Not surprisingly, The New York Times, with its knack for sometimes smart, literary references in headlines, keeps popping up in this discussion. The Times kicked off the mainstream conversation with its “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google” article last year.
Debate over how to best capture the attention of search engines has led people to think that creativity is dead, that plodding headlines focusing only on the basic facts will do.
But those heads have always been written that way. We have always had headlines that take up the basic facts and little more. Back in the 1980s, while working on a New York City tab, we jokingly compiled a list of heads we expected we’d need every day in the back of the book:
Man Stabbed in Subway
Woman Mugged in the Bronx
Police Raid Nets Drugs
Mayor Blasts Media
Fire Leaves Families Homeless
Pileup Snarls Traffic
Man Accused of Selling Crack
I’m not arguing for these kinds of boring, trite headlines, just that much of our work, though certainly not all, is already search-engine friendly and we’re working up a sweat over a not-so-big issue.
But it’s the more feature-y pieces, those with a more nuanced story to tell, that have editors worried that their creativity will be stifled. I argue that it’s just a matter of being smart and using the technology, rather than letting it run you.
We are once again arguing against a fait accompli: search-engine technology is going to govern some things we do. We must adapt and make it work to our advantage, not simply whine and complain about something no one outside the business really understands, let alone cares about.