking news feeds for a while there.

The Good and the Bad

When writing the perfect headline, you’ll want to consider the examples of good headlines provided by Jerry Low in the article mentioned at the top of this page. However, you’ll also want to weigh the ideas you generate with what you shouldn’t be doing.

By understanding both the elements of a good article title and the elements that drive readers crazy, you’ll have the best chance possible of reaching readers and getting them to click on your title and read more.