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headlinesWhich headline makes you want to click more? “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” or “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did”?

I don’t know about you, but I vote for choice No. 2.

The New York Times recently published an article on its website,, with the headline “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” The article was about how stores are using data about their customers to create marketing strategies.

Forbes’ Kashmir Hill then posted a story (with a link to The New York Times article), but used a much sexier headline – “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.”

On Feb. 19, Nick O’Neill, former owner and freelance writer of the Social Times blog, which was acquired by WebMediaBrands in 2009, wrote an article about this situation on his blog. He used the headline: “How Forbes Stole A New York Times Article And Got All The Traffic.” According to O’Neill’s blog post, The New York Times article had 14,000 likes on Facebook, and Forbes’ had more than 15,000.

When posting an article online, there isn’t a more important task than writing a headline (sometimes called a title). After all, this is not only one of the major components search engines look at, it is the one and only chance to draw readers to click on the headline and read the article.

Here are five tips to writing great headlines for the web:

  1. Make them compelling and controversial: “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” is interesting, but “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did” is much more likely to draw in readers because teen pregnancy is a hot topic. The story is also likely to see much more engagement with readers (comments), although provocative headlines also run the risk of turning off some readers, especially if the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise.
  2. Stay away from puns: When I used to work on copy desks at daily newspapers, I got no more satisfaction than writing a fantastic pun headline that worked. These types of headlines do not work online because online headlines are all about keywords (see tip number two) and being to the point;
  3. Use keywords: Think about what words people will use to find your story in Google. If you use names, make sure to include first and last. Check out your stats on Google Analytics to see what keywords are most popular that drive people to your website. Some sites, such as The Onion, even write their headlines first, before the story, to maximize the number of people that came to;
  4. Keep them short and to the point: Online headlines should be no more than 10 words – the shorter, the better. When people come to your website, they want to be able to make quick decisions about which stories they want to read; and
  5. Use questions: They must be provocative and make the reader want to click to find out the answer.

What do you think? Does the headline on this blog post meet the criterion above? Let us know in the comments.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips /