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October 5, 2011

That First Impression: Title Considerations

While it certainly isn’t as much work as crafting the body of a superior article, selecting a title for a piece is definitely an important element of the entire process of content creation. The title of an article is a multifunction web tool, providing opportunities for engagement with the reader and search engine in equal measure. Putting some thought into the title and how best to leverage its effects will help title choices provide a solid return on investment instead of burdening an otherwise good project needlessly.

Making Wordplay Work

The necessity of a good title is rather self evident if one plays a small game. Borrowed from Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography, Hitch 22, the game basically goes like this: Pick a popular movie title and change it just slightly to get a “title that didn’t quite make it” — Quiet of the Lambs, American Pastry, Mister Zhivago, the American Samurai and such all demonstrate the importance of getting things just right. A small change can eliminate the value of good wordplay or an entertaining twist of phrase in favor of something more bland and pointless.

To that end, try to put some thought into the title. Reference popular works — for example, a comparison piece doesn’t go wrong by referring to “A Tale of Two…” Alternatively, the title could reference a key quotation or phrase within the body of the text itself. Don’t ignore something that seems to work, but double check creative title ideas against someone else’s opinion, just to be sure.

Words are Key

The title is a crucial part of the Search Engine Optimization process. Keyword spiders and algorithms often look at the first words in an article, and the title is no exception. Having the core keyword worked into the title will consistently help return better results within Internet searches.

However, this comes with particular caveats: Some keywords, particularly keyword phrases, are long and clunky and can interfere with the aesthetics of a title. If the keyword phrase in question is “how to brew your own beer,” that’s one thing. A clever preface can be put before it, with how to brew your own beer as a subtitle or addendum to the main line. On the other hand, the keywords might be “Legal Advice Auto Accident,” which is more difficult to work into a clever title. Experiment with a few approaches, and consider putting only a few of the keywords into the title or breaking them up into a fresh sentence.

Another trick concerns where to put the title. In many blog posts the title will have its own section. However, also consider putting the title and its keywords into the body of the paragraph itself. Some search engines ignore separate title fields and focus on the content of the article itself, so this can help keep a writer from robbing themselves of good keyword return.

Brevity, Please

Particularly in the academic world, titles of articles and papers tend to be long and quite dense. “An Analysis of the Savior Archetype in Modern English Literature” certainly tells us what the paper is about, but could also easily be summed up as “The Savior in Modern Literature” and loses nothing of its statement of intent.

Further, keyword optimization becomes less effective the further into a document one gets, and this includes the size of the title. Proper keyword effect selects for shorter, more efficient use of titles, so avoid the temptation to put the whole topic into the title line. Go for simpler, brief word choices that allow expression of the important information without going on and on.

Hyphenated titles are very popular for this reason. A single word can capture the intent of the message, such as “Betrayed,” and then be followed with keywords. To take an example from the news, perhaps the keywords are “WikiLeaks” and “PayPal.” The title could then be “Betrayed — WikiLeaks Banned from PayPal.”

To Joke or Not to Joke

Not every lighthearted article responds well to a joking title. People are oddly finicky and picky about when they’ll accept humor, and the use of puns in a title is a risky gamble. Yet it undoubtedly works — consider the example of the Focker movie trilogy starring Ben Stiller.

Obviously if the article is a serious piece, a pun should be avoided unless it’s executed in the vein of dark humor. Serious work demands a serious title.

However, an important rule of thumb is to be very cautious about industries or groups in jokes. Consider for whom the article is intended. If it is aimed at a wider public audience, such as a newsletter or advertisement intended to bring people into a site for discussion or purchases, then an excellent inside joke would be misplaced. Not everyone understands the jargon, so it should be limited. On the other hand, a specialty letter crafted specifically for professionals of the plumbing craft could easily get away with jokes about piping and other internally-recognized puns. As with any online venture, the goal is clearly to keep the audience first and foremost in mind when selecting a title, rather than simply hoping they’ll “get” it.

Enzo F. Cesario is an online branding specialist and co-founder of Brandsplat, a digital content agency. Brandsplat creates blogs, articles, videos and social media in the “voice” of our client’s brand. It makes sites more findable and brands more recognizable. For the free Brandcasting Report go to or visit our blog at