A tale of three headlines – and why SEO isn’t killing headline writing

40960092-2cfbb4cd0a1bc007c44bd0aaaba14d55.4af32611-scaled“The internet” is accused of killing many things: Newspapers, the Royal Mail, book shops, the music industry – you get my drift.

And to that list of well-known complaints add this one from some prin journalists: “The internet is killing headline writing.”

That was basically the point made by columnist Maxwell Cooter in the latest edition of the NUJ magazine Journalist.

I know a lot of people roll their eyes when they hear the NUJ being referred to in the same sentence as online journalism, and there’s been a lot of discussion around the NUJ’s current investigation into “new media” to use the phrase it still uses.

I’m not going to touch on that investigation here – the comments have come thick and fast on Twitter from people who have articulated their thoughts much more effectively than I could … and in 140 characters  too!

Anyway, back to Maxwell’s column (which I’d link to if I could find it online).

In his column, he laments what he sees as the end of an era where “writing a headline writing used to be a straightforward job; difficult but straightforward: sum up the story in a few succinct words, and if it included a clever – no maybe not-so-clever – play on words, so much the better.”

These days, he added: “Today’s subs have to consider two imperatives: key word search and search engine optimisation. The old fashioned witty, punning headline is heading for the scrapheap. What counts now is a headline that merits top ranking in its online searches. The trust dictionary has been replaced by Google Analytics or perhaps Google Zeitgeist.”

He concluded: “This scientific approach and calculating approach leaves little room for the sound of language or the richness of English phrase-making, let alone wit or humour. It’s composition by the rules – rather like making love by following a sex manual.”

You get the drift. It’s all summed up neatly in the standfirst which says: “Journalists writing headlines are doing it for Google, not the readers.”

And Cooter isn’t alone in holding this opinion. I’ve sat through a lot of SEO presentations where journalists who enjoy working with words dislike the idea of a SEO because of the limitations it brings.

But to suggest that journalists using SEO in headlines are “doing it for Google” and are therefore doing a bad thing are forgetting one major point: Why Google (or any search engine) is there in the first place.

If someone is searching for a news story, they are likely to search for words they’d expect to find in that story. It therefore figures that those words need to be prominent within the story, and in the headline – after all, how else is Google supposed to turn up the story otherwise?

So Google ranks content in various ways – regional newspaper websites generally score quite highly because they are full of original content and are (often) well-linked to.

But does that mean the witty, play-on-words headline is dead? Online, that may well be the case – but it’s not the industry which has killed it, or indeed the search engines. Put simply, users won’t search for a story of subject by trying to second-guess the punny headline with a journalist may have written. The user may well enjoy the pun if they saw it, but they probably won’t see it at all if the pun bears no obvious relation to the words a user would pick to search for a story.

Take the montage at the top of this post. All three headlines relate to the Birmingham Mail’s splash at the end of October involving a row between the new and old regimes at Birmingham City Football Club.

At the bottom of the montage is the print headline: Yeung guns for Brady.” Play on words there – Young Guns and all that – and it’s clear on the front page with the club badge and the sub deck “New boss blocks leaving package” what’s going on.

Above it is a photo of the bill in the city centre on the same day: “Blues to get tough with Brady.” It’s suitably vague as to not give the whole story away in a flash, thus hopefully drawing in readers to buy the paper. Do puns and play on words work on newspaper bill boards? I don’t think so – if a bill board confuses or tries to be clever, I think the reader would walk away.

The key to a good bill has to be knowing your market. In Birmingham, the use of the word ‘Blues’ is shorthand for ‘Birmingham City’ and ‘Brady’ is clearly Karren Brady, recently departed from the club. That bill tells fans there’s been a development, but they’ll have to go inside to find out what it is.

That local knowledge can then be applied and adapted online. The Mail’s online headline was: “Carson Yeung to block Karren Brady’s leaving benefits package.” Omniture tells multimedia editors in Birmingham that Carson Yeung and Karren Brady are well-search for terms, as was “benefits package” for finding previous stories about Brady.

Perhaps it should also have included the phrase “Birmingham City” but then again, the site overall is already well optimised for that phrase and it appears on the page in the keyword tags for the article.

On one hand, applying the traditional rules of headline writing, the web headline is more clunky, but surely it’s simply achieving what a cleverly written headline on the front page of a newspaper shouting for attention on a cluttered news-stand does. It’s getting the reader’s attention.

What’s the alternative? Ignoring SEO en-masse and making the online user hunt out the story? Nice idea in theory, but it won’t work. The online reader has thousands of places to go for content and simply taking the bat and ball home and refusing to play will only do us, as journalists, damage.

Far from killing headline writing, “the internet” provides a way to tweak a skill to reach a new audience.

SEO, used correctly, is a way of ensuring that we get a chance to provide the reader with what they want. We ignore that at our peril.


7 thoughts on “A tale of three headlines – and why SEO isn’t killing headline writing

  1. Think you’re dead right about headlines – losing a pun or two for the sake of simplicity is no loss.
    I would start to worry if reporters repeated keywords in their copy for Google indexing.
    That would really be something to worry about ;0

    1. Hi Ben – I agree there. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a reporter knowing which words work best for an intro – eg pushing the name of a person into an intro when print tradition has it that you’d call them something like “A Coventry man” – but there’s no real reason to pack a whole story out with a key phrase. At least, that’s what Google told us recently.

  2. Hi David,
    Your piece kind of contradicts itself. The reality is that it necessary to write headlines in a certain way for SEO purposes, but you can’t really argue that there’s any art in it. I used to write for a music magazine and would spend a long time working on smart headlines (and it’s not just puns, btw).

    These days, you just bang all the key words into a dodgy sentence (short on decent grammar). Max, who has been an online journalist for quite a few years, is bemoaning a loss of artistry and he’s right – and the article is a “Gripe” as the magazine points out. But, as you correctly point out, it’s necessary. Online isn’t print. It’s also transitory, search as we know it now will not be the same in a year or so and the requirement to load your headline with the keywords will probably go away again.

    From a subbing point of view, you’ve got a major redundancy in your headline here. It’s not an SEO point, it’s a style point (the kind of thing subs used to check for when they existed) – there’s no need for the hyphen and the “and”. It doesn’t add anything, it would flow better without the “and”. This is the kind of thing that’s being lost with the current focus on SEO – the rest of headline writing logic and skills are being lost and subs are being made redundant across the industry.

    1. Hi – thanks for your comment. The post wasn’t meant to be critical of the traditional art of headline writing, or negative about the newspaper headline. But I do think there is a degree of skill involved in writing the correct headline online for the largest possible audience. It involves knowing your market, what they search for, and utilising the words you know they’ll be using to best effect.
      The point I about keywords in articles is interesting. I’ve held sessions about writing for the web, but have always talked about changing the way we write intros to include the words people would search for – eg putting a suburb in whereas before it might be in the third par.
      But repeating keywords throughout an article? Personally, I don’t think it has any search benefit of note these days, and an article written purely around keywords could easily be bad to read – and if that’s the case, the user won’t return a second time.

      1. You’re absolutely right and, to be honest, most journalists will realise this. However, the industry is increasingly in a situation where non-journalists make demands of a shrinking band of writers. SEO has become a buzzword like Web 2.0 was a few years ago and, while many journalists understand it (if gripe about it!), there are a lot of editorial managers who don’t really get it and make ludicrous demands of their writers. It’ll all change with semantic search, though – how, I don’t think anyone really knows!

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