Web Design

The Importance of Titles

Last updated Dec 22, 2006.

By Dave Taylor

Here’s a topic that you may immediately shrug off as being unimportant to your online writing efforts: article and page titles. Give me five minutes, though, and I’ll show you why not paying close attention to this can be a terrible mistake. A poorly written title can affect what percentage of your subscribers reads your content and determine whether or not search engines accurately identify your material’s subject matter, which is key to driving traffic to your site.

Mainstream Media and Titles

In the newspaper world, titles are considered so important that there’s often a "title editor", someone whose only job is to come up with concise, pithy, interesting and enticing headlines for stories. Of course, you usually only notice this when they’re too alliterative (e.g. "Two Tiny Tots Testing Telephone Technology Turns Tragic") or they’re actually not correctly matched to the story (a story on celebrity weddings entitled "Brad and Jen Bail On Nuptials" when the piece is about more than just those two celebs).

The reason that titles are so darn important is because of how we scan information and make snap decisions on whether to dig into a story further or not. It’s the same reason that bold and italic are so, so radically different in perception, even if most modern writers barely distinguish between the two. For example, in the world of HTML, is <strong> going to be bold or italics? Well, that’s a darn important thing to know if you’re using it in your prose!

Pick up a local newspaper and give yourself just a second or two to glance at the entire broadsheet. Now, what do you remember? It’s the material in bold, right? That’s the material that’s used as a visual hook to catch your attention. That’s what bold is for, to create "jump outs." Italics is used to emphasize material as well, but it’s typically invisible unless you’re already caught up in the prose.

The Wording of Titles

There are two key aspects to page titles that I want to discuss. First, however, I want to clarify that I consider the title of a company’s Web site home page just as important as the title of its latest blog entry or wiki page. It may seem like I’m just talking about blogging, but what we’ll consider is generally true of any written material, online or off.

Since I don’t want to be accused of being some sort of search engine hacker, let’s start by talking about the kind of headlines that catch people’s attention.

Obviously, there are specific words that are always going to draw your eye, and these are used—ad nauseum—in advertising. The most common? Sex. Yes, you know you already saw that on an informal scan of the page and have had to come back to this paragraph to see and identify the context, right? Uh huh.

Should you use these high engagement words in every headline on your site so you can maximize the chance of engaging readers? No. Just like seeing 20 adverts that each suggest you’ll become sexy and have gorgeous fun-loving friends if you consume that particular product, you’ll merely end up creating fatigue in your readers and it will backfire as they recognize that you’re trying to manipulate them rather than help them identify whether a given article is worth reading or not.

On the other hand, if there are specific words in your marketplace lexicon that are considered high engagement, I would definitely encourage you to use them at least once in a while. For example, artists are drawn to "gallery" and "exhibit", just as musicians are drawn to "gig" and "studio" and programmers like "open source" and "hack."

If you were scanning a musician’s weblog, for example, wouldn’t you find an article entitled, "The dirt on my new studio recording" far more interesting than, "Finished up the new CD"? There’s a secondary title writing technique at work here too: offering an "inside" view, scoop, or secret. Even if it’s not really "the dirt," it still creates a sense of intimacy with the reader that’s appealing to just about everyone on the site.

Keywords are important too. I hate articles with titles like, "The coolest gadget you’ve ever used," or "Huh?" These types of headlines just don’t engage me. The problem is that there’s no information in the title. It’s so much better to have, "The New Sony HDDVD43R: The coolest video camera you’ll ever use" as a title. Now you know what the article’s about and what product it’s focusing on, which means you can make a much more informed read/skip decision.

An interesting nuance with keywords in your marketplace is whether certain spellings or variations are, in fact, more common than more formal words. An easy example: Are people more likely to search for "cellphone," "cell phone," or "mobile phone"? Knowing which search term is most popular and then using that search term as part of your titles helps people recognize your material.

Targeting the Search Engines

Even more important than knowing which search terms humans use most often is knowing which terms search engines rely on. For example, if people search on "cellphone" seven times more frequently than "cell phone" (and yes, that is indeed the case) then does it logically follow that using "cellphone" in your titles will help people find your content when they’re doing searches? You bet it will!

Search engines rely on page and article titles to determine what an article is about, so every word in your title should be considered carefully. Need an example? Perform a search on Google—or your favorite search engine—and then examine closely the top few matches to see which of your search words or phrases are in the page title and/or the article title.

That’s why Web sites with home page titles like, "Welcome to Acme Widgets," are so terrible: There’s nothing to help people find the products and services that the company offers. By comparison, a title like, "Plug-in Applications for

the Web 2.0 World: Acme Widgets," offers considerably more information and will unquestionably help the company gain more visibility in the search engines.

The other common mistake that people make with page titles is to give every page the same name. Instead, every single page should have a unique title that describes that page of information, not the site overall. You’ve seen these sites, where every page is boldy titled, "Acme Widget Corporation of America," or similar, even though any given page might be about the executive team, recent press coverage, or how to apply for a job.

Wrapping Things Up

Okay, so you’ve given me five minutes of your time. Did I convince you to pay more attention to your page titles, your Web site title, and your blog or article titles? Are you going to dig around with some keyword research tools like Nichebot Classic and find out what words and phrases are most commonly used by your customer community when they search for your products and services? I hope so!