World's Best Headlines: BBC News

by Jakob Nielsen on April 27, 2009

Summary: Precise communication in a handful of words? The editors at BBC News achieve it every day, offering remarkable headline usability.


It's hard enough to write for the Web and meet the guidelines for concise, scannable, and objective content. It's even harder to write Web headlines, which must be:

  • short (because people don't read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they'll like the full article before they click (because people don't return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

For several years, I've been very impressed with BBC News headlines, both on the main BBC homepage and on its dedicated news page. Most sites routinely violate headline guidelines, but BBC editors consistently do an awesome job.

Concise and Informative

On a recent visit, the BBC list of headlines for "other top stories" read as follows:

  • Italy buries first quake victims
  • Romania blamed over Moldova riots
  • Ten arrested in UK anti-terrorism raids
  • Villagers hurt in West Bank clash
  • Mass Thai protest over leadership
  • Iran accuses journalist of spying

Around the world in 38 words.

The average headline consumed a mere 5 words and 34 characters. The amount of meaning they squeezed into this brief space is incredible: every word works hard for its living. I'm rarely that concise.

Each headline conveys the gist of the story on its own, without requiring you to click. Even better, each gives you a very good idea of what you'll get if you do click and lets you judge — with a high degree of confidence — whether you'll be interested in the full article. As a result, you won't waste clicks. You'll click through to exactly those news items you want to read.

The site's top news headlines warrant a few additional keystrokes.

One breaking story, for example, had the following headline: "Suspected US missile strike kills four militants in tribal region in north-west Pakistan, officials say."

Readers would certainly know what happened, and would even get the general picture after the first 4 words.

To save space, the headline's writer might have deferred the attribution to the unnamed "officials" to the article itself. That information isn't something people need to know at the headline-scanning stage; an exception would be if a famous person or controversial source had claimed responsibility for the missile strike, in which case the attribution might be a reason for users to click.

Also, using "4" might be better than using "four" given the general guideline to prefer numerals for online writing. But in this particular headline, the word works as well as the numeral because users aren't likely to be scanning the front page for data about the specific number of militants killed. To research such facts, people would typically start by searching for articles about the missile strike, and then scan one or two to get the numbers.

Roots of Success?

So why is the BBC so good when most others are so bad? Maybe it's in the BBC's blood: The news organization originated as a radio station, where word count is at a premium and you must communicate clearly to immediately grab listeners. In a spoken medium, each word is gone as soon as it's uttered, so convoluted exposition confuses even more than it does in print.

Ceefax (one of the longest-surviving videotext services) also helped instill conciseness in BBC's journalists until it was closed in 2012. Text on pre-HD televisions had horrible resolution and only allowed for a minute word count (somewhat like mobile).

Whatever the reason, BBC News headlines are almost always written to the highest Web usability standards. Visit the site daily for a week and try to apply some of the BBC editors' discipline to your own headlines.

Full Report

Full eyetracking report on how users read on the web is available for download.


Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email