3 updated reasons for using odd numbered lists in your blog post titles

3 updated reasons for using odd numbered lists in your blog post titles - image of cassette on iPhone. Photo by Vadim ZH on Reshot

I wrote a blog post six years ago entitled, 3 powerful reasons for using odd numbered lists in your blog post titles, and having mentioned it in some workshops recently, I figured it was time to revisit my thoughts and update them.

There is no doubt that much of your success in blogging rests upon how successful your blog post titles are in getting your story recommended by Google, getting a human to take notice of and click through to your article, and then for your article headline to actually match the nature and calibre of what it promised.

So let's look at these three updated reasons and check if they resonate.

The balancing act of blog post titles: keywords wrapped in tasty word pastry

To get your story recommended by Google to people using that search engine, means the Google algorithm (the rules that govern how the Google database indexes and weights each piece of content for particular uses on particular devices in particular locations at particular times of day or night based on their particular history) needs to easily understand what the most relevant elements or themes of your story are.

For example, a blog headline like 7 Ways To Get More Mileage With Each New Set You Buy, means a lot to the person who wrote it but Google has to do a bit of guessing to work you they're talking about tyres.

A more deliberate title that would bring Google along for the ride, so to speak, would be, 7 Ways To Get More Mileage From Your New Set Of Tyres.

It's still not a perfect title but it makes like a darn site easier for Google to understand what you think your main points are and therefore what search phrases are more likely to be a good match.

As I wrote about in The basics of SEO: Google is not a mind reader (yet), just adding the word "tyres" to the title won't be all you need to do, but it certainly stack the odds in your favour for being ranked when somebody searches for how to make my new tyres last longer, or similar.

Getting a human to take notice of and click through to your article

The gist of my original article all hinged around this point. People are lazy.

Yes, that's right. You're lazy, I'm lazy, we're all lazy.

What I mean by this is that evolutionary psychologists have been telling us for a long time that because the human brain in full flight can drain more energy than any other organ, our bodies have evolved to look for shortcuts.

The shortcuts in relation to the brain mean the selective filtering our brain does of all the data it channels to the brain all day. Unless something expected is seen, or something with eyes, our brains will not bother stirring us into full consciousness. In other words, we won't pay attention.

And what have marketers been lamenting for a solid decade or so now? Yes, our attention deficit economy.

Basically, us humans are attracted to articles and blogs that promise a short list of tips or insights, so we can cut to the chase and get an answer without turning the brain up to full.

This is one of the findings I had originally cited from George Loewenstein’s, The Psychology Of Curiosity: A Review And Reinterpretation.

What this means is, when we're glancing at a page of search results in Google and one item says Extending the life of tyres and another says 3 tricks for making your new tyres last longer, you can guess which one our brain is most likely to click on.

You guessed it, the list. This is because lists mean someone else has done the heavy listing.

Some lists are more powerful than others

According to Abreena Tompkins, who has conducted meta analysis on more than 300 articles about online learning, when we group information into odd numbered parcels, humans can absorb that information better.

Make a list a round number like 10 and the brain doesn't quite get as activated as when that list contains 3, 5, 7, or 9 items.

As well as being more attention-grabbing for our brain, other researchers have suggested we trust odd numbered lists to be more authentic than even numbered ones.

For example, how many times have you padded out or thinned out a collection of points to make a top ten or a nice even number of items? Probably many times.

So, instinctively, when we encounter a odd numbered list, we are predisposed to assuming that this list is exhaustive. We assume that nobody in their right mind would cobble together a rag tag bunch of points; surely we'd round them up or down. Ergo, the odd numbered list must be the real deal.

Of course, six years after writing this, we have now been besieged by click bait articles offering 13 surprising ways you can clean your teeth like a celebrity (and number 9 will shock you), so it still pays to make sure your articles don't rely on this "trick" but actually do have substance.

Does the promise of your blog headline match the reality of the content? It had better!

Thanks to years of desperate, tacky, click bait headline writers, we should expect that valuable readers are jaundiced by the bait and switch approach to blogging.

Click bait means an article tempts and teases to grab attention, often pandering to our lower selves (sex, greed, fears, vulnerabilities), but then rarely delivers anything worthwhile.

For gutter-dwelling bloggers (and journalists) who produce that rubbish, they get the click which helps them get paid for traffic and increases the chance of foisting ad inventory onto unsuspecting visitors.

Can you see long term, trusting relationships building from that first interaction? Not likely.

I recall one marketer spending money to get a novel video made in India to draw attention to his blog post but the blog post content was vacuous. The analytical data showed people clicking in, realising they'd been hoodwinked within a second, and then exiting. Nobody wins from that exchange.

So, my main lesson today is that we should be mindful of how our brains process information when we write our blog article headlines to give us a chance of getting our quality writing in front of our ideal readers/clients/customers.

This means we need to:

  • lead our horse to water (give Google actual keywords that make sense in the headline)
  • make our writing appealing to human brains by structuring it in odd numbered lists
  • give our readers content that entertains or informs in line with expectations set by the headline

It's not rocket science, more like social science.

See how you go with your next article. Oh, and if you like formulas, this is not a bad one to follow because it introduces one other element that helps grab attention; it stuffs a surprising/attractive adjective just after the odd number that starts your headline.

(odd number) (adjective) (mistakes/tips/insights/shortcuts) for (achieving/avoiding) (desired outcome/disaster)

And here are some ridiculous examples using a random word generator:

  • 3 unedifying nit hunting techniques to abolish head lice
  • 5 submicroscopic critters in every spoonful of yoghurt (and why one of them will save your life)
  • 7 unnecessary comparisons theologians make between demons

Good luck with your headline crunching.

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