Last week, a friend and fellow content marketer sent me an email that caused me to go into our blog archive and change the titles of 56 of our blog posts.
That’s right: 56 of them. It took me a while.
The email contained a new ebook from Outbrain and HubSpot called Data Driven Strategies for Writing Effective Titles & Headlines. As it turns out, a lot of the things that were considered best practices for blog titles as recently as last year are now actually hurting headline click through rates.
According to the ebook, the data for the report was compiled from “a sample of 3.3 million paid link headlines from… Outbrain’s network of 100,000+ publisher sites from the beginning of October 2013 and the end of September 2014.”
Here’s what they found.
How Headline Wording Impacts Website Traffic
FYI, the percentages in this list reflect headlines using the word compared to all headlines that do not use the word, not the same headline with and without the word.
Words That Decrease Click-Through Rate (CTR):
- Magic (-59%)
- Tip (-59%)
- Credit (-58%)
- How to (-49%)
- Simple (-49%)
- Cure (-49%)
- Easy (-44%)
- Need (-44%)
- Free (-41%)
- Why (-37%)
- You/Yours/You’re (-36%)
- Trick (-26%)
- Amazing (-24%)
- Secret (-23%)
- Best, Always (positive superlatives result in a 14% decrease)
- Now (-12%)
In the past, marketers were told that creating a sense of urgency (Now! Need!) and presenting an offer as the best, ultimate, simple list of tips for YOU would attract the attention of readers, but it didn't take long for people to get burned out on that kind of clickbait-y tactic.
Factors That Increase Click-Through Rate:
Including bracketed clarifications like [Video] or [Ebook] increases headline click-through by an average of 38%. Which terms will perform best for your business will vary a great deal based on your industry, and whether you're a B2B or B2C business.
Including the word "photo" increases CTR by 37%. The word "who" increases it by 22%.
Using headlines that are a moderate length, from 81-100 characters, are the best for CTR. You can use the Character Count Tool to check headline length and Moz's new Title Tag Tool to see how your titles will display in Google results. Keep in mind that Google abbreviates headlines not based on the number of characters, but on the headline's width in pixels.
The takeaway? Clarity is the new clickbait. Tell people what they're getting in simple, direct terms, and make it as easy as possible for them to judge quickly whether they want to read more. But how does headline wording affect behavior after they click?
How Headline Wording Impacts Pageviews Per Session
With the exception of the word "amazing," all the terms that had a negative effect on CTR also negatively affect pageviews per session.
"Amazing" is a true outlier, because while it negatively impacts click-through (by 24%), it positively impacts the number of pages a visitor views after clicking through--by a dramatic 262%. The people who like to be amazed may be a smaller audience, but they appear to be pretty enthusiastic once you hook them. Amazing, right?
Just as positive superlatives have a negative impact, so do negative superlatives like "never" and "worst." They decrease pageviews by 59%.
On the positive side, the word "photo" and bracketed clarifications increase pageviews, by 59% and 14% respectively.
How Headline Wording Impacts Conversion Rate
Here's the moneymaker: conversion rate.
Using the word "need" increases conversions by 171%, even though it decreases CTR and pageviews per session. You told them they needed it, and they believed you!
Once again, bracketed clarifications had a big impact. They increased conversions by 112% in Outbrain's study, from an average of 0.29% to 0.51%. If people know what they’re getting when they click, they’re more likely to convert when they get there.
The word "trick" decreases conversions by 69%, and reader references like "you," "your," and "you're" decrease conversions by 33%.
When it comes to conversion rate, it's not only about the headline, it's also about how well the CTA reflects the headline. Make sure that the text in your CTA and on the page match the phrasing of the headline, so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot at the bottom of the funnel. The goal is to make people feel like you’re giving them exactly what you said, and even something like vague wording in a CTA can sabotage results.
Different headline lengths have different impacts on CTR, pageviews per session, and conversions.
While a length of 81-100 characters is best for CTR, shorter headlines of 21-40 characters are best for pageviews per session and conversion rate. Including the most vital info early on is ideal for user experience and SEO, but it's also a good idea in case your headline is too long to display fully in Google results.
What about Social?
When you're optimizing your headlines, it's also important to think about how they'll work for your social sharing.
What are your most important sources of traffic? If social platforms bring in a large portion of your of visits, you'll want to weight that a little more heavily.
Organic traffic builds over time, while social traffic is usually strongest early on. However, promoting your post on social can also improve your search traffic long-term.
To optimize for both, focus on your keywords. Again, using the keyword early in the title will improve your headlines for both organic search and social media posts.
The #1 lesson to be learned here is that making your headlines clear and reflective of the content will produce better results.
Also, you can weigh the pros and cons of words like "amazing" and "need," which may decrease traffic initially, but can produce more pageviews and a better conversion rate. Traffic and engagement are important, but conversions are the ultimate goal, so find a balance between drawing people in and making sure they follow through.
Did I change every headline that included one of these words? No. For example, we still have a lot of "How-to" posts, because the posts include directions for how to do something, and our keyword research identified something like "how to set up Google Analytics" as the ideal keyword. We may not attract as many people as we could with those headlines, but the people who need that information will find exactly what they're looking for.
Finally, any responsible marketing expert would caution you to take advice like this as a starting point and test it all to find what works for you. Data like this can help you get closer to your targets, but each business's results are different and influenced by a unique set of factors.
Optimization is great, but don't forget to check the fundamentals.
Does your content target your buyer personas? If not, all the tweaking in the world isn't going to bring in the leads and customers you need.