The dearth of witty heds online is enough to make a copy editor cry, but…
“Rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story,” writes David Wheeler. He says that because young journalists are beginning their careers at the dawn of the SEO craze, some fans of funny headlines wonder if the battle has already been lost.

“Sharp, witty headlines that stray off the ‘literalness’ line will live, barely, for a little while longer,” says Lexington Herald-Leader copy editor Will Scott. “However, as the veterans of newspapers are gradually replaced by younger copy editors who grew up with the Web, we will see such headlines less and less.”

From “Why Journalists Need to Stop Resenting SEO”

Learn how to write an SEO-friendly headline: One of the biggest complaints from journalists seems to be that SEO is killing their headlines. Instead of being poetic in titles, journalists now have to use “SEO-powered words”. While I love a good pun as much as anyone, the “SEO-powered words” get your content found. Not using them loses you traffic.

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River, The New York Times was the first outlet to break the story. For some reason, they didn’t use the term “plane crash” in the title and created something clever instead. The result was that no one saw their story. All of their readers and their potential readers were searching for “plane crash”. They missed out the thousands (millions?) of people who were frantically searching for information about what had happened. You can’t do that. And yet it happens with papers every day.

> Gene Weingarten: My biggest beef with the New Newsroom is what has happened to headlines

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  • Alfred Ingram

     For every truly engaging headline, there are at least 10 bad puns, at least one and more likely three insensitive ones from someone trying to be cute. I don’t mind being entertained occasionally, but, most of the time, I’d rather be informed. So, I search.

  • Keith Morse

    +1 for Kirk’s comment

  • Kirk Caraway

    It doesn’t have to be either/or. This is an easy technological problem to solve. A flexible CMS should be able to produce both the nice, witty headlines for readers and the dry, keyword-packed version for SEO. The SEO version can be displayed as a subhead for readers, but coded and mapped to the title tag of the page so the search engines think it’s the main headline. Then for those stories that editors fail to come up with witty verbiage, you instruct the CMS to use the SEO version and format it for readers. Not that difficult if you are using a system like Drupal. #bestofbothworlds

  • Dan Mitchell

    I knew before I clicked that the person who wrote that “journalists need to embrace SEO” item wasn’t a journalist, and was likely a marketing person – the precise opposite of a journalist. And, yep, I was right: she’s a “chief branding officer.” I knew this because she didn’t bother to cite the actual headline the NYT used for the airplane-in-the-Hudson story – she just said it was too “clever” and didn’t measure up, SEO-wise.

    While I think we should routinely adhere to best SEO practices, we shouldn’t let it get in the way of our core mission, which is to inform the public. If you’re spending time worried about SEO and “branding,” you’re taking time away from your core mission.

    By the way, from what I can tell from a two-minute Web search, this is the story our branding strategist was referring to:

    The hed on the story is “Pilot Is Hailed After Jetliner’s Icy Plunge.” The title of the page is “All Safe as U.S. Airways Plane Crashes Into Hudson River in New York.” Assuming this is the story she’s referring to, it seems to me that everybody did their job, and nobody was overly “clever.”

    Bottom line: if Google’s soulless algorithms didn’t emphasize the New York Times’ account of a big New York story, that’s Google’s fault, not the New York Times’.

  • Scott

    Just close your eyes and embrace the dark side, eh? No, thank you. What SEOcrats miss is that if prospective readers go to a newspaper’s webpage instead of mindlessly Googling, they will find that crash story even if the hed isn’t “This Is About That Plane Crash.” Newspapers need to sell their brand better, not sell out to the technology.