Friday, May 15, 2009

Nanocontent: First 2 words simplified

So after emailing Jakob Nielsen's informative article, "First 2 Words: A Signal for the Scanning Eye," to some of the editors I work with, I received this e-mail:

"I must confess I totally do not understand what this article is saying."

It's easy to forget that this type of information might not make sense to journalists accustomed to writing for print. Here was my response, which hopefully simplifies the First 2 Words Theory:

"Readers on the web generally scan content, and oftentimes they’re not viewing our content from our websites directly. They are seeing a headline or a summary from a search engine, an RSS feed or some other content aggregator. Therefore, it’s important that our headlines are descriptive enough to let a reader know what an article is about. Otherwise, they’re not likely to clickthrough to the story. The short, clever headlines might work in print or on the FleetOwner site itself, but readers often see our headlines completely 'out of context,' meaning they don’t have anything but the headline to make a decision on whether or not to click.

Readers also tend to scan content in an F-shaped pattern, meaning they start at the top left and move to the right, reading less and less as they move down a page. So the thinking goes that the first two words of your headline are the absolute most important words readers will see. The study I linked to yesterday breaks this down even further by analyzing the first 11 characters of a headline.

So let’s look at one of your recent blog titles, 'The price for alternatives,' using this study.

If a reader were to only see the characters 'The price f' (the first 11 characters) would they have any idea what that article might be about? Probably not. This study would argue that something like 'Alternative fuel costs' would be more valuable because the most important words are at the very front.

But don’t get hung up on the 11 characters idea. Think about the first two words. In the example above 'The price' are the first two words. It would be better to have 'Alternative fuel' as the first two words because that tells readers (the scanners) what the story is about much quicker.

Give it a try next week with your blog if you want. Think about the first two words and try to use words that will help readers identify what the blog post is about. The titles don’t have to be long, they just need to convey what a reader might find.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Web headlines: More title tips

One key to writing a good online headline, the SEO experts will tell you, is including the most important keywords at the very front of your title. An interesting new study from Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox breaks this concept down even further by analyzing the first 11 characters of a headline to analyze if a reader can realistically determine what a page/article is about.

The concept of this "nanocontent" study is based on the idea that readers scan online content in an f-shaped pattern, whether it's in a search engine, an RSS feed or some other aggregator, and that these links often appear out of context with no supporting information to let you know what you might find on a page. Therefore, this study suggests, the first 11 characters are the most important part of your headline.

So I couldn't help but analyze some of the headlines I've looked at today on sites I work with. For one site, today's top story read, "Private fleets like larger trucks." This headline would not likely score too well in Nielsen's study because the first 11 characters (including spaces) are "Private fle." A better headline could have read, "Truck weight limits: Private fleets prefer larger trucks," which puts "Truck weigh" at the beginning and gives the reader a much better idea what the article might be about.

Here's another example, this time from an aviation site: "DOT withdraws slot auction rule." The better option likely would have been "Slot auction rule cancelled by DOT," putting "Slot auction" at the front instead of "DOT withdra."

As the article mentions, don't get hung up on the 11 characters thing, either. I still think, as a general rule, your first two words are the most important, regardless of the number of characters, but this is something worth keeping in mind.

But Nielsen's study goes into much greater detail than I can here. I strongly suggest checking it out and the site in general. Every time I visit the site, I learn something or am reminded of important SEO concepts that I've let slip.