David Carr has a good piece about headlines, SEO issues and more in The New York Times. He uses a very clever, SEO-magnet of a headline that both makes his point and underscores the problem with many online heads. He also, as he frequently does, identifies an issue and carries the discussion of it a bit further than the rest of us have managed to do. (In this case, readers count a lot less than machines.)
But back to my little narrower focus on online headlines. Though I complain loudly about Huffington Post headlines (and those on other sites, as well, some of which lately have been grabbing for the lowest-common denominator), my complaint isn't that they're written for search engines. I understand that issue; I understand that online and print headlines will often be quite different because their mechanics, if not their goals, are different. And yes, I know sites use different metrics for measuring readers: some people (perhaps most) are drawn by searching for a topic; others go to a news site to dial around and read what's there. And the latter group is precisely why I think heads need to be both SEO friendly and readable on their own.
My issue with many sites is their flat-out inaccuracy, which, oddly, Carr doesn't address all that much. I'm glad, though, that he got Arianna Huffington to go on the record saying SEO wasn't the main standard (which I find hard to believe since they so carefully measure hits on different headlines.) For example, the HuffPost stayed with a double-entrendre headline making a claim that had been debunked hours and hours earlier, which is ancient in online terms, for, it would seem, the benefit of drawing SEO results, not telling the story accurately. The story originated at the New York Post.
Lest you think I'm just a cantankerous editor, read the comments from many readers complaining about how they don't trust HuffPost heads. Or don't look for the comments. Read them yourself. (See? Cantankerous.)
This isn't a matter of tone or political agenda; this isn't about using "fiend" or "thug" or "Billary" in a headline to make a political or social comment. It's about trust. I still believe the best news sites will mesh accuracy and clever online writing and SEO standards. After all, at some point, people get tired of inaccuracy and stop visiting. And the search engines know very well when they've been conned (that's why putting "sex" as a keyword in all your stories about, say, the federal budget, ultimately leads Google to ignore your site, which you definitely want to avoid.)
What is noteworthy about Carr's headline is that it works, it catches the search engines and it accurately reflects the story. It doesn't tell the story, which is another issue but it doesn't have to (and I don't think they always had to in print, either.) That it works separates it from so many awful online headlines.
So, too, does the cited "Headless Body in Topless Bar." That headline works anywhere, any place, and despite our initial shock when it first appeared, it tells you EXACTLY all you need to know about the story; if you want to read more, you can. It worked in print; it would work tomorrow online.
We know that lovely headlines that depend on insider knowledge or fine twists of phrase or puns or other tricks that we can admire in print don't work online, any more than long-winded anecdotal ledes on stories hold up.
I hope no one's arguing that anymore. But really, readers? Don't you read the headline and count on them to be factual? Or do you slavishly let Google tell you what to read and hope that just maybe the headline is right?
Who knows anymore. Maybe it doesn't matter and Carr's idea that we as readers of words don't matter as much as the machines do. I hope that's not the case.
And I'll leave you to judge the worthiness of my very SEO-friendly headline and it's relationship to what I've written.