The 80/20 Value of Titles
Recently, Rand did one of the best Whiteboard Fridays I've seen in a while (I do watch all of them) about increasing the likelihood of your content going viral. He touches briefly upon the importance of your title for click through rate and sharability, but in this post I'd like to take a more in depth look at titles and how they help spread your content. (By the way, this is my first YouMoz – woohoo!)
In my opinion, the elements of writing click worthy titles deserve more attention. In the wonderful marketing book “Made To Stick”, the Heath brothers note that any good news or editorial writer may spend 80% of their time crafting the title (or “lead”) and then whatever time they have left on the body of the content.
For those familiar with 80/20, what this means is, the size of the title compared to the actual content (and time spent crafting it) disproportionately affects the success of that content. It's one small piece of text with a lot power!
Note: to clarify, I am not necessarily referring to the title tag exclusively. I'm referring to simply the title of a page, post, article… which as you will see below can be the same as your title tag, but doesn't have to be.
A Quick Analogy: The Internet As a Highway
If your webpage was a store on the side of a busy highway, the title's job would be to capture attention and get people in the door. As many of the right people as possible. If you've ever driven on Route 1 heading into Boston, MA, you know what I mean (see photo).
Lots of people may pass by your links, tweets and shares, but few may actually stop to come in and check things out.
I hope this little analogy illustrates the extreme importance of crafting a clickable title – and that you will join me as I suggest some ideas for making your titles more clickable. Let's go!!!
7 Ingredients of a Click Worthy Title
Assuming all other factors neutral for the moment, let's look at what I think are 7 most important ingredients of your titles;
Ingredient 1: Curiosity
Your title should be clear enough that people know what they're going to get when they click, but also leave an element of curiosity – so you almost can't help but to click. You just have to find out what's on the other side. Some examples of elements that can entice curiosity;
Curiosity A: Unexpected
How do you make something unexpected? Combine two things that usually do not go together, like this;
“Diet Coke” is not something you usually expect to see in a post about SEO. 77 thumbs up.
Curiosity B: Incomplete Thought or Question
Pete's title here makes me curious, because he asks an open question, which I wonder how/if it will be answered within the post.
Curiosity C: Present A Conflict (Plot)
Rand does a great job here of introducing curiosity because there is an inherent conflict; a choice requiring resolution. Which one will he choose and why? Which do I choose and can I offer an alternative opinion? Will I agree with him?
Curiosity D: State What Something Isn't
I'm left thinking; It isn't? What Is? Do I know them? What's John going to say?
Ingredient 2: Highlight The Benefit
Benefit is congruent to differentiation. On the whole, people will visit a page because there is some sort of benefit to them. Useful content, entertainment, or even content that will make them look good if they share it. Why should someone click and visit your page? What are they going to get out of it? Some examples that imply benefit;
- How to…
- 7 Ways…
- Find Out How…
- Introducing…. (implies newness)
These are all common elements of a title that hint at benefit. Like this;
Providing a clear benefit is also a way to differentiate your content from others, in that you're implying it holds unique value that can't be found elsewhere. I also like “face-off” – there's a lot of meaning (visual, emotion, tension, etc) packed into those two words.
Ingredient 3: Elicit Excitement/Emotion
People also act on emotion – excitement, fear, hope. Your title should conjure the right emotion in viewers. I don't think people always click purely on emotion, but emotion can certainly support the other ingredients. Things like;
Thanks for the tweet Tom 🙂 I think the emotional aspect (as in this case) can apply more to social media – the title you might craft in a tweet of something, such as Tom's “ridiculously awesome” text here. Some other emotional words are;
You get the idea 🙂
Note that adverbs (ending in “ly”) are quite popular. Honestly, I'm just using the thesaurus for a lot of those 🙂 But if you're fine with describing your own work in such glamorous words, go for it! I typically reserve this for something I'm really confident about, or if I'm referring to something else, like a product review.
- Exclamation points!!!!!!
- ALL CAPS – You MUST Read This NOW
- ——–>Arrows. The Best Post Ever —> Read Now
- *Asterisks* – I Just *Love* The Ideas in blah blah blah….
Just remember that not all special type characters work well across different platforms (social, blog themes etc) so use carefully. And they can also get annoying quickly, so use sparingly.
Ingredient 4: Make It Tangible
The Health Brother's book “Made To Stick” talks a lot about making your ideas concrete or tangible. I highly recommend going to this page of resources and downloading the free PDF “Made To Stick Success Model” (and read their book!)
Great example here though by Mike King;
I'm sure we all get an instant clear picture in mind of the “Cat In The Hat”, as it's a familiar tangible graphic. Also keep in mind that, in Mike's case especially, a great post can naturally lend its self to a great title.
Ingredient 5: Appearance & Length
Although, in my opinion, not as important as 1-4, but if you can get your titles to look aesthetically pleasing, even better. Like this;
I like what Neil has done here, however intentional or not. The title fits on one line. It looks pleasing graphically, and its seven words long (which is supposedly the recommended length of a title or headline).
Ingredient 6: Sound
I don't know about you, but I “hear” myself saying the titles in my head. Just like appearance, this is of secondary importance, but if you can put an artistic touch to your titles, it makes them that much better.
I'm going to use Neil's title (noted just above) again as an example here. It sounds nice. It has a poetic ring to it.
- The alliteration “Lessons Learned”.
- The “esss” sound in “Lessons” and “SEO” fit nicely
- as well as the “sea” sound in agency.
Can you tell I am a musician?
Again, the appearance and sound of your title is secondary, I believe, to the first four ingredients, but in my mind if you can get all 7 elements into a title, you're a freakin' genius. 🙂
Ingredient 7: Expectations
Don't advertise “the best burger in town” and then have it be a veggie burger. It could be the best veggie burger that ever existed, but you set the wrong expectation. This is where you need to have some serious alignment and harmony between what you promise in the title and deliver with the content.
For this, I'd like to cite an example where the wrong expectation may have been set;
While honestly, I've only skimmed this post, the 17 thumbs down and people's comments (some about the title directly) illustrate the point that you don't want misrepresent the content of your post. Whether intentional or not, this post unfortunately seemed to do that. But conversely it did get quite a bit of attention (101 thumbs up and promotion to main blog) so it was a well-written title, just may not have been best aligned with the content.
So some questions to ask yourself to double check this;
- Does the title match the content? – What would YOU expect to see on the other side if you read the title? Does it match in what you imply the benefits will be?
- Does it imply content type? – Do you use the words “photo, video, graphic, interview, read, slideshow” etc implying what the core content type is going to be? Does that in fact match what's in the post?
- How long will it take to consume? – Do you call something a “complete guide”, implying extensive length, when it is just a short overview? Do you call something a “quick recap” when in fact it's an in-depth look? Or say “7 steps” when in fact that's only a piece of the whole content?
Finally, note that you don't have to have all of these ingredients all of the time. Certain content may be more inherently exciting, or other content more controversial and thus evokes more curiosity.
Breaking The Rules
There are, of course plenty of exceptions to these ingredients in the real world:
Exception 1: Created By Influential Person/Business
If Rand or Danny Sullivan or Avinash posts a new article, there is an inherent trust and reputation built in. I think the concept of authority is explained well in Rand's post about thought leadership. Along those lines, when Roger (@SEOmoz) tweets out the newest blog post, since this is coming from a popular SEO company, Roger's reputation can boost up click worthiness and thus, the title is not quite as important.
Exception 2: Extremely Noteworthy or Newsworthy Content
During the time of SOPA or the Google (Not Provided) dilemma or now SPYW, if you were to post something with a decent title that was timely, this would be more likely to get clicks, just by nature of it being a hot topic.
Exception 3: Rebellion / Pure Artistic Liberty / Don't Care
Obviously there are sectors of the web or moments where you just want to throw your hair down and crank out an over the top, creative, artistic, rebellious title. Of course, as I'm now typing this, those sound like they'd get some good clicks as well! They just won't follow the “formula”.
I shamelessly use my own example;
When I was first getting my SEO blog going, I didn't care so much about getting tons of traffic, because I knew I was just starting to blog about SEO, and thus it wouldn't be my best content. It was more for practice, and to have some content there to build upon. So why not have some fun right?
And as I imply, the “ingredients” as described above do not always have to follow this formula, depending upon your audience and industry and even goals.
Where / How The Title Appears Around the Web
When you come up with a great title, where do you put it? Should it always go in your title tag? Header?
Most often, some version of your title is going to be in three places;
- Title Tag
- Header (which should be the H1)
- URL (in a “clean” format, with hyphens etc).
But there are exceptions and considerations. A balance needs to be found between what will appear on-site, in theSERPs in social media or even bookmarking. Some things to keep in mind about each;
1. The SERPs
1.The title tag IS the anchor text in the SERPs (unless Google decides to change it).
I know this is basic, but SO important to remember when we're composing the title tag not only for rankings but CTR. Doesn't help if it ranks but no one clicks!
2. (In My Opinion) The Title Tag Should Be 50% for SEO and 50% for clicks
What do I mean by this? Good practice technical SEO (for ranking) says to put your most important keyword/keyphrase in the title tag, and as close to the front as possible. I'm speaking more about blog posts in this case, but I feel that if the keyword needs to be towards the end, or split up/modified in some way, to create a click worthy title, this is essential. Obviously if you're trying to rank a page for an extremely competitive keyword in the e-commerce space for example, this is going to differ, but that case may be extreme.
3. URLs – This is where you can win for rankings!!
Look at the URL in Avinash's post;
His TITLE (with “change or perish” is click worthy) but his URL does not need “change or perish”. Keep your URLs as clean, focused and optimized as possible. This again is simply my opinion and experience and what I would recommend to clients in most cases. I even recommend switching the order of your words in the URL to get the keywords in the front of the URL, if this was not possible in the title tag.
The header will likely NOT appear in the SERPs, unless it ends up in the description.
What I find unique about Twitter is, the link anchor text is not the title, which differs from most other places on the web. Thus why I like Twitter as a tool for experimentation, because you can change the headline easily just by writing a new tweet, but it is important to know where the title can come from.
Via The Tweet Button
Normally, what will auto-fill by default is the title tag;
Yet another reason to optimize your title tag for CTR!!!
You can of course control to an extent what text auto-fills via the tweet button, and I recommend starting with theTwitter documentation for this.
What The User Inputs
Often it's the case that people will create their own text to tweet a link, but in many cases they will just copy your page header (this is what I do anyway if just sharing quickly) because it's the easiest thing to do. In many cases, your CMS (WordPress for example) will make your title tag and header the same thing by default (and also add the website name at the end of the title tag).
Twitter and URLs
This is an interesting and outlying example that Rand pointed out, where the URL can potentially help CTR. That is, when you hover over most URLs in Twitter, you can see the full URL as you hover;
Very useful, and this for me will make or break a click 100% of the time. I always hover before clicking. Obviously this is limited to desktop/laptop devices 🙂
But here you can see that is not always the case, and in this case I am much less likely to click;
Ahh… Facebook and the Open Graph. This is where things get interesting for sure. I remember when I first was learning about the Facebook like/share/recommend buttons, I was confused how it all worked. In short though – you have to properly add the Facebook open graph meta tags to your site to control what appears when people use Facebook share buttons, and even to an extent, when people simply cut and paste a link into Facebook.
4. Google Plus
As expected, Goolge Plus uses your title tag for the title of a link when sharing;
It's OK to share stuff about Facebook on Google Plus right?
So to conclude for implementation, in general:
- Write Title Tags for CTR with enough SEO to help rankings.
- Write URLs mainly for SEO but descriptive enough for clicks. Keep them clean looking.
- Write Headers that closely match your title but also look and feel great on-page.
- While all three elements should contain your core keyword, the three elements do not have to be exactly the same.
Analyzing The Effectiveness Of Your Titles
While an in depth technique for measuring CTR is out of the scope of this post (it still seems CTR is one of those Holy Grail metrics for SEO – deceptively hard to calculate average CTR and even actual CTR for specific sites. Not just in SERPs, but everywhere around the web. If SEOmoz developed a way to truly and accurately measure this, I would use it! Do you agree?) .. I can however point you to a few resources, which can help you get a basic feel for how your CTR is going;
There are many options for URL shorteners, but I personally use and like bit.ly, so we'll focus on that here.
First, I recommend reading bit.ly's documentation on how they capture data and display metrics.
Secondly, Rand mentions how if you add the + (plus) sign to the end of any bit.ly URL, you can see the stats for that link. This is awesome!!
For instance, take someone like Tim Ferriss, who has a relatively high amount of followers on Twitter. I can take a link he's shared on Twitter and see how many clicks its received. Not only that, I can look through his entire list of publically shortened URLs.
That said, I'm sure there are technical geniuses who can figure out a more robust method to measuring and using publically available data like this, but just eyeballing it is worthwhile, to study what titles have been effective.
Click Through Rate For Twitter – Rand wrote a great post, which attempts to measure Twitter CTR in conjunction with some other interesting metrics.
SERP Turkey – The new tool by Tom Anthony, which allows you to test CTR in the SERPs. Admittedly I have not tried it yet, but would also like to say it deserves more attention! Richard Baxter wrote about it here in a fantastic postabout how search intention may influence CTR.
Practice Writing Titles!
A/B Test Titles
Again, using bit.ly, you can;
- Create two (or more if you want to go nuts) short links to the same article.
- Tweet them both using two versions of the title in your tweet – try to keep other variables as similar as possible.
- Look at your bit.ly stats and see which one got more clicks and shares.
This isn't to be scientific, as much as to practice and have fun!!
Re-Write Other People's Titles
I love this one. I regularly will compose tweets to other people's content and write my own title, use bit.ly and measure the clicks. Again, we're just having fun and practicing here, not necessarily being super scientific.
Write Ten Titles in 60 Seconds
Sometime you just have to get those ideas moving. Try setting a timer and jot down ten titles as fast as you can!! Just do it!! The creative moment can be a powerful thing.
Study Non-Web Sources
As Gianluca pointed out in his comments to Rand's post, look at how newspapers and editorial print publications compose titles. This is not a new concept, in fact as you'll learn in Made To Stick, the idea of crafting a lead has been around a long time!! You can gain a lot of inspiration from non-web sources.
Try Identifying the “Ingredients” Of Any Given Title;
Inspiration & Resources
The Class I'd Like to Teach – 37Signals – Love this little piece by co-founder Jason Fried. He talks about writing a “one sentence paper” but the spirit of it certainly applies to titles.
6 Tips for Improving Twitter CTR – Get Elastic – Fantastic article with a wide variety of suggestions for improving CTR in Twitter (not just Titles), but things like link placement, length, word types etc.
Irresistible Headlines – Jonathan Fields – I confess, a few of my “ingredient” ideas for titles came from this post, and although Jonathan's SEO tips are pretty basic, there's some fantastic idea in this post. One interesting suggestion he makes is that the use of numbers, specifically the number ‘7' has shown highest success.
Anything You Want – Derek Sivers – Founder of CDBaby, Derek Sivers (I think) is brilliant at tangible little headlines. His work in general is of inspiration. But specifically, in his book “Anything You Want” he tells an interesting story about the value of user feedback when sending out huge bulk emails to their mailing list. If one sentence was slightly unclear, they'd get thousands of confused replies back, that would take $5,000 of man-hours to respond to. Many of us do not get this type of feedback loop from our webpages and titles. If something is unclear or uninspiring, all we get is silence. He makes the point – imagine you were to email thousands of people your webpage/article – would you get lots of confused replies back? To that I'd add – imagine your title was the subject of the email. Would it get opened?
Made To Stick Resources – The Heath Brothers – Previously mentioned a few times in this post, I probably learned the most about crafting a good title and making your words and ideas stick from their book. Highly recommend you check it out!
The Thesaurus – One of my favorite SEO tools!! Helps you find that perfect word.
Final Thought: Titles Are Timeless
Perhaps what I love most is the skill of crafting a click worthy title is timeless. While so many things in SEO change so fast, this is at least one facet that is deeply rooted in the past, and will thus endure for a long time.
To me, it's worthwhile and inspiring to step back and identify these timeless elements in a field that changes so rapidly. And it helps me remember that, despite the strong technical aspects to SEO, there is plenty of room for art and humanity. That, and we'll still all have jobs in 20 years 🙂
What Did You Think?
As mentioned, this was my first YouMoz. *Wild Applause!!* Perhaps a bit overdue by my standards (I'd drafted and scrapped two posts prior to settling on this one). I would LOVE to hear your comments, suggestions and questions below: I will respond to all, promise 🙂
You can also hit me up on Twitter.