I hate blog titles. I hate blog titles more than I hate blog images. And I really hate blog images. I’m just not good at coming up with pithy headlines. In fact, I suck at it. Horribly. So I’m calling on you to help me become better.

Yes, this post really is more for my benefit than yours. I apologize for that now. However, please keep reading and maybe you can offer up some post title tips in the comments for me. You can consider it your good deed for the week and get it out of the way early.

There are a few (fine, very few) things in life that I do really well. Twitter, for instance. I Twitter awesome. However, coming up with blog titles is still a daily challenge for me. It’s just hard. But I’m improving (I hope). Below you’ll find some of the techniques I’ve tried to adopt in order to make my blog titles more interesting, more engaging and more click-worthy. First, I’ll share I’ve learned and then I hope you’ll chime in with some of your own insight and experiences.

Use descriptive titles

Is your post about how to use a 301 redirect? Does it explain how to create the perfect wedding bouquet for under $100? Do you offer 20 ways to do something? Then say that in your blog title.

Being cute and clever is loads of fun, but when it comes to tutorial-type posts, your best bet is often just to skip all that and get to the point. People looking for help in a particular subject aren’t really all that concerned with how funny you (think) are. They just want the information and they want to know that your post will give it to them. By targeting phrases like “how to” or “tutorial” or “help with X”, you also set yourself up to benefit from future search traffic when someone borks their 301 redirect in the year 2011 and it’s your descriptively-titled post that ranks for it.

Direct, descriptive titles aren’t always the most flirty, but they’re very often your best bet if you’re hoping to bring in lots of search traffic with your posts. By letting people know right off the bat that they’ll learn something or that you’re going to give them to steps to solve their problem, you’ve already stolen their attention. When in doubt, be descriptive.

Keep it short

If the title of your blog post is longer than a normal tweet, I’m not reading it. The title OR the post.  And it’s not that Twitter has ruined my attention span, it’s that if you can’t succinctly tell me what your post is about, then you probably haven’t defined it enough for yourself. Which means I’m about to jump into a wordy ramble-fest and frankly, I’d rather you just hit me with your car.

Titles, like jockeys, are meant to be short. Your title should resemble something you’d read in Cosmo. It should be succinct, snappy and, whenever possible, sexy.

Which article would you rather read?

“Quintessential Fairytale Weddings for under $1,000”

“You Don’t Have To Spend A Lot Of Money On Your Dream Wedding If You Don’t Want To. You Can Do It For Less”.

Same article, but the first title will get you to keep reading. The second will force you to zone out and check Twitter for the 87th time this minute.   And while you’re keeping it short, do try and use some descriptive keywords in your title to attract the readers and get some SEO benefit, as well.

Use trigger words

trigger wordsI got a lot of crap for the It’s Not The Recession, You Just Suck post I wrote awhile back. But most people didn’t disagree with the premise. They were just offended by the language, the fact that I was telling people they “sucked”. Okay. But realize that the word was used intentionally.

There are certain words that elicit people to respond emotionally. There are words that you can use as a writer that will be more likely to get someone to click on a link, to read an article, or to act in some way. Being a good writer means knowing when to use that power to achieve a certain goal. That Recession post was written to make people evaluate their own situations. It was written to get that response and to start a conversation. That’s why the tone was as harsh as it was and why the word “suck” was placed in the title. It wasn’t cheap “link bait”. I used a trigger word to make my point. When you tell someone they suck, they immediately think up reasons for why you’re wrong and why YOU suck. But quietly, they may also admit somethings to themselves. Suck is a trigger word. Use them for good, not evil.

Ask a question

I like to start blog posts off with short sentences and I like to post questions in my title. Why? Because I have this idea in my head that it draws people in. People like to be right. When you pose a question to a reader, they’re going to immediately answer it in their head and then read your post to confirm they were right. It validates their own knowledge, or, if they’re wrong, it entices them to explain to you in excruciating detail why YOU’RE wrong and are, in fact, a giant moron. That’s actually my favorite part — when readers leave comments telling me I’m totally wrong. Those posts are always the ones that spark the best debate and discussions.  By asking a question, you pull readers in as they attempt to answer it for you.

Be controversial

If you’re trying to draw attention to a certain post or subject, crafting a controversial headline may help you get those eyeballs. However, you have to use it sparingly. If you’re known for creating drama where there is none or if you create a title that is so outlandish you overshadow the entire post, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot right from the start.

However, if you do it right (ala Michael Gray) this tactic can be very effective. Use it to make analogies that stand out, to namedrop to get someone’s attention or to trigger emotions that will aid a great debate. Just don’t come up with something so crazy that it’s distracting or that causes people to write you off as “just a blogger”.

Make a well known cultural reference

There are so many weird cult phenomenons out there, that tapping into one of them can be incredibly powerful. Nothing makes people as giddy as feeling like they have something in common with a large group of strangers. I, personally, was born in a cultural vacuum so I have no ability to do this myself (damn my parents forcing me outside as a child), but many, many others have used it quite successfully.  I actually find Rebecca Kelley to be the absolute master of these types of post titles. That girl can find an obscure Simpsons reference in just about anything.  And when she does it and makes it part of the post, they’re hugely successful, even with those of us who have never watched an episode. (Don’t judge me.) By pretending we get it, it makes us feel like we belong to.

It makes sense: If you’re looking for a way to target a certain demographic, associate the title with something they already love – Kevin Bacon, The Bangles, Zack Morris (I know, I’m a child of the 80s) — and they’ll love you for it right back.

Those are some of my favorite blog headline techniques. What are some of yours? Give ‘em up!

If you’re looking for some additional ones yourself, you may enjoy the advice Brian Clark unleashed during his Top Ten Techniques For Writing Headlines That Rock session from Pubcon Austin.


About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.


45 thoughts on “How to Write Killer Blog Titles & Why Mine Suck


  • Daniel Sevitt on said:

    I once knew a student who started every single one of his essays on Literature with a quote from Queen.

    An essay on Lady Macbeth might be called “Killer Queen”. An investigation into Pip, Miss Havisham and Estella from Great Expectations could be titled “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. A review of suicidal foreshadowing in The Bell Jar would lead with the question “Who Wants To Live Forever?”.

    I’m not suggesting it as a ploy necessarily, but it kept me wanting to see what his next title would be and how tenuously it might be linked to the subject matter.


  • Lisa Barone on said:

    Daniel: That is totally awesome. I wonder if I can start all my posts off with a quote from Billy Joel or Rascal Flatts? Or maybe have a different artist for each blog I write for. ZOMG the potential! :)


  • JoshPerson on said:

    I think I’ve come out with some awesome blog titles, but the majority of the time I’m just lazy with it. I should probably stop that.


  • Dr. Pete on said:

    I struggle with the descriptive titles, too. As a usability person, every bit of my training says to be descriptive, but I can’t help being too clever for my own good, and the results say that I’m usually about half as clever as I think I am.

    One bit of research I try to pull in is Nielsen’s data that suggests that the first 2 words in a title are extremely important and you should front-load your descriptive terms as much as possible. I don’t think it’s always appropriate, but I try to keep it in the back of my mind as a rule of thumb.

    The other thing for me is that I too often write the title last, when I’m in a hurry to get my post live after spending a bunch of time on it. So, of course, I rush on the title, META description, tags, etc. I’m working on taking my time and not rushing that last bit, because that META data may make or break the post, ultimately.


  • Bamboo Forest - PunIntended on said:

    You write:

    “Same article, but the first title will get you to keep reading. The second will force you to zone out and check Twitter for the 87th time this minute.”

    Well said and I agree with this sentiment. I too find that writing a great headline can be tricky at times.

    Something I’ve realized recently, is that if you want to judge the magnetism of your headlines, go into google reader right after you posted and look at it as it appears in the reader. Now, stack it up against the other headlines. Does it draw you in, or does it make you want to head on over to the kitchen and make a sandwich?

    In my most recent post my chosen title is,

    “Why You Must Step Up to the Plate Regardless of Your Skill”

    I initially thought it was a very good headline. But when I went into the reader and stacked it up against the competition, I found it kinda bored me, so I’m not so sure it’s a good headline or a boring one. Anyone who wants to give me feedback on it, I would love and appreciate your opinion.

    Another thing worth noting is that I have found there are A-Listers who write extremely short headlines that seem a bit random to me. They don’t seem like great headlines at all. Why do they do this? Do they know something I don’t?

    Is a short headline in google reader always a good one, regardless of what words are selected?

    It really has me wondering.


  • jlbraaten on said:

    Blog post titles are most like email subject lines in my mind. They say:
    1) Be clear with benefit
    2) Use action words
    3) Use SEO
    4) Include call-to-action

    Of course, after reading your post, Lisa, I figured out that you really didn’t need any help with your blog post titles. It was just a clever ploy to get folks to comment. Well it’s not going to wo… oh, nevermind. Have a great day!


  • Stuart Foster on said:

    I just try and follow the “I think my headline is funny” rule. Sometimes I fail miserably…see today. Or I ask a provocative question. Questions tend to make better headlines in my opinion.

    Great advice though.


  • Glenn Murray on said:

    John Caples suggests that good headlines should:
    1) appeal to the reader’s self interest
    2) contain news
    3) pique the reader’s curiosity; and or
    4) offer a quick easy way

    When I struggle with headlines (like you, I’m improving), I resort to these tips, and I find them very helpful.

    Cheers!


  • Todd Mintz on said:

    If part of your “end game” is to get search engine traffic, you need to forgo a cutesy title in favor of one that features your targeted search terms prominently.


  • Lisa Barone on said:

    Josh: Heh, maybe. :) I really do *try* to come up with decent titles, I’m just not very *good* at it.

    Dr. Pete: That’s a good tip about front loading, thanks. I’m with you in that I write the title last. Typically it’s because the post ends up taking on a totally different angle than I initially thought so my original title is no longer applicable. I’m super smart. I hate titles. And you’re definitely as clever as you think you are. I think I’ve told you that on twitter many times. :)

    Bamboo: Ooh, I like that. Of course, that doesn’t really help you *before* you publish. :)

    Stuart: I’m totally with you. I very often fall victim to the “trying to be funny” approach…and then find out later that people don’t really find me as amusing as I find myself. Oh well. I think descriptive titles and questions-based ones are probably the way to go in most circumstances.

    Todd: Agreed. However, you can always create a witty title to publish today and then change it after a few weeks to be more SEO-friendly, right? Or is that bad?


  • Therese on said:

    I struggle with the titles as well, these are all some great points. I have found that Zemanta – http://www.zemanta.com has really helped me with tag words, images, etc. I do try to practice much of what you have above, but do not always succeed.


  • Doing Things My Way on said:

    For the images thing, buy a camera and take some. Seriously.. how hard is it to take your own picture of your pencils? Not like that’s a good choice of photo or anything.

    If you make your own image, The Lisa photo becomes part of The Lisa Package… I’m hoping you’ll try it out cause maybe there’s this inner Lisa artist that will be expressed through those stupid blog-post-accompanying photos everyone says you need to have.


  • Matt Cheuvront on said:

    Great post here Lisa. The key is – be MEMORABLE. Whether it’s through controversy, humor, a question – or a combination of the three, you want people to remember the title of your post, and remember what your post is about based on that title. Awesome advice Lisa.

    (P.S. Been reading for a while, first time commenting – and just subscribed – looking forward to digging through the archives and getting involved in future discussions!)


  • Alysson on said:

    You suck at writing titles, huh? You’re cute. You also lie…apparently. But you can obviously get away with it. ;)

    As you pointed out, blog titles need to grab attention and elicit a reaction. An additional, and often overlooked, variable is truly understanding your blog’s audience. What will grab the attention and elicit a reaction from one audience will crash & burn with readers in another audience.

    I think the title of this post should have been: “Titles, Like Jockeys, Are Meant To Be Short”. :)


  • Mark on said:

    Ditch “Quintessential” and it’s a better headline.
    When stumped, do one of two things:

    1. As you suggest, go for the most obvious, descriptive title.
    2. Ask somebody else to read the post and suggest a title.

    Another person won’t have the emotional investment in the post and can often nail the quintessential point immediately.

    ;-)


  • Lisa Barone on said:

    Alysson: OMG you are SO right. See, this is why I need help. That would have been the perfect title. You have far more wisdom than I do. And you don’t even want to know how badly I cracked up at myself when I wrote that sentence. It’s sad how amusing I find my own jokes. This is why I’m single.


  • Sean on said:

    Thanks for the thoughts! Titles have been one of my struggling points since I have started out with my blog, but I have already found that it makes a big difference when you actually get one right!

    I can use all of your points though, as I don’t really do any of them very well!


  • Tumblemoose on said:

    Hi Lisa,

    Fortunately, I’ve always done a pretty good job coming up with titles. It’s kinda strange, they just pop into my head. Often times they are witty or punny, and they most always give a sense of the flavor of the post.

    I did write a post about it at one point. I titled it: Titillating Titling Tidbits. It was a lot of fun to write.

    I consider myself very lucky because I know a lot of folks struggle with the titling issue.

    Cheers!


  • Mandy Suite171 on said:

    I like Mark’s 2 tips. I would add to it with the following suggestion – when stuck in a rut, walk away from it for a few hours or a day. Things tend to “pop” when you place it in the incubator for awhile!


  • geobak on said:

    I also make my page titles mroe like an PPC ad copy…What is more a good custom meta description of your post is pretty important as well…Together with a good page title can get you way more clicks from google :)


  • geobak on said:

    And yes this post is a pretty damn good example of a clever page title that has a clear purpose to get as comment on this…

    Woops :)


  • seobro on said:

    I have found that humor works well for headlines. For example, if you have a perfume factory, you can say that new top fragrances for 2010 are – wet dog, skunk, and garlic!


  • joann on said:

    You are 2 funny & right. My titles are short, descriptive & have a hook. My posts…well let’s just say I use “Read more” quite literally. Good ideas, thanks!


  • Vida em Sociedade on said:

    So much hate for blog titles? So much concern about what up set you? So much permission language at an scuse to show superior kownledge? Maybe you are missing the point: you have to much hate in your heart!


  • Rose on said:

    Great tips! When writing blog titles for your post, remember to keep in mind how someone doing a search will find your post.

    Ps: Glad to see you didn’t close comments on this post.


  • Jennifer Voip on said:

    I loved the Recession/Suck post! I just started reading your blog and I’m totally into it BECAUSE it’s edgy. Regarding this post, I have to say, I never cease to be amazed at some of the crazy titles people put on their blog posts. I think most people don’t understand the importance of trigger words and keywords. I’m going to have to link at this article.


  • Joenade on said:

    Blog titles and headlines should be quite specific – not vague and ambiguous. If you struggle to come up with a catchy title, postpone the task and work on the article itself – once you’ve finished writing, consider what information it contains and what value you are bringing to your reader, what will they learn or benefit from by taking the time to read through what you have to say. If you still don’t have a clear and specific topic slant for your title by now, it could be that the actual post itself is not specific enough and amounts to general rambling – perhaps then the main article should be reconsidered before you even begin to deal with the title.


  • Dee on said:

    Great information. I am working towards building my own blog. These types of articles are helping me to refine how I think about what I am going to produce. I want to keep my readers informed and interested. You made a great point about getting to the point. Thanks, Dee


  • craig on said:

    I’ ve thoughts songs too, as Daniel Sevitt mentioned. I have thought about this a while now. My thinking is , title/ phrases from songs has to be written well, be catchy, have a rhythm, roll off the tongue easily, so why not use it as a good starting point for a article. Play with it , twist it.

    How about taking title or catch phrases from popular current and older TV series.
    .
    I am always amazed by how many different age groups are at least familiar with both older music and older shows.

    Or how about writing in the third person, create a completely different persona, no on mention this so far. Could be a fun and entertaining approach.


  • charl hoffman on said:

    My experience has been that the titles depends very much on your client base and what turns them on so to speak. For one the clients blog targets high end luxury travelers, so we have to be short, descriptive and engaging as we are dealing with clients that have very little or no time to read long articles or headlines. So yes short and punch (with SEO) is all good with me!


  • Don Ibbitson on said:

    The discussions above (and the original article) are very helpful to me. My partner and I have what we think is pretty good content but putting a catchy title on our blog posts is a struggle. And the SEO thing hasn’t been a focus…


  • Jonathan on said:

    It’s nice to see I’m not the only one struggling to come up with blog post titles. I think my issue is that my blog isn’t focused on tutorials and the like. It’s just an account of my attempts to succeed at recovering my creativity using Julia Cameron’s “The Artist Way”. I *could* do posts like “How To Do An Artist Date” or “10 Ways to Stay Stuck Creatively”, but I’d basically just be quoting from the book. My blog is about my own personal experiences with creative recovery. “What I Did On My Last Artist Date” just doesn’t sound that great … sounds too much like “What I Did Last Summer”, in fact.


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