Monday, February 05, 2007

Insert cute, useless headline here

I've spent a long career as an editor failing to stop copy editors from their (generally futile) attempts to turn bad puns into good headlines.

Turns out that search engines hate that even more than I do. Those literal-minded computers don't know the Chicago Tribune is writing about the Super Bowl when all the headline says is "Reign Out." They can't tell what the Virginian-Pilot means when it says "Colt comfort."

Stories with more literal and explanatory headlines rank higher in search results than these misbegotten literary allusions. Tuning them to do so is a process called "search engine optimization," and it matters; about 10 percent of all our online traffic comes to our sites as the result of search engine inquiries. Consider this:

In November, Nielsen/NetRatings ranked, the sister Web site of The Boston Globe, as the fourth-most trafficked newspaper Web site in the country, even though its print circulation is ranked 15th by one audit bureau. "We're regularly beating the bigger boys, like the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal...and part of the reason is SEO," said David Beard, editor of and former assistant managing editor of its print sibling, The Boston Globe.

"We have Web 'heds.' We go into the newspaper (production) system to create a more literal Web headline," said Beard. "We've had training sessions with copy editors and the night desk for the newspaper. It's been a big education initiative."

There's an good overview story about this issue at C|Net here. McClatchy Interactive has engaged a third-party specialist to help us optimize for search engine ranking, but that's just the start of the process, not the end. You need to be aware of how your headlining and tagging can drive results for content, as well.

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