A headline which shows the pun still has a place in the online world

If you listen to regular newsroom logic, the internet is to blame for many things, including the death of the clever headline.

Search Engine Optimisation, goes the discussion, has killed off the need for a clever headline to draw the reader in.

It’s all about getting as many words that people will be searching for into a headline, preferably in the order they will be searching for.

And people don’t search for puns or plays-on-words in Google, right? Right? Well, sort of.

But as we approach the end of 2014, it’s perhaps becoming more wrong than right.

As previously discussed, the rise of mobile internet use is fuelling a huge rise in the use of social media, which in turn is making referrals from social media to regional news websites the largest source of traffic.

People don’t tend to search social media platforms in the same way they do Google, instead relying on information shared by friends or brands they are interested in. In that space, there’s certainly room for a clever, witty headline. If you can elicit a smile with a headline, you’re more likely to prompt a click or share, I imagine.

There’s another side to this too, especially for regional newsrooms. Because so much of what we write is exclusive – even if that’s just because no-one else would be bothered to writer about it – it makes it less likely that people will turn to Google to search for it.

The value of a well SEO’d headline in that context is for people who might be searching for the subject later. Most websites enjoy a long tail in content every day – the stories generating two or three page views a day on the back of archive searches made by on-site archives or via Google.

So the challenge is for the headline, on the day of publication, to stand out in news aggregators, such as the BBC’s automated related links box, RSS feeds on other sites such as councils, Flipboard if your on an ipad, Newsnow if ou are a sports fan, or in Google News.

And that’s where the art of writing a clever headline becoming perhaps more important than ever. Whereas a clever punny headline on page five of a paper might make a journalist proud, or a reader smile, the decision to buy the paper will probably have been made long before they got to that page.

Online, each story fends for itself. The more you can make a headline stand out to the natural eye – as opposed to the Google bot – the more likely it is someone will click on it.

The challenge, therefore, is a headline that appeals to the human eye and prompts enough of a mental reaction to generate a click, while at the same time appealing to Google’s bots long into the future.

Like this one from the Plymouth Herald:

plymouth herald headline

Or this one from the Cambridge News:


The News example was a down page lead in the print edition, without the pun in the headline.

Is it possible to say that digital not needs the clever headline, but has in fact increased the importance of writing the perfect headline in a glance-and-I’m-gone world?

I think the answer now is: Yes.


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