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The BBC's descriptive yet concise news headlines are a great example of writing for the web, and are always written to the 'highest web usability standards' according to usability guru Jakob Nielsen.

He cites headlines like 'Mass Thai protest over leadership' and 'Iran accuses journalist of spying' as best practice examples, with the average news headline containing five words and 34 characters.

This makes them easy to scan and understand, and providing enough information about the content of the article so that a web user can decide whether to click on it. This avoids the problem, according to today's Alertbox post, of wasted clicks.

Nielsen outlines the criteria for usable web headlines; they should be: 

  • short
  • rich in information scent
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords
  • understandable when not in original context, in results pages etc
  • predictable

As Jemima Kiss points out, some tabloids are reluctant to give up their (sometimes) witty and attention grabbing print headlines, even though these often don't come across as well on the web. In general, web headlines should be descriptive and reflect the content of the story, as the BBC manages to do.

One site where a snappy and descriptive headline can make a big difference is Digg and, as reported by Hitwise, The Telegraph has picked up a lot of traffic from the social news site lately.

While the plethora of Digg buttons and widgets around its articles has played its part, the headlines have also played a part. Slightly longer than the BBC's perhaps, but they are still relatively short and certainly descriptive. You know what you're getting when you click on 'Giant Spider Eating a Bird caught on Camera' for instance.

Graham Charlton

Published 27 April, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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