Boring Headlines or Great Links?

Jared Spool

April 11th, 2006

Tim Finin points us to a story in Sunday’s New York Times: This Boring Headline Is Written for Google. (Registration may be required.)

In the article, technology author Steve Lohr writes how newspaper authors are changing they way they write headlines because they want the search engine crawlers to find them:

News organizations [...] are making titles and headlines easier for search engines to find and fathom. About a year ago, The Sacramento Bee changed online section titles. “Real Estate” became “Homes,” “Scene” turned into “Lifestyle,” and dining information found in newsprint under “Taste,” is online under “Taste/Food.”

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” One click down: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” Another headline meant to lure the human reader: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960′s singer.” One click down: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

One thing the article misses is that the purpose of headlines is different on the web than in print papers.

Front Page of the NY Times

Like web pages, newspaper pages are often scanned. And like their web counterparts, newspaper headlines are intended to attract the reader’s eyes to a particular story.

But, unlike the web, the rest of story is located next to the headline. The headline gets the user to stop scanning and start reading. But the cost to the reader is low. If it’s not a story that turns out to be of interest, the reader can pick right up where they left off and continue scanning. Often, other visual clues, such as sub-headings, images, and charts contribute to helping the reader quickly and efficiently assess their interest in the story.

On the web, the headline is often doubling as a link. This is a duty it was never originally designed for.

Front Page of the New York Post

Effective print headlines, when translated to the web, suddenly become less effective. Check out these headlines from today’s New York Post home page:

Links from the New York Post home page

It seems these links do not give off effective scent. It is unlikely they have the right trigger words to help people decide if they story is something they want to read. Users have to decide if clicking is worth it, with all of its associated costs: waiting for the page to load, having to scan the new page, finding the way to get back, waiting for the original page to load, finding where you left off and starting the scanning phase again.

Traversing a web page is very different from scanning pages in a newspaper. And the once-headlines-now-links need to adapt to their new role.

It’s interesting to note that what makes things easier for the robot search engine crawlers also makes things easier for human readers. Links with strong scent work for both people and computers.

4 Responses to “Boring Headlines or Great Links?”

  1. Fred Beecher Says:

    A co-worker and I frequently express frustration and distress about this very thing in regards to our local paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (www.startribune.com). I’ve got an RSS feed set up, and half the time I have no idea what the story is about based on reading the link title. My favorite is “Have you heard?” which turns out to be a “column” full of random news bits.

  2. Ardith G Says:

    Yeah, I switched from reading Yahoo News to reading Google News when Yahoo switched to their headlines-only format. Even with a fast connection having to click to see if an article is of interest to you is a pain.

  3. Scott Says:

    Interestingly, Yahoo and many other sites like espn.com and cbs.sporstline.com now have rollovers that give a brief description of the article. Now you no longer have to click to see if it is of interest. The only problem (at least on my.yahoo.com) is that you don’t know which articles have the rollover and which don’t. Thus, you end up rolling over articles for which there is no description and sitting there waiting for a second. They need a little visual cue or something.

  4. Cre8pc on Usability & Holistic SEO It’s Not All About You, Mr. Search Engine » Says:

    [...] I enjoy being creative and letting my mind roam around for words it likes, rather than what algorithms like. I like the freedom of knowing I can pick words for my readers without being forced to use up my characters on words intended for robots. Jared Spool wrote a great piece that explores further why print headlines don’t convert well to the web. From Boring Headlines or Great Links? “Like web pages, newspaper pages are often scanned. And like their web counterparts, newspaper headlines are intended to attract the reader’s eyes to a particular story. [...]

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