Headline writing: How web and print headlines differ

by Shawn Smith on March 25, 2008

Headlines make or break readers - how do they differ on the web?

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about headline writing for web content producers. This series will cover best practices for writing headlines for people, search engines and social media. Check out my beginning blogging for journalists series. Amazing flickr image by christopher.woo

Headline writing is perhaps one of the most important and often-incorrectly-executed aspects of blogging and posting news stories online.

The point of a web story headline is to entice a reader to click into a story and read more. More clicks mean you are better connecting with your readership.

The differences between web and print audiences and headline presentations make headline writing one of the most important jobs of a web content publisher.

The kicker: How do you write headlines that will entice web readers?

First, you must understand that web headlines serve a unique purpose when compared to print headlines.



In print, page presentation, images and accompanying text can increase a headline’s impact. Words like “BIG CRASH” make sense in bold above a photo of car accident. Print headlines have presence and can be great for getting people to notice stories. Here’s some characteristics of print headlines:

  • Photos or images lend context. Printed headlines often have images and supporting text to support them and make the stories relevant to readers. A two-word headline has little chance of making sense without a big photo summing up the story.
  • Text size can help headlines make impact. When print readers see huge bold text above the fold, they know that the story is likely an important read. Big text will likely draw the read in.
  • Subheads make extra push to readers. How many times have you read a headline and then moved directly to the subhead? Readers want more context. Subheads explain to readers what the story is about when the headline often times only contains a couple words.
  • Print headlines show up in one place. Print headlines on the front of the newspaper don’t show up again on the inside sections. Local news section headlines are not promo’d again in the business section. Headlines in printed publications have limited presence.
  • Print headlines don’t change. Once it hits the dead tree, you can’t recall the day’s papers and change your stories’ headlines.


On the web, headlines take on the role of telling the entire story in limited words.

Let’s revisit the “Big Crash” headline that we saw in print. Do those words make sense on the web without other text or images to put it in context? If a reader see only those words on a page of search results, does the reader think about plummeting stock markets or a nasty hit during a hockey game?

Without putting those headline words in context, a reader can’t know what the story is about. It’s imperative that web headlines tell the story. Here’s some characteristics of headlines on the web:

  • Web headlines appear in many places on a site. Web headlines can be syndicated with RSS to show up on many places throughout a site. For example, if a site wants to promote local news stories in the business sections, they can run an RSS feed of news headlines on a sidebar, which creates better chance of cross-section readership.
  • Web headlines pop up on external sites. Through RSS, headlines can be syndicated on Google News, other news sites, blogs, wherever. This is great news because the more places your RSS feed appears, the more chances for increased readership you get.
  • Web headlines don’t always appear with other content. Web headlines can’t depend on images or subheads to get readers to click them. Web headlines must be enticing enough to generate clicks.
  • Web headlines can’t depend on text size for impact. Because headlines can be syndicated through feeds and often must fit in styles on different pages, it’s nearly impossible to depend on a headline’s size to grab attention of a reader. If size can’t do it, what can?
  • Web headlines must get the point across. If your news sites’ headlines can appear anywhere on the web and without supporting content, it’s incredibly important to be able to convey the point of the story with just text.
  • Your headline won’t necessarily be the headline people use. Believe it. Web users often share your stories on social media sites and write their own headlines for your content. The better headline you write, the less likely web users will have to edit your headlines to make them relevant to social media sites.
  • You can change web headlines! If a headline you wrote for the morning’s story doesn’t seem to say the right thing about the story, you can change it any time. On the web, you can edit any content in real time, including your headlines.

How do you write better headlines for the web?

Writing headlines for the web isn’t second-nature for most web users and print writers. The web uses different applications and media to share content, which means headline writing for content needs to change to fit readers’ needs.

To further complicate things, web stories have THREE audiences: People, Social Media and Search Engines. Stay tuned to this series to learn how to craft your headlines for each.

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