Newspapers need to learn SEO for headlines

For many people search engines are where the Web begins.

Countless people have google.com, yahoo.com, ask.com and other search engines as their home pages, but without good Search Engine Optimization no one will ever find your content. Print headlines don’t cut it on the Web.

Print headlines are often written to be clever or pithy or cute. Headline writing is treated as an art form, where editors work tirelessly to find the most creative headlines. Headline writing on the Web is a science.

Being cute won’t get you anywhere on the Web. Headlines with keywords, people and places matter. Headlines have to have substance on the Web; style isn’t very important.

I know this may shock many a copy editors ego, but search engines and Web users don’t care how clever you are. They just want to be informed. Take this example from my blog last week:

I had a blog post with the the headline “How an election should be covered,” but I later changed it to the more-SEO friendly “NY Times and CNN show how an election should be covered.” The second headline netted me a lot more traffic, especially from search engines. Why?

The second headline has some powerful keywords in it. My blog post was about how The New York Times and CNN Super Tuesday coverage was outstanding. Well, if it’s about those two companies, then they should be in the headline.

The second headline now has NY Times, CNN, election and covered in it. It packs a much more powerful SEO punch, and it’s a better headline because it has more information in it.

Look at the SEO juice for the headline of this blog post: newspapers, SEO and headlines. A headline like “Cute headlines don’t cut it” wouldn’t pack the same SEO punch, and thus would hurt the traffic to this post.

CNET notes The Wall Street Journal had a typical, creative, cute headline on a recent story. The problem, of course, was that the headline doesn’t say anything and thus completely and utterly lacked SEO power. Sure, the headline is clever, but honestly the only people who care about clever headlines are headline writers and headline competitions — users and search engines could not care less.

On January 2, The Wall Street Journal‘s Web site posted a story with the headline: “Green Beans Comes Marching Home.”

It happened to be an article about Green Beans Coffee, a company serving overseas U.S. military bases, opening its first cafe in the United States.

Let’s say you were interested in the subject but didn’t know the Journal had written an article on it. You might type into a search engine some combination of keywords like “Green Beans,” “coffee,” “U.S. military,” “bases” and “soldiers.”

Various combinations failed to return a link to the article in the first page of results on Google. Using all of the keywords and terms separated like that did find the article, but not on The Wall Street Journal site. Instead, it was on a blog site that had reposted the article word for word.

Newspapers need all the traffic search engines can bring, and they can bring a lot — a lot. But most newspapers still write headlines for the Web like they are writing for print.  I’ll admit that’s a very clever headline, but it didn’t work on the Web.

And look what happened: a blog got the Journal’s traffic. Fitting. Here are suggestions for a better, SEO-juiced headline from that same article:

To rank high in the search engines, the Journal headline should have included the term “coffee,” “cafes” or even “Starbucks,” said Stephan Spencer, founder and president of SEO firm Netconcepts.

“For one thing, ‘green beans’ isn’t a terribly popular search term,” he said. “Secondly, a fraction of those searchers will be looking for the coffee supplier; most will be looking for recipes.” His suggested headline: “U.S. Military Coffee Supplier to take on Starbucks with Cafes Stateside.”

I know thats not the sexiest headline, but who cares? I know our readers don’t. Our readers are looking to be informed as quickly as possible.

Users don’t spend the same amount of time on our Web sites as they do with the print editions. Users are not looking to decipher what a headline like “Green Beans Comes Marching Home” means. And editors have to keep this in mind: the Web doesn’t have sub headlines to tell the real story.

Without a sub headline, those big, provocative, often informationally-challenged headlines don’t work. In fact, they fall very flat. The Web is a different beast.

Many people view content using RSS aggregators and check dozens of sources daily. Users want headlines that get to the point.

Boston.com, home to the Boston Globe, attributes its high Nielson Net Rankings to SEO headline writing. In November it was No. 4 in the country for newspapers, despite having a daily circulation around 15th best in the country.

Search engines can bring in half of the traffic a newspaper gets, but only if that paper pays attention to the importance of SEO:

Times Online, which is based in the United Kingdom and is a division of News Corp., gets anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of its traffic from search engines, Publisher Zach Leonard said. The site modifies headlines it imports onto the Web site from its print affiliates, The Times and The Sunday Times. The company also started training its editorial staff on SEO last summer and is investing in a new content management system that will soon launch with a new Web site, he said.

All that being said, there are some dark sides to SEO optimization for journalism Web sites. Gawker compiled a list of the greatest hits from CNN.com: headlines that were clearly written only for SEO and stories that were only played up for SEO reasons.

Headlines like “Baby pandas! Baby pandas! Baby pandas!” or “Police: Teen raped his mother” or “New York readies for its own Katrina.”

All of those headlines and stories are meant to drive traffic, at the expense of quality journalism. As much as I like the design of CNN.com, the site is home to far too many salacious headlines and tabloid journalism. CNN.com appears at times to care much more about making money than about making quality journalism.

That can be the downside of SEO optimization, but paying attention to SEO doesn’t mean changing your editorial focus. Optimizing a Web site for SEO is a great way for more people to find content. If SEO is used to make headlines easier to understand for both users and search engines, then everyone is winner.

I’d suggest teaching every headline writer in your new organization the finer points of SEO as soon as possible. It can make a big difference in traffic and revenue. Save the artful headlines for print, and put the sweet science on the Web.