Titles and Headlines Its Not a NewspaperTitles and Headlines: It's Not a Newspaper.
What's this? A whole article about titles and headlines? Well, yes. Titles are some of the most vital parts of your site, especially if it consists of a series of articles. Yet they're also some of the most ignored elements of all web pages, and more difficult than you'd think to do correctly. You have to realise that you're not writing headlines – it's more interactive than that.
Title Bar, History, Favorites and Searches.
Everything you do with your web titles should be geared towards these four places that the title can appear: that is, in a web browser's title bar, history pane, and favorites menu, and in search engine results. Never forget this. Sure, your titles might look just fine on your main page, next to a picture, but do they work out of context? It's even worth looking at the titles in each of these places yourself (or doing a mockup of it), just to see.
Be Concise, but Explain Everything.
The thing those four places where titles can appear have in common is this: they're separated from the context of the rest of your page, and they're limited in space. Each one will cut off over-long titles and replace it with an ellipsis ('...') – not good if some important detail goes missing in the process.
What you need, then, is to be concise with your titles: ten words is, effectively, an absolute maximum. However, what you can't do is cut out words that tell the reader what to expect from the article, moving them into a sub-heading or a picture caption or something similar – this works in print, but on the web the reader won't always be able to see those things. The challenge, then, is to create a short headline that tells you what the article is about even if you can't see any other part of the page.
Useful Words First.
In browser favorites and history, there's usually only room for about three or four words, not for a whole title. That means that you'd do well to put the most useful words of the title first. Compare the following headlines:
Why Web Titles and Headlines are nothing like Newspaper Ones.
Titles and Headlines: It's Not a Newspaper.
What's the difference? Well, if you're looking at it in a browser history view, the first one would probably read 'Why Web Titles...', while the second would read as 'Titles and Headlines...'. In effect, it's useful to have the first three or four words of your title stand alone as a title themselves, while elaborating in the title's second half. A colon or dash is especially useful for this, which is why they're so much more popular in web headlines than they are in print.
When it comes to preparing titles for search engines, don't underestimate the importance of the keywords in your title. Search engines consider the title to be one of the most important parts of your page, not to mention that it's often the only part of your content that someone doing a search will see entirely intact before they click-through. You want your titles to be relevant to what your users are likely to be searching for.
What does that mean in practice? It doesn't mean that you should make your site's main keywords show up in every title, leading to string of titles all sharing the same two words: this is the hallmark of a site that is trying to do nothing more than game search engine rankings, and the search engines are wiser to it than you'd think. What you should do instead is simply describe clearly what the article is about as if you were searching for that specific article.
If you've written a way of doing something, don't be afraid to put 'how to' in the title (although not first: 'How to Write Better Titles' is bad, 'Titles: How to Write them Better' is good). If you've interviewed someone, put the word 'interview' up there. For product comparisons, don't shy away from the word 'comparison'. This approach will get you search engine visitors who really want to read your articles, and are more likely to stay and read more instead of feeling conned into visiting your site.