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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Is it time to stop writing headlines that end in question marks?

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states the following:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.

Ian Betteridge explains his theory as follows:

The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bollocks, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

Betteridge’s point is that if a story had enough proof and citations, the headline would be assertive. Consider the latest story on TechCrunch, as of this writing: “Warren Buffett Is A Punk“. Regardless of its journalistic appeal, doesn’t that sound much better than “Is Warran Buffett A Punk?”. Headlines end in question marks when the authors want to retain a certain measure of deniability if their story turns out to be false (“Will iOS 6 Be Able To Make You Coffee?”).

However, lately these headlines have morphed into something beyond just a mixture of deniability and laziness: pure link bait. Consider a few randomly selected headlines from the last week:

  • Should Celebrities Create Their Own Branded Social Networks?
  • Could in-store navigation tech be a shopper’s worst nightmare?
  • Samsung Galaxy S III: Is the Screen Its Achilles Heel?

The idea is to get people interested enough to click through, and then make them scroll past the ads until the answer (usually, “no”) is revealed in the last paragraph. It’s effective, but I just don’t think it should be done. Unfortunately I don’t have a business reason for my opinion, but I do have a reader reason.

I believe in respecting your audience’s intelligence, and not wasting their time. I believe in stating an article’s thesis and/or purpose clearly in the title, and trusting that if it’s interesting enough, the people you want on your site will click through and read it.

So, is it time to stop writing headlines that end in question marks? I’m going to break Betteridge’s Law and say, unequivocally, yes.