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09 December 2008

The optimised journalist: How SEO is killing clever headlines

Many offline journalists writing for the Web are dismayed that the requirements of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) are killing the age-old craft of headline writing, claims Shane Richmond of telegraph.co.uk (for it is he) in a well argued piece for British Journalism Review.

They needn't worry, Richmond argues, as witty headlines were never an end in themselves, but rather just a journalistic tactic suited to the offline daily medium and the reader's relationship with the particular media brand they followed. As media and reader loyalties atomise, search-friendliness becomes a bigger part of how readers choose and consume their news and comment, and good journalists need to place equal value on skills that are relevant to the new environment.

Richmond takes The Sun's infamous "Gotcha!" headline from the Falklands war, and reworks it for new media to make this point. “Falklands conflict: Royal Navy sinks Argentinean warship” may not be memorable fifteen minutes on, let alone fifteen years on, but it will allow many more people to find and read the article. And that, rather than the demonstration of literary skill, is the reason the article exists in the first place.

As much as I value SEO (it brings a clear quarter of the traffic to one site I run), I'm still not sure I totally agree here. Sure, search plays a huge role in determining what gets read, and it's far better to see it as an opportunity rather than as a limitation, but the rise of social search may complicate the situation. A great turn of phrase at the head of an article can make a scene more vivid, or provide a useful metaphor for viewing the situation.

Powerful copy that affects readers deeply will have an advantage when it comes to being recommended, copied, commented. Those journalists who find a way to merge the disciplines may find the headlines of the future will be every bit as rewarding as the "gotchas" that got away.

Hat tip: I've Said Too Much

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