Is that Mind-Blowing Title Blowing Your Credibility? You Decide
Is that Mind-Blowing Title Blowing Your Credibility? You
Image of Tantalus courtesy of Clayton Cusak
What if I told you I could teach you to write the perfect headline? One that is so irresistible every
person who sees it will click on it. You'd sign up immediately and maybe even promise me your
But what if I then told you not one single person out of all the millions who will click on that headline
will convert? And that you might lose all your credibility in the process. Would all the traffic
generated by that "perfect" headline be worth it?
Help us solve a dispute
It isn't really that bad, but with all the emphasis lately on headline science and the curiosity gap,
Trevor (your faithful editor) and I (a recovering copywriter) started talking about the importance of
headlines and what their role should be in regards to content. I'm for clickability (as long as there is
strong content to back the headline) and, if he has to choose, Trevor is for credibility (with an equal
emphasis on quality of the eventual content).
What's the purpose of a headline?
Back in the good ol' days, headlines were created to sell newspapers. Newsboys stood on street
corners shouting the headlines in an attempt to hawk those newspapers. Headlines had to be enough
of a tease to get readers interested but they had to be trustworthy enough to get a reader to buy
again tomorrow. Competition for eyeballs was less fierce because a town only had so many
newspapers, but paper cost money and editors were always happy to get a repeat customer.
Nowadays the competition for eyeballs feels even stiffer because it's hard to get noticed in the vast
sea of the internet. It's easy to feel a little desperate. And it seems like the opportunity cost of
turning away a customer is much lower than it was before. But aren't we doing content as a
product? Does the quality of that product matter?
The forbidden secrets of clickable headlines
There's no arguing that headlines are important. In fact, at MozCon this year, Nathalie Nahai
reminded us that many copywriters recommend an 80:20 ratio of energy spent on headline to copy.
That might be taking things a bit far, but a bad (or even just boring) headline will tank your traffic.
Here is some expert advice on writing headlines that convert:ÃÂ
Nahai advises that you take advantage of psychological trigger words like, "weird," "free,"
"incredible," and "secret" to create a sense of urgency in the reader. Can you possibly wait to read
"Secret Ways Butter can Save Your Life"?
Use question headlines like "Can You Increase Your Sales by 45% in Only 5 Minutes a Day?" that get
a reader asking themselves, "I dunno, can I?" and clicking to read more.
Key into the curiosity gap with a headline like "What Mother Should Have Told You about Banking.
(And How Not Knowing is Costing You Friends.)" Ridiculous claim? Maybe, but this kind of headline
gets a reader hooked on narrative and they have to click through to see how the story comes
And if you're looking for a formula for the best headlines ever, Nahai proposes the following:
Number/Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise = Killer Headline.
Many readers still (consciously or not) consider headlines a promise. So remember, as you fill the
headline with hyperbole and only write eleven of the twelve tips you set out to write, there is a
reader on the other end hoping butter really is good for them.
The headline danger zone
This is where headline science can get ugly. Because a lot of "perfect" titles simply do not have the
quality or depth of content to back them.
Those types of headlines remind me of the Greek myth of Tantalus. For sharing the secrets of the
gods with the common folk, Tantalus was condemned to spend eternity surrounded by food and
drink that were forever out of his reach. Now, content is hardly the secrets of the gods, but are we
tantalizing our customers with teasing headlines that will never satisfy?
For me, reading headlines on BuzzFeed and Upworthy and their ilk is like talking to the guy at the
party with all those super wild anecdotes. He's entertaining, but I don't believe a word he says, soon
wish he would shut up, and can't remember his name five seconds later. Maybe I don't believe in
clickability as much as I thoughtÃ¢ÂÂ¦
So I turn to credible news sources for credible headlines.
I'm having trouble deciding at this point if I'm more bothered by the headline at The Washington
Post, the fact that they're covering that topic at all, or that they didn't really go for true clickbait
with something like "You Won't Believe the Bizarre Reasons Girls Scream at Boy Band Concerts."
But one (or all) of those things makes me very sad.ÃÂ
Are we developing an immunity to clickbait headlines?
Even Upworthy is shifting their headline creation tactics a little. But that doesn't mean they are
switching from clickbait, it just means they've seen their audience get tired of the same old tactics.
So they're looking for new and better tactics to keep you engaged and clicking.
The importance of traffic
I think many of us would sell a little of our soul if it would increase our traffic, and of course those
clickbaity curiosity gap headlines are designed to do that (and are mostly working, for now).
But we also want good traffic. The kind of people who are going to engage with our brand and build
relationships with us over the long haul, right? Back to what we were discussing in the intro, we
want the kind of traffic that's likely to convert. Don't we?
As much as I advocate for clickable headlines, the riskier the headline I write, the more closely I
compare overall traffic (especially returning visitors) to click-throughs, time on page, and bounce
rate to see if I've pushed it too far and am alienating our most loyal fans. Because new visitors are
awesome, but loyal customers are priceless.
Headline science at Moz
At Moz, we're trying to find the delicate balance between attracting all the customers and attracting
the right customers. In my first week here when Trevor and Cyrus were polling readers on what
headline they'd prefer to read, I advocated for a more clickable version. See if you can pick out
which is mineÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Yep, you guessed it. I suggested "Your Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet: Panda, Penguin, and
Hummingbird" because it contained a trigger word and a keyword, plus it was punchy. I actually
liked "A Layman's Explanation of the Panda Algorithm, the Penguin Algorithm, and Hummingbird,"
but I was pretty sure no one would click on it.
Last time I checked, that has more traffic than any other post for the month of June. I won't say
that's all because of the headlineÃ¢ÂÂit's a really strong and useful postÃ¢ÂÂbut I think the
headline helped a lot.
But that's just one data point. I've also been spicing up the subject lines on the Moz Top 10
newsletter to see what gets the most traffic.
And the results here are more mixed. Titles I felt like were much more clickbaity like "Did Google
Kill Spam?..." and "Are You Using Robots.txt the Right Way?..." underperformed compared to the
straight up "Moz Top 10."
While the most clickbaity "Groupon Did What?..." and the two about Google selling domains (which
was accurate but suggested that Google was selling it's own domains, which worried me a bit) have
the most opens overall.
Help us resolve the dispute
As you can tell, I have some unresolved feelings about this whole clickbait versus credibility thing.
While Trevor and I have strong opinions, we also have a lot of questions that we hope you can help
us with. Blow my mind with your headline logic in the comments by sharing your opinion on any of
Do clickbait titles erode trust? If yes, do you ever worry about that affecting your bottom line?
Would you sacrifice credibility for clickability? Does it have to be a choice?
Is there such thing as a formula for a perfect headline? What standards do you use when writing
Does a clickbait title affect how likely you are to read an article? What about sharing one? Do you
ever feel duped by the content? Does that affect your behavior the next time? ÃÂ
How much of your soul would you sell for more traffic?