This item has been cross-posted at the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s blog.
Much has been said and written by editors about the need for headline writers to understand search-engine optimization. This is certainly important, although it is really just a different way of thinking about something that headline writers have always thought about: keywords. I’ve heard much less about another aspect of online headline writing that we talk about here at the Missourian. I’ll call it “reader-optimization.” First, though, an overview of what we’re teaching and doing.
All Missourian copy editors get access to our Google Analytics account, where they can see what terms our readers are searching for, both via major search engines and via our own site search. In class, we cover SEO for headline writing, particularly the importance of proper names in headlines. And we learn on the job. For example, early in the fall semester, we figured out that our stories about Missouri tailback and newsmaker Derrick Washington were much better off when we included his first name along with his last in headlines. Later, when an underage Columbia College student fell off the stairs at a downtown bar, we began using her name in headlines when it became clear it was a popular search term. We insist on including “Missouri” or “Columbia” in almost every headline where that’s appropriate, way more often than we’re naturally inclined to.
But writing headlines for the web can’t be just about SEO. About 45 percent of our readers at ColumbiaMissourian.com come from search engines. Another 35 percent are referrals, meaning they clicked a link to our content from another website, or from an e-mail or a tweet. The remaining 20 percent — a number we’d like to increase — type our address or click a personal bookmark. These are our regular readers. They probably live in Columbia or have some tie to it, and they probably came in the front door, the home page, to poke around for the news that interests them. These readers aren’t so different from the print readers who pick up the paper and start on Page 1A, looking for the headlines that pique their interest. It follows that the headlines we write for these home-page readers shouldn’t be so different than the ones we try to write for 1A. Intriguing. Terse. Story-selling.
It’s common sense, really, and I wondered how many other sites were “reader-optimizing” their home-page headlines. I assigned my copy editing students to each choose a newspaper, find a story printed on Page 1 recently, and compare that headline to the headline on the home page for that story and the headline on the story itself on the website. Their findings? Most newspapers write snappy headlines for their print front pages and prosaic, keyword-laden headlines — SEO headlines — for their websites. But most don’t bother to rewrite their headlines for the home page.
Granted, some online content management systems make this impossible. If that’s the case in your CMS, you should complain to its developers and request a feature that allows you to override the story headline on your home page, or make sure that feature is on your list when you go shopping for a new system. Our CMS at the Missourian — a internally developed system based on the Django Web framework — allows our editors to rewrite all the display type for the four stories that are featured on our home page. We’re not consistent about doing this, but it’s our goal. We want the headlines on our home page to speak to readers, not search engines.