April 12, 2013 by Ryan Miller
Yesterday, Gawker Media owner Nick Denton sent out a memo to all staff notifying them that they must limit their headline character count to 70 or less in direct relation to the site’s ability to rank in Google. The memo notes:
Our wordy headlines are a growing disadvantage. That’s why from tomorrow we’re going to warn you in the Kinja editor to keep your headlines below 70 characters — and we’re going to only display 70 characters on the front page even if you go longer.
Why this drastic measure? Google and others truncate headlines at 70 characters. On the Manti Teo story, Deadspin’s scoop fell down the Google search results, overtaken by copycat stories with simpler headlines.
Deadspin’s headline was 118 characters. Vital information — “hoax” — was one of the words that was cut off. Our headline was less intelligible — and less clickworthy — than others. And Google demotes search results that don’t get clicked on.
But is this really the right approach toward instructing reporters how to write headlines for stories, which for most content management systems by default become the title tag for that page?
Denton is partially correct, in that it is true that Google does cut off headlines in search after approximately 65-70 characters (though what Google is truly counting is the pixels that make up the headline, not the actual number of characters, as this blog post by Chris Tucker points out). And, it is certainly important to get your targeted keyword phrase within that limit, preferably front loading the most important terms as close to the beginning as possible.
However, this is not the only factor to keep in mind when writing headlines, even for Google. Remember, SEO is becoming more and more about writing for the reader while keeping search in mind. Sometimes headlines will need to go over 70 characters to properly convey the entire point of the story and to draw in readers.
Additionally, Google News will sometimes provide the entire headlines regardless of length in their news clusters and sharing links on Facebook will not cut off the headline either. See these two examples:
A better rule of thumb is to watch the word count rather than character count when writing headlines and try to keep the headlines no more than 12 words, 15 at an absolute maximum. This will more often than not keep the headlines at about 70 characters anyway, and help limit keyword dilution within the headline, while retaining journalistic flexibility for reporters to fully “tell” the story within that headline.
Denton isn’t fully wrong on this approach, but it may put restrictions on his journalists and turn off readers who may see this as a ploy to purely target SEO at the expense of news reporting. Gawker’s readers, in the comments of Denton’s memo, seem to indicate just that.