Why are the headlines on your content so boring?

Some call the dominance of SEO in choosing topics and headlines is The Death of Wit

Headlines have been considered high art (although sometimes fine-but-low art, too) for as long as newspapers (and probably news) have been around.

For readers, headlines are summaries of the information available on the page – tiny dust jackets or tables of contents for every page of stories, whether on a web news page or on a page of the dead-tree variety.

For journalists, headlines are a mixed blessing; good ones sell your story in a way cleverer than you could have done yourself, burdened as you are by the need to write something that both informs and entices readers, without misstating the point or overselling the promise of the story itself – in 8 words or less eight words or fewer (headlines are written by copyeditors, who see so large a difference between the previous two phrases they will believe it must have been fixed by a dedicated copyeditor after the writer and the top editor both managed to get more things wrong than there are words in the phrase).

News people love good headlines; except for the size and proximity of their bylines to the hed, though, they usually don't care about anything other than the words.

Magazine writers – a separate genus of homo journalists whose senses are more acute, aesthetics are more refined and ability to write thousands of elegant words about subjects a news dog couldn't even identify without remedial tutlelage (and possibly a shovel) – have a much different perception of and use for headlines.

Headlines on a magazine story don't have to summarize the story, pull out the single factoid that makes a story irresistible, or use gross stereotypes of sex, violence or fear to draw a reader in. Magazines have far more tools than that.

Cover images and teasers pull readers into taking the issue off the newstand shelf; table-of-contents teasers and graphics reinforce that there are a lot of compelling stories in the issue the reader holds and is about to pay $4.95 for; editor forwards pimp both the story and the writer (though just as often it's the photographer being promoted).

On the story itself, the headline is an artful graphic, succinctly referring to a mesh of other references, hints and teasers on the page – the big main photo or illustration, caption on a smaller chart, paragraph-length subhed with a dramatic setup of the conflict at the heart of the story, the expression on the victim, villain or sad, abused observer who embodies for the reader a narrative that is less the summary of a trend than the explication of universal truths focused through the experience of just one or two people, whose individual experience is singular but whose significance is universal.

Magazine people talk like that. Newspaper feature editors and designers do, too, sometimes, though not as often because they're surrounded by professional skeptics who view overly elevated phraseology as empty pretension that must be needled into submission and nonexistence.

The headlines of both magazine and newspaper feature sections, ripped away from the subheds, art, tactile experience and progressive seduction of the self-promotive tools of the magazine itself, make absolutely no sense. "Darkness at the edge of sea"

"Deeper than sallow"

"Quest for life"

Sometimes the stories under headlines like that are brilliant – with witty writing, trenchant observations, anecdotes that paint an image in your mind that tells you the history and conflicts of an entire region, with no other words at all.

When you see them teased in a newsletter or news-aggregator site or even on the magazine's own home page, though, a traditional magazine headline gives you absolutely no idea what about the story will not only make it worth your while, but will improve your life immeasurably.

That drove a lot of talented magazine people around the bend during the past 10 years, especially those whose sense of aesthetics and poetic use of image and disconnected phrase made their publications sing for readers year after year.

They generally didn't believe or appreciate the need for what I described as "anti-clever" headlines, that were direct and explanatory, but could be as satisfyingly complex in wordplay as magazine heds that were often packed with puns, classical references and solipsistically self-references that satisfied the egos of editors of designers without anyone else really caring what the text of the headline said anyway.

Online, that approach just doesn't work. Even the most complex, subtle story has to be far more direct, far more of a summary than a clever or artistic magazine editor or designer would accept.

One for whom I served as online editor, working for an online group separate from the magazines we put online, regularly stormed upstairs to the office of my cuddly, deceptively non-confrontational boss, who would phone me later in my distant bureau office so we could handicap the visit to estimate the chance the next one would get my boss a punch in the nose.

It was a very interesting time. Especially for my boss.

Now more traditional journalists are facing the same kind of pain, and may be misleading readers even with direct headlines that are effective summaries of the story they top.

Rather than having to dumb down or recast heds as simple explanations, writers and editors at everything from tiny blog sites to giant news organizations are chained to requirements of search-engine organization (SEO), which increase readership for a story not by pulling in human readers directly, but by flipping enough of a Google spider's switches to get the story placed high in searches of particular topics or general news.

The algorithms that drive spiders provide astoundingly sophisticated analysis, but are basically stupid.

By repeating the same hot buzzwords over and over in the headline and top few paragraphs, it's possible to convince a spider your story is more important than the New York Times piece that broke the news you're summarizing, contains far more information than you present and that you actually link to several times in your own blog entry.

That's the gist of the societal and existential crisis at the center of The Atlantic's "Google Doesn't Laugh: Saving witty headlines in the age of SEO."

The Atlantic is a little too non-fictional and friendly toward text to be among the most dramatic examples of "magazine headlines," but it uses as art a newspaper-magazine fluff-feature page with a pitch-perfect example of the difference between "wit" and SEO in headlines:

On the page is a huge, adorable picture of a woman kissing a tiny dog's head and the headline/subhed combination: "The Beast Within. The secret formula of Animal Planet: It's all around us."

That headline is scratched out in red pen (real copyeditors use blue). Scrawled in is a more SEO-friendly headline: "Video of cute animals and cats!"

"I understand the shift toward search optimization," according to Matthew Crowley, a copyeditor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal who has won significant awards for his headline writing and who teaches master classes in it to other journalists. "But I think we're losing something when we take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing."

Particularly annoying was a story about a rotating observation deck Harrah's casino was planning to build, which carried the headline "Brave new whirl."

"The online desk changed it to 'Harrah's plans retail, entertainment center.'"


Atlantic writer David Wheeler also cites complaints by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten complained about a Post story about Conan O'Brien's refusal to give up his 11:30 Tonight Show slot in favor of a returning Jay Leno, and move to a later time for O'Brien's own show. "Better never than late" became "Conan O'Briend won't give up 'Tonight Shot' time slot to make room for Jay Leno."

SEO analysts don't like witty headlines because their research (sometimes scientific, sometimes just their individual assumptions based on web server logs) show that people don't read funny or clever headlines.

Readers also don't click on headlines they never see; so even the cleverest headline will draw no readers if it is never picked up by Google News or one of the other big aggregators.

Headlines written only according to SEO criteria are incredibly boring and tend to attract fewer readers. That is largely because (my own subjective experience and analysis here) heds written only to impress algorithms bore human brains stupid.

Not always, of course. No matter how dull you try to make it, everyone will click on a story about Michael Jackson being arrested while riding nude on an elephant and making out with a pet monkey.

Take all the zip out of a story in favor of a pile of SEO-friendly nouns and verbs with little or no humor, analysis or indication of what the reader will gain by clicking other than the bare facts of the story, and you don't give readers any reason other than the facts you already gave them in the headline to click on the story.

So they won't.

No one really knows what the golden center is on the spectrum between clever, human-enticing word play and pure-SEO labelling of news stories, feature stories and the kind of content your company didn't know it was in the business of publishing until it had to put it all up on web sites and get people to look at it.

It's a discussion close to the hearts (and workflow and job descriptions) of every journalist who works on line (every journalist) and every corporate marketing drone, content aggregator, PR operative or communications professional.

It's an evolving picture, complicated by click farms trying to identify Google's priorities so they can game the system, legitimate content sites trying to make their content as Google-friendly as possible, and Google itself, which seems to think everyone's just obsessed with the way it likes to categorize content (they are).

It's not the kind of topic or set of issues for which IT is normally responsible. Since it became unavoidable that every company have a solidly performing web site with deep content on products, support, company history, employment, investor information and other required data, every company is in the publishing business. And every company in publishing feels the impact of SEO, whether it goes through the process itself or not.

Avoiding SEO optimization lowers your own readership; going hog wild on it squeezes all the interest out of your content so only the spiders will read it.

There are no real benchmarks, no diagnostic tests, no objective measures of how well a web site handles SEO, especially compared to the kind of tools IT often uses to evaluate performance of the technology that makes up the platform underneath the content.

Without understanding SEO and its plusses and minuses, it's not possible to understand why your response rate is what it is and what role the content, rather than the coding, paid promotion and other issues, is having on how effective you are at actually getting an audience to pay attention to the information you'd like them to read.

Taking their needs into account and being courteous enough to make the content interesting for them may not be more effective rigorous SEO analysis, but at least you won't annoy them if you do get their attention.

Thanks for reading! Always a pleasure! Come back soon!

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