Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Monday, April 10, 2021

As an admirer of the headline-writing craft, it deeply saddens me to see that search engine optimization is creating a dumbing-down effect among online news postings.

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” One click down: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” Another headline meant to lure the human reader: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960’s singer.” One click down: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

“The search engine has to get a straightforward, factual headline, so it can understand it,” Mr. Newman said. With a little programming sleight-of-hand, the search engine can be steered first to the straightforward, somewhat duller headline, according to some search optimizers.

Feh. If Google is so smart, why can’t it dope out the brilliance inherent in headlines like “SHAW-SHAQ REDEMPTION”?

To an extent, this might be good. The constant struggle with creative headlining involves being clever without over-reliance upon too much referential material or puns. While integrating movie titles, song lyrics or current slang into heds is a neat trick that thrills savvy media junkies, I’m often concerned that it leaves a big part of the audience in the dark. So simplified wording for wider online syndication, via search, might help a lot of folks, especially internationally.

On the other hand, I think it’s a bit daft to abandon or conform distinguishing style for the sake of primitive syntax-based search indexing. There’s a danger in making the broad spectrum of news content too bland and uniform; what would that do to search rankings then? Plus, consider that the archives for a lot of online outlets — newspapers particularly — aren’t freely accessible for indexing anyway. The focused news search algorithms used by Google and Yahoo! (and others) snag the timely news content well enough, so I’m not sure why further optimization is deemed so crucial.

My own experience on this blog also makes me wonder about stripping down headlines. I indulge myself with funny-punny headlines all the time, and I don’t think it kills the search rankings — in fact, I think it enhances them. The point is to tease to the following content, which I think most of my post titles do effectively (in different, sometimes indirect, ways). Then again, if I had to choose between Google-juice and creative headlines, I’d opt for the headline fun.

- Costa Tsiokos, Mon 04/10/2021 11:54:06 PM
Category: Internet, Publishing | Permalink |

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