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Why You Should Doubt Headline Best Practices Advice (Except This)

Welcome. I was worried you might not find this article.

After all, the headline isn’t six words long. And, according to advice on the internet, that’s the optimal headline length.

Search result for “best headline length” showing the advice “The ideal length of a headline is six words” from an article called The Proven Ideal Length Of Every Tweet, Facebook Post, And Headline Online.

You might have spotted a clue that signals how suspect that advice is. The very headline that promises to reveal the optimal word count comes in at double that “ideal” length: The Proven Ideal Length of Every Tweet, Facebook Post, and Headline Online.

It’s easy to understand why people search for headline best practices (and why people write so many of them). Headlines are powerful. Content marketers, publishers, and creators all hope to find a magic formula to prompt millions of people to click the headline and read the article.

But your hopes will be dashed if you focus on smashing your headline into the “perfect” box. Let’s explore why you should approach most of the advice out there with a try-but-verify attitude.

Double check that emotion in headline analyzers

Headline tools are a popular way to assess a headline’s quality. Most calculate a score to indicate how successful a proposed title will be. Using artificial intelligence, these tools compare the headline you enter with rules and guidelines baked into the program. But they’re far from infallible.

Consider these examples I put into a headline testing tool. The italicized text indicates the only word I changed:

  1. How to Create Your Best Content Without Best Practices (score 78)
    • Among the reasons: “Emotional words are proven to drive engagement by stirring an emotional response in readers. Great headlines usually consist of 10-15% emotional words.” This headline’s emotional words hit 11%.
  2. How to Create Your Best Videos Without Best Practices (score 74)
    • This headline’s emotional words clocked in at 0%.

Huh? The only word that was changed was “content” for “videos.” What’s so emotional about the word content? Hmm …

Oh, the headline analyzer read “CONtent” as “conTENT” – a “state of satisfaction.” The higher score is falsely attributed to a homonym.

In addition to emotion, headlines are rated based on their sentiment (positive, neutral, negative). As the tool explains, a positive sentiment usually performs better than a negative sentiment, while neutral sentiment is the worst.

Let’s test a new headline – Don’t Waste Your Time on These 10 Tricks – and scrutinize the sentiment result. Interestingly, the analyzer determines this headline as a neutral sentiment. Its advice: “Add more emotionally positive or negative words to help it stand out and drive more engagement.”

I consider “don’t waste” a negative sentiment. I’m not sure why the headline analyzer doesn’t.

Interestingly, at CMI, we’ve found the opposite of the headline analyzer’s sentiment recommendations to be true. A negative headline (using words like “don’t” or “mistake”) usually draws more clicks than positive-toned headlines.

The lessons from these exercises are simple: If the results don’t make sense, do a double take. Scrutinize the potential reasons why the results might be skewed (i.e. CONtent vs. conTENT) or how your own experience may differ from the standard advice.

Incorporate keywords in your headlines – or don’t

“Ideally, put the keyword in your headline, but make sure that it reads smoothly for your readers.” That advice from Neil Patel seems sound. And it is – if SEO is your primary goal for the content (and if your title tag reflects the same keyword – more on that later.)

But that advice can contradict other best practices, such as creating curiosity to grab attention and get the reader to click to satisfy that curiosity. But what if including the keyword in the headline satisfies that curiosity?

That’s what happened to this narrative about a young woman who had grappled with a lifelong medical mystery. The writer took care to create a curiosity gap in the lede – prompting the reader to wonder what was caused her problem: “Growing up, Alanna Gardner learned she couldn’t be too active. If she was, she would faint.”

But the headline made reading the rest of the story unnecessary: It Took a Heart Attack to Reveal Her Heart Defect.

Maybe the headline writer focused on SEO and used keywords like “heart attack” and “heart defect” – after all, that’s the expert advice.

But that SEO-focused headline satisfies the reader’s curiosity right away. They don’t have to read the rest of the story to figure out what ailed the young woman – the headline gives away the answer.

The point? Figure out the primary goal of the content before the content is created so both the body and headline of the content work together.

Listen to this best advice (really)

After busting all that “best” advice, I offer this as the truly best advice for your headlines. (And yes, it really is the best – no quotation marks needed.)

Craft headlines based on your primary goal for the piece of content. For example, is it to be found in search or is it to be clicked in the newsletter? And instead of striving to hit a magic number of words, do what works best for your brand and your target audience.

Use available headline tools and advice with a fresh perspective. Study the data you already have. Create a spreadsheet with these columns:

  • Primary goal of content
  • Headline
  • Word count
  • Character count
  • Keywords (if SEO is the goal)
  • Number of page visits from search
  • Number of page visits from other sources (email, social, etc.)
  • Conversions to indicate how the headline and subsequent content delivered (i.e., responses to CTA on the page)

Then review the results. Is there an average number of words or characters that work best? Which headlines lead to the most conversions?

Your data will tell you a lot about your headlines. Then, you’ll have a better idea if the “best” practice is really best for your content marketing.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute