It’s been said that there are no stupid questions. But are there stupid question headlines?
People ask search engines questions all the time. People are seeking answers to all kinds of questions. They want to know the who, what, where, when, why, and how on a variety of topics.
These types of pages also tend to rank well, get shared, and attract links. For example:
- Google kills Right Hand Side Ads: what does this mean for marketers and users? Search Engine Watch (3K shares, 226 links)
- Microsoft Wants Autistic Coders. Can It Find Them And Keep Them? – Fast Company (47K shares, 93 links)
- Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one? – Washington Post (867K shares, 144 links)
But could question headlines actually hurt how your content performs in the long-term, especially in organic search?
Yes. Yes they could.
Don’t get me wrong. Question headlines aren’t bad all the time. Asking questions inspires curiosity, which can inspire your audience to click and even contribute their thoughts to the discussion.
But there are times when you should question your question headlines.
Here are six questions to consider when you’re considering using a question headline.
1) Have you actually answered the question?
Question headlines fail when you fail to provide an answer. So many publications ask big questions, but then either tend to cop out toward the end or never really answer the question in a satisfactory way.
How many times have you seen an article end with some variation of “only time will tell”?
If you’re going to ask questions from the outset, you better answer them by the time your readers reach the end of your content. Otherwise, what was the point?
2) Is your answer better than other existing content?
Chances are that a piece of content on the web has already asked and/or answered your question. Before you hit publish, type your question into your favorite search engine and see what content pops up.
Chances are also good that you can create a better piece of content. One that provides a more concise answer, or a more thorough answer, or an answer that showcases your brand’s vast expertise, or that challenges or counters the “wisdom of the crowd”.
Don’t just aim to be yet another answer – there’s enough average content on the web. Make sure your content is the best answer (and also interesting and memorable).
3) Can the question be answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?
One of the most popular questions to ask in our industry is “Is SEO Dead?” These types of posts always generated tons of page views and quite a bit of outrage.
Why? Because, in the end, this question can be answered not with 1,000 or so words, but with one: NO!
But there are plenty of other examples of “yes” or “no” question headlines like this. Just check out this site, which compiles headlines that fail Betteridge’s law of headlines (which states that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’):
- Did Facebook Really Elect Trump President? (No.)
- Hamilton’s Message to Pence: WAS IT HARASSMENT? (No – and WHY ARE YOU YELLING?)
- Do We Need to Use (and Discard) So Many Plastic BAGS EACH YEAR (No, and WHY ARE YOU YELLING?)
Asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no is pointless. So why do it?
Betteridge claims that publications use that style of headline because “they know the story is probably bullshit and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”
4) Are you withholding information?
If you withhold information simply in the hopes that you’ll get more clicks and views, essentially you’re dealing in clickbait.
Rather than just throw a question mark on the end of a headline, spend some time developing an actual angle or position.
5) Is the answer unknown?
Sometimes you have a theory or some ideas that you want to share in order to get people thinking or solicit feedback.
- Where is Google heading with mobile local search?
- Penguin 4.0: what does it mean for SEO practitioners?
- What does Google AMP mean for ecommerce?
Other times you may be writing about something you’ve seen but can’t confirm with 100% certainty at publication time. For example:
- Is Google testing out green labels for PPC ads?
- Is Google manipulating autocomplete results for UK political parties?
- Is Google Testing a Knowledge Vault Update?
In these cases, question headlines are entirely appropriate. Because there is no answer.
However, just make sure that you’re not using a question-based headline as rhetorical device. The question should be important enough that it warrants asking in the first place.
6) Can you write a more compelling headline?
Question headlines can be a lazy way to make a point, according to Jonathan Allen, president of L&T Co. Also, if you’re asking a question, the reader might automatically assume there is no new information and won’t bother clicking.
“One thing that no reader wants to commit to is an unending discussion with no conclusion, so anything that looks like waffle, probably is waffle,” according to Allen. “Question-based headlines often look like a lot of waffle is going to follow.”
If you were to restate your original question-based headline as simply a headline emphasizing your core idea, you are likely to attract more attention and clicks. Why? Because you’re signaling to the reader that you have new information or arguments to which they can agree, disagree, or find out more, according to Allen.
So what’s the answer here? Question headlines aren’t by nature bad. But when done poorly, they won’t help you.
So if you’re going to use question headlines, make sure that you:
- Include keywords so readers have an idea about what they’re about to click on.
- Answer the question with your content – and answer it well.
- Aren’t using them to avoid taking a side or clear position.
- Aren’t publishing crap.
What do you think about question headlines – good, bad, or it depends?
Danny Goodwin is a content strategist at Longneck & Thunderfoot, a brand publishing company. A professional editor, writer, and ghostwriter with over 10 years of experience in marketing, he has created content for SMBs and global brands alike, spanning all things search and digital. He was formerly the editor of Search Engine Watch. Follow Danny on Twitter.