During the 1990s, I was a frequent contributor at the Village Voice. It was a great paper to write for, not only because they accepted really offbeat pitches, but also because editors encouraged you to write with style, wit and an edge, especially when it came to suggesting headlines for pieces.
My favorite headline that I suggested for one of my features was for a story I wrote on the national quadriplegic deer hunting championships. (Did I mention that the Voice accepted really offbeat pitches?) It involved spending the day in the deep woods with a group of wheelchair-bound deer hunters who positioned and fired their high-powered rifles using sophisticated sip and puff controls manipulated with their mouths.
My suggestion for a headline was "Head Hunters." (Yes, I agree it was crass, politically incorrect and even a bit mean, which is probably why the Voice went with "Special Hunters.")
I wrote that story more than a decade ago. But if I wrote it today, this is what my suggestion for a headline would be: "Disabled hunters gather for national championships."
Why such a different take on the title? Have I mellowed and matured with age?
Not necessarily. I would change the headline so drastically because when this story went online (where most people would read it) no one searching for anything on the topic of quadriplegic deer hunters would ever find the story with my initial headline suggestion.
Why? Because of the three most hated and misunderstood words in digital journalism: Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
SEO is daunting and scary to many journalists, but the concept is fairly simple. Basically, SEO means clearly placing certain key terms in a headline and in the body of an article so that an article can be easily found when someone does an online search for the topic of the article.
The process got a bad rap because lots of editors started putting SEO ahead of substance. Many folks made lots of money gaming the system by optimizing advertising-supported pages for highly searched terms that offered little in the way of quality information. Search engines like Google have caught on to the practice, and their algorithm updates consistently stress editorial quality over merely SEO skills.
Still, even with those modifications, many journalists continue to refuse to embrace SEO. Why? They feel that it's unnatural, unethical, contrived and stifles creativity. According to a post on seosunite.com, Google “turned people into automated SEO robots with blinders on! people are scared to do anything ‘radical.’”
Do journalists have a point? Mostly not, and this is coming from someone who vigorously eschewed using SEO tactics for years as a writer and an editor.
Journalists with an anti-SEO stance are off the mark when it comes to SEO because using optimization is actually good for journalism consumers. Yes, SEO hampers the writer’s ability to write zippy headlines that make clever allusions but those are often written for the newsroom's benefit anyway. Just look at the stories on the cover of the New York Times for the last 25 years and you'll see that the world's putative paper of record has essentially always used keyword-rich SEO best practices for its print headlines because that's the best way to get across the main point of the story to the reader.
There is, however, a dirty little secret when it comes to SEO and headlines, but it's a bit technical. Most newspaper and magazine web sites use content management systems – software programs that allow them to edit and create articles -- to publish material online. In many of those systems, the headline of the story is also the page's title tag, which is the most important aspect of search optimization. The title tag is the phrase that appears at the top of your web browser window and is the element that search bots pay the most attention to when categorizing your page.
But title tags and headlines don’t have to match. Increasingly, content management systems and SEO experts are divorcing the title tag from an article's headline, giving writers more creative freedom when it comes to writing headlines.
That means that an editor or writer would need to do a keyword search and use that information to write a solid title tag so that people searching on the subject could easily find the information. Then, a snappy headline could be written to accompany the feature, itself.
Problem solved, but only if journalists are smart enough to know something about content management systems and diligent enough to write two types of headlines for each story they publish online.
Chicago-based writer John D. Thomas, author of the novel Karaoke of Blood, is currently finishing a book on the cultural history of saliva.