February 2, 2007 10:00 AM PST

Newspapers search for Web headline magic

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"The headline itself doesn't necessarily have to be modified if you know how SEO works," Spencer said.

Journalists can see how popular specific keywords are and get suggested alternatives by using Google's AdWords Keyword Tool, or paid services like WordTracker.com or Keyword Discovery.com.

Inventive but direct
But consulting software and statistics to rewrite a headline may seem anathema to traditional journalistic standards of artistically stretching for the headline that will best lure readers' eyes to the article.

That can be accomplished by being pithy (Ford to City: Drop Dead), poetic (Headless Body in Topless Bar), witty (Super Caley Go Ballistic. Celtic Are Atrocious), rhyming (Sticks Nix Hick Pix) or shocking (Bastards!). And no computer can help with that.

"A lot of journalists spend a lot of time perfecting headlines and being clever, and now you've got to be more direct. It's going to be a different art, I think," said Sree Sreenivasan, a teacher in the new-media program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter for WNBC.com.

"How do you get eye-catching, interesting headlines that make people want to click but at the same time are relevant to search engines, which are nothing but dumb robots going around looking for keywords?" asked Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at The Poynter Institute, a training organization for journalists.

"If the search engine is all about making information more accessible and making the online experience more pleasant, I wish they would work with the people designing the pages," Finberg said. "A lot of sites have gotten into this...content management trap."

With the news sites all striving for clarity to be search engine stars, there is the danger that sites covering the same news will have strikingly similar headlines. That just means headline writers have to work a little harder to make their headline stand out, experts said. But at least on the Web, there are no real space limitations like on a print page, said Neil Chase, editor of continuous news for The New York Times.

"The flip side is, if you look at a one-column lead story on page 1 of The New York Times, it's really hard to find a headline to fit that space. It's a real art," Chase said. "You expand that to the space available on the Web site, and you may come up with something more compelling with more words."

In a newspaper, the pictures and accompanying features, or sidebars around the article, can help give context to the story. For example, the infamous "Bastards!" headline that the San Francisco Examiner ran on September 12, 2001, was accompanied by a large photo of the World Trade Center towers engulfed in flames. With the Web, there may not be photos or other indicators of what is being referenced in an obscure headline like that.

But that's part of the evolution of mass communications in the Digital Age.

"There's nothing doom and gloom about it," Chase of The New York Times said. "It's just one of the many changes in the industry."

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5 comments

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ALT tags
Another good idea is to be sure to label your Images with < alt > tags that contain pertinent information. Not only does this help you with SEO, but these tags also are useful for blind users and supporting graphics-less browsing.
Posted by drew30319 (13 comments )
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Does This Mean ...
Does this mean the demise of such headlines as this one from the Sept 3, 2005 USA Today website:

"U.S. to offer Iran incentives for dropping nukes".

Hmmm. I wonder two things. Did this appear in the print edition, and where were they supposed to drop them?

--mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
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I don't get my news
through search engines anyways... and I suspect few do.
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
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Headline Blues
I have found the exact same problem when trying to write interesting eye-catching headlines for my publication FamiliesOnlineMagazine.com.

To solve the problem I use a headlines with the keywords and a small paragraph that has some "punchy" content to attract the readers.

My hope is that one day the search engines will improve enough to really figure out article content not just base it on a few items, such as, (HI) and alt tags.
Posted by rockgjmom (1 comment )
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headlines are not searchable
Actually, many publication have their headlines as an image, not text, and image text is not searchable.
Posted by rcamans (1 comment )
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