The Internet as a Giant Headline Competition

Posted on April 10, 2006

Sometimes the Internet feels like a giant headline competition. Everyone is busy writing about all the same news and the winners are the ones that come up with the best headlines to attract readers and search bots. Unfortunately, this is partly true as a recent Times article reports.
So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing. The software is a logical, sequential, left-brain reader, while humans are often right brain.

In newspapers and magazines, for example, section titles and headlines are distilled nuggets of human brainwork, tapping context and culture. "Part of the craft of journalism for more than a century has been to think up clever titles and headlines, and Google comes along and says, 'The heck with that,' " observed Ed Canale, vice president for strategy and new media at The Sacramento Bee.

Moves to accommodate the technology are tricky. How far can a news organization go without undercutting its editorial judgment concerning the presentation, tone and content of news?

So far, the news media are gingerly stepping into the field of "search engine optimization." It is a booming business, estimated at $1.25 billion in revenue worldwide last year, and projected to more than double this year.
Michael Parekh has a good post that explains all the many sources, like Digg, Technorati and memetrackers, that bloggers and web publishers have to consider when coming up with headlines. Fortunately, readers eventually tune out blogs that don't have much interesting to say beyond the great headline. Bloggers are also unlikely to link to blogs (or MSM articles) simply because they have a great headline. Copyblogger points out that the catchy New York Times headline, "This Boring Headline Is Written for Google," is really written to get the attention of bloggers not Google. And the headline worked. Many bloggers are reading and linking to the Times article. Google is important, and so are great headlines, but if you want to attract readers to your blog you need great headlines as well as great content.