This headline not written for Google

I’m amused by a discussion on SEO and headline-writing taking place at the Nieman Journalism Lab site and on the Canadian blog MediaStyle. It seems a seminar on SEO for editors at The Globe and Mail offended the Canadian paper’s online books editor, who interpreted it as a charge to dumb down headlines.

Most commentary has focused on the question of why his post was removed from the Globe and Mail’s books blog, In Other Words. I’ll let others tackle that angle. What I’m interested in is whether the writer, Peter Scowen, has a point. I believe he does, even if it’s poorly expressed:

Last week, our headline on the review for Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist was one of those sweetly goofy and slightly shopworn plays on words that newspapers are rightly famous and infamous for. The book is about a self-doubting poet in midlife crisis mulling (and procrastinating) over an essay about rhyme; the headline was “The marinating of the ancient rhymer.”

Our merriment came to a screeching halt on Tuesday after I went to a seminar on search engine optimization and discovered that it was actually a really really crappy headline. I learned that this kind of badinage, so peculiar to newspapers, has no place on the Internet. The reason is both simple and deranged: The most important reader of Internet news headlines is not you, the sentient, curious human being, but the robots at Google that scan headlines and return search results based on what their cold, lifeless eyes tell them.

Above all, we were taught that Internet headlines have to be written with a certain kind of hipster doofus in mind. This person was embodied by the groovy, ever-pacing journalism professor who led the class on writing for robots (he didn’t call it that), and who whipped out his iPhone and boasted that he will not click on anything whose headline doesn’t hand the story to him on a digital platter.

I happen to know the journalism professor in question. His name is Alfred Hermida, and he is anything but a “hipster doofus”. He’s a keen observer of the changes taking place in the practice of journalism, and I’m happy to be joining him on the faculty of the University of British Columbia in January.

I have taught on the subject of headlines and findability, both at the L.A. Times and for Poynter’s NewsU, and I have always stressed this point: It’s not about writing for Google. It’s about writing for humans, with search engines in mind — a theme Alf says he raised in his seminar. But if we’re going to write with an eye toward findability, we have to understand how search engines work and how people use them, and I presume that’s why The Globe and Mail invited Alf to speak.

I wasn’t there, but I suspect there may have been some nuance in Alf’s presentation that was lost on Scowen. In any case, there are ways — both technical and editorial — to publish great headlines without killing search relevance:

  • At the very least, most content management systems these days will allow editors to write a literal, search-friendly headline for the story and put a more creative, punny headline on their homepage and section fronts, where keywords don’t matter as much.
  • Better yet, if your CMS supports it, you could put your literal headline in a story’s <title> tag and on RSS feeds, and get more abstract in the display headline that readers see when they pull up the story. The New York Times has been doing this a bit, I’ve noticed.
  • Finally, if you have control over the words in a post’s URL — and with many blogging tools you do — you can put full names and keywords there instead of in the headline and still get them seen by search engines. Mashable, a popular blog on social media, seems to be optimizing the URLs on its posts in that way.

Scowen raises an important topic, but he cheapens his argument by suggesting that readers who arrive at news content via search — about a third of the audience of many news sites — are intellectually incurious and that journalists who cater to them are dumbing down the craft.

(For what it’s worth, I think his post does kind of fit in a blog about books, because it captures an important difference between online and print writing. And readers’ reactions could have been illuminating for the Globe and Mail staff. It’s a shame that this conversation wasn’t allowed to take place on the G&M site and had to happen elsewhere instead.)

About Eric Ulken

Eric Ulken left his job as editor for interactive technology at the Los Angeles Times in November 2008 to travel and report on trends and best practices in online journalism. He is a 2005 graduate of the communication management M.A. program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where he was an editor and producer for OJR and Japan Media Review. He has been a web monkey at newsrooms in six states, including his native Louisiana.