Why print headlines don’t work well on the web

If you work in an organization that publishes content for both print and the web, it’s important to understand why print headlines don’t translate well on the web.

Print headlines

In print, headlines are often supported by contextual information such as a photo, graphic, subheadline, or pull quote to help tell the story. Take for example this article from the print version of UCLA Magazine called “Makin’ Bacon,” about a UCLA grad who started a bacon themed food truck .

Screenshot of UCLA Magazine website

The headline is catchy and the photo of the Lardon truck helps provide context, which is used to attract the readers attention and interest. However, on the web this headline doesn't work well, and here's why.

Web headlines must provide context

On the web, headlines alone must tell the story, often without supporting context like photos or subheadlines. They can also appear in several different sections of a website. Let’s pretend for a moment you had never seen the "Makin’ Bacon" story in print. Instead, you visit the UCLA Magazine website which has the exact same story online.

Scan of Makin Bacon print article

While browsing around, you notice the Most Popular widget in the right column and see that "Makin' Bacon" is the second most viewed article.

Screenshot of Most Popular widget

Based on that headline alone, do you really know what it's about? Maybe a great bacon recipe or a story on how bacon is made. What if I'm not a huge fan of bacon, but I really love food trucks? I'd never know that. While the headline works well in print, on the web it needs to provide more context.

Let's make a simple change to the headline and call it “Makin’ Bacon at the Lardon Food Truck”.

Screenshot of Most Popular widget

Already, that tells you a lot more about the story, and it helps with search engine optimization (SEO), because we've added two important keywords -- Lardon and Food Truck.

Remember, users aren’t going directly to your site to find content

We also have to consider how users are consuming and discovering content online outside the context of your website. Writing good headlines isn't just about SEO. A huge majority of people are still searching on Google, but they're also subscribing to RSS feeds, visiting sites like Reddit, and clicking on links their friends are sharing via social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

For example, on Twitter users often share links that appear on their followers timeline. Which headline would grab your attention more? One that only said "Makin' Bacon".

Screenshot of Twitter timeline

Or one that said "Makin' Bacon at the Lardon Food Truck".

Screenshot of Twitter timeline

Headlines have the power to literally make or break a story online.  One that is written well can mean the difference between a story being ignored and one that is shared and clicked on thousands of times. They must be able to stand on their own.

Additional Resources

Here's a great example that illustrates how headlines are changed for print and the web in Wired magazine.