Trevor Cook: The dull headline is not so dumb after all (SEO)

by Lee Hopkins on March 12, 2008 · 2 comments

in miscellaneous


Unleashed presents diverse and robust opinion about politics, society, belief and behaviour.

My mate Trevor Cook has written a bottler of a post over on the ABC Unleashed site on the potential death of quality journalism.

Trevor looks at the whole issue of clever, archly humorous headlines versus what the search engines love. An example Trevor gives is simple: which do you think the search engines loved more:

  1. Heath Ledger dies [Sydney Morning Herald]
  2. Dead in Bed [The Age]

Whilst No.2 is the cleverer of the two from a cultural perspective, No.1 is actually a smarter headline if you want your post to be seen in the search results.

Which means that some of the highest paid and most wonderful copywriters in the world — the headline writers who have to paint a picture, draw you in and ‘sell’ the article, all in four words or less — are in very real danger of going the way of the dinosaur in the name of SEO, keyword research and selection, and micro-managed Google AdWords bidding and Adsense payments. And it’s not Google’s fault.

Says Trevor,

"Pushed to its logical conclusion SEO will unite editorial and advertising responsibilities in a single person: the journalist. The ethical and professional issues are profound and so far they have been largely swept under the carpet.

Apart from concerns about the possibility of stories being selected, written and promoted with the value of key words in mind; there is also the fear that the growing importance of casual users will see quality journalism outlets come under pressure to become more tabloid online.

Slate magazine’s Jack Shafer has pointed to evidence for this trend in the prevalence of wacky headlines at CNN.com where stories about babies being mauled by tigers and protests about ads that feature nude nuns are, he says, getting undue prominence and headlines are becoming downright banal; a prime example is "Baby pandas! Baby pandas! Baby pandas!"

As Trevor warns,

We have a lot to fear in the growing fragmentation and micro-measurement of our quality media. Something valuable will be lost when the profit (or loss) is calculated on each and every story. And editorial decisions are made accordingly.

And as Steve Schwarz comments,

The day we learn that GDP is not a good measure of success will be the day that quality may be reborn.

May the mighty dollar not be the one rule that binds us all.

  • http://allanjenkins.typepad.com/ Allan Jenkins

    When a celebrity dies or a president is shot, good journalism is not “Dead in Bed” or “Dead in the back of his limo”.

    It is “Heath Ledger Dies” or “JFK Shot”

    Headline #1 is by far the better headline — not for the SEO gravy, but because it tells the story in summary form. A story that is fleshed out in the lede, and more so in the rest of the story.

    I don’t care a fig for Heath Ledger, but some people do, and the editors of SMH wrote the story for them. Actually, the editors of SMH also wrote the story for those of us who don’t care — I would have seen the headline and moved on, grateful that my time had not been wasted.

    If you take Trevor’s advice, the Heath Ledger story should have read:

    Dead in Bed

    It’s not like getting laid by Rodeo Boy. In your tent. While the sheep murmur and the wolves sing songs of the untamed West.

    Yes, it was the bed of one of the Olsen sisters. Not the tent of Rodeo Boy. But Ang Lee was not there to weave the tale, And the Olsen hottie wasn’t there to … whatever she does.

    It was death. Death discovered by the maid.

    No sheep. No Olsen sister. Not even newsworthy.

    (story continued on 7B)

    What a waste of time that would have been.

  • http://allanjenkins.typepad.com Allan Jenkins

    When a celebrity dies or a president is shot, good journalism is not “Dead in Bed” or “Dead in the back of his limo”.

    It is “Heath Ledger Dies” or “JFK Shot”

    Headline #1 is by far the better headline — not for the SEO gravy, but because it tells the story in summary form. A story that is fleshed out in the lede, and more so in the rest of the story.

    I don’t care a fig for Heath Ledger, but some people do, and the editors of SMH wrote the story for them. Actually, the editors of SMH also wrote the story for those of us who don’t care — I would have seen the headline and moved on, grateful that my time had not been wasted.

    If you take Trevor’s advice, the Heath Ledger story should have read:

    Dead in Bed

    It’s not like getting laid by Rodeo Boy. In your tent. While the sheep murmur and the wolves sing songs of the untamed West.

    Yes, it was the bed of one of the Olsen sisters. Not the tent of Rodeo Boy. But Ang Lee was not there to weave the tale, And the Olsen hottie wasn’t there to … whatever she does.

    It was death. Death discovered by the maid.

    No sheep. No Olsen sister. Not even newsworthy.

    (story continued on 7B)

    What a waste of time that would have been.

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