Can you hear me now?

How Google News is changing the way newspaper headlines are written

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times that highlights an interesting trend: To try and entice the search-engine bots of Google, Yahoo, and MSN, newspapers are beginning to alter their prose style.

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.

Granted, most of the newsbots out there are a little more intelligent than that. But not always. The upshot is that many news web sites — including the BBC — have begun to put two different headlines on each article. One is literary and intended to draw in human readers; the other is just-the-facts literal and written for the bots. On a recent day, the BBC covered the death of Gene Pitney with one headline reading “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960’s singer”, and another reading “Obituary: Gene Pitney.”

As the article points out, technology has always affected the way journalists write. The advent of the telegraph created the inverted-pyramid style: Since journalists weren’t sure how much text they’d be able to transmit before the fragile and expensive line went dead, they wrote the most crucial facts in the first paragraph or two, and less-critical ones as they went on. If they got cut off after 60 words, the gist of the story would still be there. Now, as the Times reporter notes, search-engine algorithms may drive even more changes:

Journalists … would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. “That’s not something they teach in journalism schools,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. “But in the future, they should.”

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.

Get that? The human readers of blogs are beginning to behave like bots, too: Quickly scanning for semantic meaning and ignoring everything else. So maybe optimizing for searchbots isn’t a bad idea — because you’ll also optimize for humanbots.

I’ve actually taken Cory’s advice, ever since I talked to him back in December. I used to write all manner of jokey, indirect headlines — but now I mostly stick to plain-vanilla ones.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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