Elinor Mills’ CNET article “Newspaper headlines lost in Web translation” offers a look back at a number of famous headlines and how they can be altered by installing keywords, thereby making them more easily found by searchers for relevant phrases. To make a headline “searchable” must we sacrifice effect for precision? Not necessarily. In some cases employing a subhead containing key phrases can help preserve the original headline’s artistic qualities. For example, in Ms. Mills’ article her SEO expert, Stephan Spencer, president and founder of search engine optimization company Netconcepts, takes on the task of revamping headlines using key phrases that are well searched and relevant for their topic. This is fine, however another way to approach the question would be to alter the main headline as little as possible, if at all, and add a subhead that would contain key phrases.
In Ms. Mills’ article it is suggested that the headline “Wall St. lays an egg” be changed to include “Wall Street” vs. “Wall St.” This is a worthwhile change that should be made. One could leave the remainder of the headline and write a subhead or one sentence summary like that which appears below the main headlines on many news sites: Headline: “Wall Street Lays an Egg,” Subhead, or one sentence summary below headline link, containing a key phrase: “Stock market crash worst in history.”
In some portions of a news site’s page one line summaries that can contain key phrases are present, but often the headline must stand alone. To preserve more of an original print headline’s artistic form, one could arrange it using a colon as the point of separation. A print headline that Ms. Mills refers to in her article states: “Sick transit’s glorious Monday.” It could be ‘web-enabled’ in this way: “Glorious Monday: Feds Save NY Transit.”
It is hard to recommend a search engine optimized headline when the power of words to move people emotionally can be lost. In the New York Daily News where the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline appeared in 1975, the words “New York” are implicit, and would be easily inferred if a reader saw the original headline on the newspaper’s site today.. However to allow searchers to more easily find the information Spencer is correct that at least adding “President” before “Ford” would make the headline more searchable.
We can broaden the discussion by asking what happens when a reader comes to a news website? How does he / she behave? Are key phrases all that influence the reader, or are there other factors to consider? According to Eyetrack III studies Eyetrack III – What You Most Need to Know, considering the size of the font used and the positioning of the headlines is also critical, and can influence if the reader scans lightly or focuses intently on the headlines. Eyetrack III reports that readers read headlines in the upper left of the page first: “Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page — especially when they are in the upper left, and most often (but not always) when in the upper right.” Eyetrack III also points out:
“A quick review of 25 large news websites reveals that 20 of them place the dominant homepage image in the upper left. (Most news sites have a consistent page design from day to day; they don’t often vary the layout as a print newspaper would.) We observed that with news homepages, readers’ instincts are to first look at the flag/logo and top headlines in the upper left.”
It is a fine line that 21st century writers walk, between that of artist and scientist. Ann Althouse, a Madison, Wisconsin law professor, blogged about the death of William J. Brink, the author of the Daily News Ford headline Althouse: ” FORD TO CITY : DROP DEAD.”:
“Set in huge bold letters, the headline screamed across Page 1 of the paper on Oct. 30, 1975. In six taut syllables, it brought home its message with the power of a knockout punch: At the height of New York’s fiscal crisis, President Gerald R. Ford had declined to bail the city out. Those six syllables, as Mr. Ford later acknowledged, almost certainly lost him New York State in his 1976 race against Jimmy Carter, and with it, the presidency. Powerful. The pen is mighty. The NYT, which had to resist saying Brink “dropped dead,” does poke fun at itself: The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day, FORD, CASTIGATING CITY, ASSERTS HE’D VETO FUND GUARANTEE; OFFERS BANKRUPTCY BILL, remains unsung.”
It seems most fitting to find a compromise where headlines can be crafted to elicit emotion and also be found in a Google search.