The headline is typically the first thing that a person reads, but a recent study shows just how important online headline writing is. The study found that 44 percent of Google News readers only read the headlines and did not actually follow the link to the publications’ Web sites.
What does this tell us about headline writing for the Web? First, online headlines should be more informative than a typical print edition headline. Names should be included. The print edition may say “mayor,” but the online headline should say the mayor’s name. Figures can also enhance a Web headline. Instead of writing “millions,” write the actual number.I'll think about these precepts when I'm posting items on The Hook, the politics blog of The Tyee. But I'd hesitate to make the heads really long—our headlines are big and bold, and three or four lines of headline text, no matter how informative, would be hard to read.
Reader reluctance to click through to the full story is a continuing problem for web writers and editors. I try to overcome it with an intriguing lede, and sometimes I guess I succeed...if only because the item gets a lot of comments.
But I also see on my blog H5N1 that the average length of a visit to the site is under 2 minutes, though I post numerous items every day and some of them are pretty long. Even at the height of the swine flu pandemic, visit length was no more than 2 minutes. Some of my flu-blogging colleagues write long, complex posts and get much more traffic than I do—but visit length isn't any longer than it is for me.
So clearly many web readers are content with the spritz of information they get from the headline alone.