How Publishers Optimise Headlines for Social Readers

March 3, 2015

Written by NewsWhip

Publishers are trying to figure out how to make sure their readers see the best possible headline, no matter where they come across the story. 
When reviewing the biggest UK sites on Facebook last week, our attention was drawn to the succinct Facebook headlines of many of the Mail Online’s stories, in contrast to the long titles on their website.

The Mail is probably the best-known example of a site that publishes these text heavy headlines, before adapting for Facebook. It’s a strategy that makes sense in reaching Facebook readers, while allowing website editors a bit more flexibility in describing their stories.

When it comes to testing headlines, there is movement in the area. In the near future, editors and analytics teams will likely push more A/B testing of content on homepages and news feeds. A lot of the technology is already there (mainly used for advertising), but notable publishers, including Upworthy and Forbes, have already tried A/B testing for editorial content.
For the publisher, the goal is to have each potential reader see the perfect headline, whether that be while checking out the homepage on their desktop, or scrolling through Facebook on their smartphone. Plenty of the headlines of stories that are recorded getting huge social engagement in Spike each day are socially-focused.
According to Ky Harlin, BuzzFeed’s Lead Data Scientist, the site’s editors can already chose several different headlines and images for a story. Readers are then randomly served a variation of the headlines on the homepage, and after a suitable length of time, BuzzFeed’s data team can pick the winner in terms of clicks and social engagement. “Usually, one or two of the different variations outperform everything else and then that’s ultimately what’s used going forward for the rest of time,” Harlin says.
How do they do it?
The answer lies in Facebook’s Open Graph, which (amongst other things) dictates how a link is displayed once it’s shared. Publishers mark up their websites with Open Graph tags to control how their content looks on Facebook. Here are the basic tags, which cover most articles:

If you want to double-check what your story will look like as a link, use Facebook’s debugger to preview. The debugger will also point you in the right direction when something goes wrong with your links.
It’s not just the headline and excerpt text. Image size also comes into play, with larger image sizes influencing how much news feed real estate your story is entitled to.

Also with images, remember that Facebook’s News Feed updates from last August gives preferential treatment to full link previews, rather than photos with links pasted in the caption. According to Facebook, “The link format shows some additional information associated with the link, such as the beginning of the article, which makes it easier for someone to decide if they want to click through. This format also makes it easier for someone to click through on mobile devices, which have a smaller screen.”

To make sure your newsroom is staying socially aware, try Spike today.


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