Simple Ways for Think Tanks to Have an Impact Online: Write Better Headlines

When I graduated from journalism school, I never envisioned being the editor of a think tank’s website. For nearly the past year, though, I’ve been overseeing The experience has been interesting and educational — similar in some respects to running a news website and also challenging in its own unique ways.

My first few posts at K Street Café this week will examine the various ways think tanks can spread their message more effectively online.

I’d like to start at the top — literally. Writing a good headline or title can make a huge difference in the number of eyeballs on your research.

The night of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention traffic to The Heritage Foundation’s website began to soar. There was nothing new about Palin on or anything in her speech that directed people to visit our website.

There was, however, a two sentence reference to something called the Bridge to Nowhere:

I told the Congress “thanks, but no thanks,” for that Bridge to Nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, we’d build it ourselves.

Most beltway insiders remembered this infamous earmark from the post-Hurricane Katrina days in 2005 when a group of Porkbusters shined the spotlight on Washington’s wasteful ways. But it’s probably safe to say that quite a few of the 37 million people who watched Palin’s speech didn’t know what she was talking about.

When they turned to Google to find out, the top link that night (and currently No. 2) was a 2005 research paper by Heritage’s Ron Utt, “The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment.” In the week that followed, nearly 70% of our traffic came from search engines. More than 95% of the people entering were new visitors. (I wrote more about this for The Next Right.)

Why? Because we wrote a simple headline, which, combined with Heritage’s good PageRank, propelled the paper to the top of Google’s results.

Two years ago the New York Times wrote a piece about how newspapers were ditching clever headlines for ones that were “boring” and attracted more eyeballs from search results. The same concept applies to think tanks and other public policy organizations that want to capitalize on a particular subject or issue — whether it’s something isolated like the Bridge to Nowhere or a larger concept like poverty in America.

Keep it simple and on topic.

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  • Jonathan Rick

    Rob: I, too, am a big believer in the importance of titles. Given the increase in things like lists of most-viewed articles, blogs like Gawker and TechPresident that tease posts on the home page rather than publishing each one in full—even RealClearPolitics itself—a catchy title is often the key to drawing people in.

    I wonder, though, if there’s a happy medium: If you can keep the creative titles by compensating with straightforward subtitles. For instance, Slate and Reason Online, to name two highly successful online publications, pull this balance off nicely.

  • Rob Bluey

    You’re absolutely correct, Jonathan. I didn’t want to go on for too long in my post, so I left out one example of two similar papers from Heritage that had too very different titles. The first performed remarkably better than the second — primarily because of traffic from search engines.

    1. The Russian-Georgian War: A Challenge for the U.S. and the World (Aug. 11, 2008)

    2. Saving Georgia (Aug. 12, 2008)

    Although shorter and to the point, the “Saving Georgia” paper lacked some critical information in its title. I’m not saying that’s the only reason the first paper did better. I’m just making the argument that you need to strike a balance and always be mindful of these things.

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