Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why You Need to Appreciate Winning Headlines Now More Than Ever

Search Engine Optimization Threatens to Suck the Lifeblood Out of Copy Editors

It's no secret that a headline that grabs you while scanning a newspaper and one that aims to accomplish the same thing online are often mutually exclusive.
After all, many folks find their way to a story through a Google search. Hence, if a paper wants their story to be on the first page of the search results instead of page 38, it is "optimized."
At best, the practice is a necessary evil. We live and die on page views, after all. When done right, online headlines are inevitably more basic, matter-of-fact. Nobody tries to be clever entering search terms. Concurrently, headlines are often written to match. And a cottage industry, of sorts, has even sprung up to show editors and bloggers how to optimize optimization.
Too bad. That means a lot of creative thinking gets left on the printed page, or isn't fully appreciated in its fuller context.
That came to mind this morning, while looking at the front page of the Home section of The New York Times. The cover story, about the makeover of the Oval Office, was headlined "The Audacity of Taupe." Simple. Clever. A real winner.
Now, it should be noted that you will see that headline if you go to the online version. Credit the Times for sticking to its guns on most of its web pages. But my unscientific survey has found many other papers who drain the juice from the print heds (I'm talking to you, Washington Post).
Again, necessary evil. But it doesn't portend well for other parts of stories, including photos and the copy itself. And even with the intact Times version, you don't fully appreciate the sweep of the story, lending even greater credence to why the headline matters.
On the front page, the Oval Office photo takes up most of the space above-the-fold. That makes you appreciate the headline all the more. Online, the image is a respectable 600 x 353 pixels, but it's just not the same. You might glance at the story but will you read it? Maybe. But its presentation is essentially indistinguishable from any other main story in that section.
But will I read the printed version? You bet. Even if Home is not a normal go-to section for me, it became one today.

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