Monday, April 10, 2006

Pimping your headlines for Google

Copy editors take lots of pride in their headlines. The headline contest is a center of the annual American Copy Editors Society convention. Headlines are described as poetry, there is a session on adding "zing" to your heds, and "Exteme Headline Makeover" last year is fondly remembered for its "pimp my headline" T-shirts.

But the newspaper headline is an artifical thing, forcing an idea into an often-unnatural 12-count, three-line space.

Along came the Web, and too many of those unnatural headlines unfortunately were shoveled onto the electronic pages, producing results that too often were confusing, rather than inviting, to a reader (remember, on the Web, you often do not have the same contextual element of size, placement, type size and face differential, and surrounding items that you have on a printed page). As I noted in a recent post on the future of teaching editing, teaching multiple ways of headline writing for print and the Internet will be imporant.

Now comes a New York Times article that suggests another skill will be needed too: Writing that online headline -- and maybe the first words of a story -- so that it shows well in search engines.

As Steve Lohr writes:
The Associated Press, which feeds articles to 11,000 newspapers, radio and television stations, limits its online headlines to less than 40 characters, a concession to small screens. And on the Web, there is added emphasis on speed and constant updates.

"You put those demands, and that you know you're also writing for search engines, and you tend to write headlines that are more straightforward," said Lou Ferrara, online editor of The Associated Press. "My worry is that some creativity is lost."

Whether search engines will influence journalism below the headline is uncertain. The natural-language processing algorithms, search experts say, scan the title, headline and at least the first hundred words or so of news articles.

Journalists, they say, would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. "That's not something they teach in journalism schools," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. "But in the future, they should."
Just something else for journalism teachers, especially those of us who teach editing, to digest. Never thought we'd have to become experts in search terms, did we?


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