Different headlines on front page and article

News sites’ home pages and section fronts should have good headlines written for the Web. Unlike print headlines, Web headlines have to adequately summarize an article out of context, divorced from subheads, photos and captions and the article itself. “Cute” headlines — like “Drugs get the boot,” “She stands out in her field” or “Opening up the ‘self’ ” make no sense online.

Even though many sites do write their headlines well, I’m concerned that headlines on some article pages are different than their front page counterparts:

Differences between front page and article page headlines
Headline on front pageHeadline on article page
Dems aim to alter security billDisputed provisions may delay homeland bill
Fiscal Crunch Hits SecuritySpending Bill Delays Crimp War on Terror
Turkey Engaged on War CostU.S. Discusses Aid for Turkey to Defray Costs of an Iraq War
Plotters Turned Into PatsiesMean ol’ NFL can’t stop the force that is Al’s team
Man accused of cutting landlady’s throatMan facing 3 felony counts
Bosses: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say itThe way job reviews handled crucial to employee success
Pollution fightWater rules coming in March

I think these differences in headlines from the front page to an article page impose an extra cognitive burden on readers, who have to determine if they’ve arrived at the right article once they follow the link. Jonathan and Lisa Price ask in their book Hot Text: Web Writing that Works:

How often have you clicked a link, gone to a page, and wondered “Did I click the wrong thing? This doesn’t look like what I clicked.”

Ironically, a good example of the Prices’ principle is how I have to link to that quote. It’s on page 260 of their book, available in the PDF of Chapter 10. Unless I told you how to find it in that PDF file, you might give up in disgust (and you still might, but the Prices were very generous to put their book online in any form at all).

I’m basing my argument completely on my own experience here, but as the Prices say, I do find it disorienting when a headline has changed significantly between the front page and the article page. It’s most confusing for me when the two headlines begin with different words or contain very different sets of words, as in the Washington Post’s “Fiscal Crunch Hits Security” / “Spending Bill Delays Crimp War on Terror” article. It’s much more clear when most of the headline is exactly the same, as in another Post article: “A Monument to Eco-Spirit” / “A Monument to Eco-Mindedness”.

My guess is sites with this problem often run print edition headlines on their article pages, but rewrite headlines for their front page to improve clarity on the Web or fit the space available. I especially appreciate the way the Washington Post uses careful headline writing to eliminate widows from its front page at default browser text sizes. But does that practice come at a price — the price of momentarily confusing readers with some headlines that have been rewritten too much?

To be sure, sometimes making the front page link text different than the article page headline reduces confusion. In a package of related material, links can be very short: “Doves v hawks,” “Inspection countdown,” or “Weapons inspections.” But for regular unadorned articles, I think significant differences between front page headlines and article page headlines do cause some moderate reader confusion. What is the best balance between an attractive, informative front page and less confusing links?

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:28 am