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I’m currently developing some wireframes as we pave the way for a revamp of this blog later this year. There are lots of things to think about. One of those things is typography. Closely related to that is optimal headline length. 

I always try to write headlines that fit on one line, though I don’t always succeed. Nevertheless, short headlines beat longer ones for lots of reasons. As such I’d like to introduce the 65 character rule. Actually it’s 65 or less, to be precise. 

Here’s why...

Google Search

This won’t be news to SEOs but your title tags should be between 65 and 70 characters. Why? Because Google truncates long titles. Given that headlines often become the title tag for a page I think we should play it safe and set 65 characters as a ceiling. Ideally you'd want the full headline to be visible in the search results.

Google News

The same 65-70 character rule applies to Google News (although it has increased that to 75 characters for Editor’s Picks). Since we know this is the case, why write longer headlines unless you absolutely have to? 

Other news aggregators work along similar lines. Yahoo News used to show around 120 characters but it seems to have reduced this, and it doesn’t index as many sources as Google (and doesn’t index Econsultancy) so I’m ignoring it. 

The point here is to consider where your articles will be distributed to, and optimise accordingly.

Twitter

Short, catchy headlines work very well on Twitter, largely because there is enough room for a retweet. This is key. Encouraging retweets isn’t just about sharing good content, it is about presenting that content in a way that can be easily shared. You need to leave a little space in your tweets for comments and hat doffing.

Consider what will happen when we post a new tweet on the @econsultancy Twitter account, linking to this article.

  • The headline is 53 characters long.
  • The link, using our ecly.co URL shortener, will be 14 characters long.
  • So that’s 67 characters, out of a permissible 140.

Now consider what happens when this is retweeted.

Twitter will show ‘RT @econsultancy:’, which adds up to another 17 characters. A retweet will therefore weigh in at 84 characters, leaving plenty of room for comment. It also allows subsequent retweets to include a HT / hat tip (or HD / hat doff, as I prefer), featuring the original retweeter’s user name. That's pretty much the ideal scenario.

Email

Let’s now turn our attention to email subject lines. 

I receive a lot of press releases (perhaps 200-250 on an average day). Press release titles are the stuff of nightmares, and not just because many of them are still written IN CAPITALS, which is stylistically outdated, pointless and terribly shouty. 

A study found that 77% of press releases indexed in Google News had headlines that were more than 70 characters long, and therefore truncated. Furthermore, more than one in four of all headlines wouldn’t fit in a tweet. That study looked at 15,000 releases, so it's a decent sample, and indicative of the shoddy state of PR copywriting.

This is crazy, because news aggregators aren’t the primary destination for press releases. The top targets are the inboxes of the world’s beleaguered journalists.

How many characters will fit in a subject line of an average email? For me, using Gmail, it is about 70 characters, when the browser window uses the full width of my monitor. Here’s what it looks like…

Press release titles are dumber than bricks

Note the epic truncation! 

If the 65 character rule was in play then I’d be able to read these headlines in full. Isn't that rather important?

Readability, digestibility, accuracy

Lightweight technical considerations aside, there are some editorial and content marketing tips to keep in mind.

Headlines must reflect the content of an article. They should be descriptive. They should entice the viewer to click. And they should be optimised for search.

Personally I tend to either front-load my keywords (I typically optimise headlines around a two or three word phrase) or push a strong call to action at the start of the headline. 

Front-loading keywords is thought to be better for Google, though I’m increasingly of the opinion that a prominent call to action will generate more love on the social channels. That in itself can drive links and help boost search rankings. If social becomes the future of search then writing headlines to encourage sharing is going to be even more vital. 

So that’s it. A maximum of 65 characters for headlines is a good idea for search, for news aggregators, for social media channels and for email. Sometimes it will be impossible to stick to the 65 character headline rule, but as a best practice guideline it works for all the reasons stated above, and I think there is enough compelling evidence to implement this at Econsultancy. 

For further pointers on crafting headlines you can take a look at my article on how to write for the web.

Agree? Disagree? Do let me know what you think in the comments below.

Chris Lake

Published 27 October, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Nick Stamoulis

I think you make a great point about Twitter. Just because you have the 140 characters that doesn't mean you have to/should use them all. It's something to think about when writing all of your social media messages.

almost 5 years ago

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Fluto

I personally think this is a good rule as a means to make sure the blogger / copywriter says what they need to be saying in a decent and realistic amount of time. At the end of the day, less is more and it ensures the main title is clear from the offset. In twitter for example, it makes you think before you type.

almost 5 years ago

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Garry

I always stick with 60 characters for my headlines just to be safe. You are right, it gets very challenging to create headlines that are interesting and contains your keywords with those few characters. I keep a cheat sheet of headlines I've used that I like that meet these requirements so I don't have to rethink this so many times.

almost 5 years ago

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Sanjay Morzaria

I write two headlines for web articles. The main <H1> title a maximum of 50 characters & a second one maximum if 35 characters. This enables my CMS to use the different headlines dynamically depending where on the website it is.

Also agree with your thoughts on readability. Headlines must make sense when read away from the article.

Finally never under estimate the skill required in writing good headlines. It's a skill never appreciated!

almost 5 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

Useful writeup Chris. One of the affiliate sites I work on uses something similar, especially around fitting into SERPs and Twitter. In addition, for our purposes, we ensure headings are as succinct as possible, and each word in the heading contributes to the explanation - we then use a sub-title in the article itself (like you've done in bold at the top) to expand out... kind of like the pyramid structure of report writing where you should in theory have enough in the title to understand the article and you then expand down at each section of the article....

almost 5 years ago

Malcolm Slade

Malcolm Slade, SEO Project Manager at Epiphany Search

Hi Chris, I often find that people ask the wrong question when considering headlines / titles etc. For me personally they always worry about how they will be reflecting within SEs and I then have to give them the talk about how there is no actual limit yadda yadda and then go into..

But you have to remember that your headline is more than just your search snippet header...

I now have a place to direct people to :)

Thanks and have a good weekend.

Malcolm

almost 5 years ago

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Steve

Short and snappy headlines will always grab people's attention surely ?

almost 5 years ago

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Doug Kessler

Ouch.

As a copywriter, it hurts.

Ad a digital marketer, it's better to know this rule than to break it and compromise content performance.

So thanks... I guess.

[On the Twitter front, I wrote a blog post a while back that might be relevant here about clarity vs Twitterjunk – all those RTs and hashtags cluttering up the message:

http://www.velocitypartners.co.uk/2009/11/13/diary-of-a-tweet-clarity-vs-twitterjunk/

]

almost 5 years ago

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Nick Armstead, SEO + PPC Consultant at Orantec

There are a lot of "don't do's" in there too. I never have my email open the full width of my screen so that "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, PLEASE..." email would just mean nothing to me until I opened it.

almost 5 years ago

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Charlotte Clark

Thanks Chris, giving me lots to think about as I'm part way through re-designing my own blog. Looking forward to seeing the eConsultancy redesign too, good luck with it!

almost 5 years ago

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Tim Aldiss

Please don't do what Google have seemingly just done Chris and do no user testing! ...particularly in regards to the travesty that is now Google Reader RIP RSS

almost 5 years ago

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Ben Locker, Director at Ben Locker & Associates

Great post, though I wonder whether longer headlines could work if they inspire enough curiosity in the reader to make them want to find out the rest – by clicking on the headline.

almost 5 years ago

Suzy Turnbull

Suzy Turnbull, Owner at Digital Marketing Partners Panama

Thanks for writing an article on this - fully agree with what you say. Short subject lines are super important for mobile too. But in search the description is also very important - too many people write essays or a long list of keywords or worse, nothing at all, another rule perhaps?

almost 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Suzy - Google is far wiser about natural language nowadays, so while exact match phrases are still important they're likely to become less so in time. Stuffing in keywords willy nilly isn't the idea.

@Ben - descriptive headlines work well for search but amusing headlines stand out on the likes of Google News, and Twitter. I think there's room for experimentation and am a big fan of the ellipsis, but truncation can be problematic, hence the 65 character rule. I guess it depends a little bit on your main distribution channels (and their constraints).

almost 5 years ago

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Dan Sodergren, Director at Great Marketing Works

Love it

over 4 years ago

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