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Monday, May 22, 2006

To turn heads, heads should be soulless

According to a recent NY Times article, the increasing use of search engines and news aggregators like Google News to find news articles is changing the way their headlines and section titles are written:

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."


In the print version of The New York Times, an article last Tuesday on Florida beating U.C.L.A. for the men's college basketball championship carried a longish headline, with allusions to sports history: "It's Chemistry Over Pedigree as Gators Roll to First Title." On the Times Web site, whose staff has undergone some search-engine optimization training, the headline of the article was, "Gators Cap Run With First Title."

I found this article through a recent post on the Collision Detection blog which discusses the phenomenon, along with some advice:
One of the biggest areas of change is headline-writing. Normally, a headline writer tries to use some witty wordplay to attract readers: A literary or cinematic allusion, perhaps, or maybe a pun. But such nuances are totally lost on machines. A bot is trying to quickly figure out the content of an article, and wordplay just gets in the way. Though the article doesn't discuss it in this depth, this dilemma is known, in A.I. circles, as "the problem of synonymity": A machine doesn't know that when a copywriter pens the line "A horse of a different color", she's not talking about horses. The bot might accidentally slot that story into the sports section, even if the piece is actually about politics.


Here's a further thought. When I interviewed Cory Doctorow -- cofounder of Boing Boing -- for my recent New York magazine feature on blogging, he pointed out an interesting aspect of Boing Boing's success: Simple, straightforward headlines. Many bloggers tend to write clever, wry, allusive heads to their blog posts. This is a big mistake, Cory said, because so many people use RSS readers to scan their favorite blogs. Many RSS readers are configured to display the headline to each blog posting and a bit of text; in some cases, they display only the headline, Cory noted. And many people have dozens of dozens of blogs in their RSS readers, which means they're scanning hundreds or even thousands of headlines a day -- and thus scanning them at lightning pace. If you write abstruse, punning headlines where the meaning isn't immediately clear, the reader will never click on your entry. Boing Boing, in contrast, always writes simple, just-the-facts headlines -- and this, Cory says, is one secret to the blog's success.

Um, does that mean I have to stop attempting to write clever, wry, allusive heads to my blog posts?