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.