Obama fake birth certificate Britney Spears' nude pics
Over the years I’ve been engaged to judge headline competitions involving other publications, and it is almost always dispiriting. You riffle through a sheaf of samples of what the publications consider their best work, only to discover obvious puns and plays on advertising slogans.
My long-suffering colleague Phillip Blanchard encountered just that phenomenon, commenting on it earlier today on Facebook:
The winner of a major newspaper's internal headline award -- we're not saying who -- “‘bowled over’ the judges with her ability to transform the pun into literary metaphor. ‘Snappy,’ ‘sophisticated’ and ‘layered’ were some of the adjectives used to describe gems such as ‘Claire buoyant’ on a profile of actress Claire Daines; ‘Toto recall’ on a spate of ‘Wizard of Oz’-themed movie projects; and ‘Do fence me in,’ about a Texas museum dedicated to barbed wire.”
Punning on people’s names is childish, associating Toto with The Wizard of Oz is likely the first association that came into the headline writer’s mind (Always be suspicious of your first idea), and “Do fence me in”? Puh-leese.*
In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Wheeler bemoaned and deplored the death of the witty headline in the age of Search Engine Optimization. (For you civilians, that means writing the kind of headline that will be noticed by Google algorithms and put your story high among the search results.) He should know better, because the pathetic examples Mr. Blanchard quotes are just the sort of fancied wit you typically get.
There is a reason for SEO headlines, and it is a good one. Print headlines come with a context. They are on a page, often with an accompanying photo and a secondary headline that establish that context. That’s is where a clever headline, if it is genuinely clever, has an impact. But increasingly the people who come to your article electronically are not doing so from a home page. They are discovering your work through a search engine or a link from another page. That means the six to eight or so words in your main headline are bare, without context, and your wit is unlikely to ignite.
The best SEO headline is a straightforward, clear, factual, informative headline.** There was a time early on when people writing headlines for electronic publication would just fling a handful of keywords at the top of the page to draw the attention of Google or Yahoo. The headline on this post is one such example. The search engines got wise to that and started to filter that stuff out. Headlines are still written for human readers, not for robots, and intelligibility is not a quality to scorn.
*I do not come before you as one without sin. My first citation for a headline, in an in-house memo at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, was for “Bakery break-in yields no dough.” And once, in an article for The Sun on the enduring popularity of the Malayan dagger, I wrote, “A kris is still a kris.” All have fallen short, &c., &c.
**A reader, responding to a previous remark advocating SEO headlines, pointed out that I don’t write them for these blog posts. Such is my whim.