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Newspapers search for Web headline magic

Crafting snappy headlines to suit search engines isn't easy. Will a journalistic art form be lost or born again?

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read
On January 2, The Wall Street Journal's Web site posted a story with the headline: "Green Beans Comes Marching Home."

It happened to be an article about Green Beans Coffee, a company serving overseas U.S. military bases, opening its first cafe in the United States.

Let's say you were interested in the subject but didn't know the Journal had written an article on it. You might type into a search engine some combination of keywords like "Green Beans," "coffee," "U.S. military," "bases" and "soldiers."

Various combinations failed to return a link to the article in the first page of results on Google. Using all of the keywords and terms separated like that did find the article, but not on The Wall Street Journal site. Instead, it was on a blog site that had reposted the article word for word.

Examiner 9/11 front page

The example points to a dilemma many newspapers and other print media find themselves facing when posting articles online. Pithy, witty and provocative headlines--the pride of many an editor--are often useless and even counterproductive in getting the Web page ranked high in search engines. A low ranking means limited exposure and fewer readers.

News organizations that generate revenue from advertising are keenly aware of the problem and are using coding techniques and training journalists to rewrite the print headlines, thinking about what the story is about and being as clear as possible. The science behind it is called SEO, or search engine optimization, and it has spawned a whole industry of companies dedicated to helping Web sites get noticed by Google's search engine.

It's clearly having an impact.

In November, Nielsen/NetRatings ranked Boston.com, the sister Web site of The Boston Globe, as the fourth most trafficked newspaper Web site in the country, even though its print circulation is ranked 15th by one audit bureau.

"We're regularly beating the bigger boys, like the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal...and part of the reason is SEO," said David Beard, editor of Boston.com and former assistant managing editor of its New York Times Co.-owned print sibling.

"We have Web 'heds.' We go into the newspaper (production) system to create a more literal Web headline," Beard said. "We've had training sessions with copy editors and the night desk for the newspaper. It's been a big education initiative."

Times Online, which is based in the United Kingdom and is a division of News Corp., gets anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of its traffic from search engines, Publisher Zach Leonard said. The site modifies headlines it imports onto the Web site from its print affiliates, The Times and The Sunday Times. The company also started training its editorial staff on SEO last summer and is investing in a new content management system that will soon launch with a new Web site, he said.

"Nine to 12 months ago, if you said 'SEO' to most of the (news) team, they would scratch their head. Now it's a part of their job," Leonard said. "We have to recognize that search is driving much of the behavior on the Web. Newspapers that don't understand that at the highest level, all the way up to the editors, simply won't exist."

The Wall Street Journal is a unique case. Most of its content is walled off from the public Internet and accessible only through subscription. This particular article was among the free content visible to search engines.

To rank high in the search engines, the Journal headline should have included the term "coffee," "cafes" or even "Starbucks," said Stephan Spencer, founder and president of SEO firm Netconcepts.

"For one thing, 'green beans' isn't a terribly popular search term," he said. "Secondly, a fraction of those searchers will be looking for the coffee supplier; most will be looking for recipes." His suggested headline: "U.S. Military Coffee Supplier to take on Starbucks with Cafes Stateside."

That might seem a bit unwieldy to many journalists, but Spencer assures that a balance can be reached between being straightforward and fun. Newspapers are increasingly jumping on the SEO bandwagon to stay alive.

Spencer recommends that Web sites not only use keywords in the headline but that they also include a more descriptive, keyword-rich version of the headline in the title tag, which appears in the blue bar at the very top of the browser window when looking at a Web page. He also suggests that Web sites use keywords in the anchor text, which is the underlined text in a hyperlink. A keyword carries more weight in search engines if it is located at the beginning of a headline, he said.

Other SEO tricks include frequently and consistently interlinking between related stories and items on a Web site, and tagging the content accurately across the Web page, including changing headers and tabs on pages to mundane, rather than cleverly named, terms.

"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."