Writing Headlines for Robots
Please note: I do not hold the copyright on this text. It was authored by a Globe and Mail writer; posted on the Globe and Mail blog “In Other Words” and subsequently removed from the site on Tursday Oct 15, 2009. If the writer or powers-that-be at the Globe do not believe this is fair dealing with the material; I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This isn't about books. But it is about words.
Last week, our headline on the review for Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist was one of those sweetly goofy and slightly shopworn plays on words that newspapers are rightly famous and infamous for. The book is about a self-doubting poet in midlife crisis mulling (and procrastinating) over an essay about rhyme; the headline was "The marinating of the ancient rhymer."
I'm not going to explain that headline to anyone, because there is no point. We in the Books section had a good laugh about it. It's the kind of fun you can get away with at a newspaper, and we went about our self-congratulatory way all pleased with ourselves.
Our merriment came to a screeching halt on Tuesday after I went to a seminar on search engine optimization and discovered that it was actually a really really crappy headline. I learned that this kind of badinage, so peculiar to newspapers, has no place on the Internet. The reason is both simple and deranged: The most important reader of Internet news headlines is not you, the sentient, curious human being, but the robots at Google that scan headlines and return search results based on what their cold, lifeless eyes tell them.
Thus, "The marinating of the ancient rhymer," when processed through a search engine, would not be of any use to a person searching online for stories about, or reviews of, The Anthologist. The idiot search engine would ignore the Globe's review altogether, although it would immediately send the story to anyone who wanted to know how to tenderize an ancient rhymer. Our cute headline might have amused us and a few readers, but it potentially cost us a bunch of hits on our website, and that is all that matters.
We were taught at the seminar that particular rules apply to writing good Internet headlines: Use the full name, never just the last name, for example. And always think like a person searching for your story in Google. Ask yourself, What would you type in if you were the one doing the searching?
Above all, we were taught that Internet headlines have to be written with a certain kind of hipster doofus in mind. This person was embodied by the groovy, ever-pacing journalism professor who led the class on writing for robots (he didn't call it that), and who whipped out his iPhone and boasted that he will not click on anything whose headline doesn't hand the story to him on a digital platter.
He referenced other Globe headlines than ours in his lecture, but he made it clear that a seeing "The marinating of the ancient rhymer" on his iPhone screen as he info-snacked between classes would be a violation of his right as an Internet user to have his information served to him the way McDonald's serves lunch to its customers: with a familiarity that doesn't remove the incurious from their comfort zone, and which requires no intellectual effort whatsoever.
Thus headlines have not only to contain search words but they also have to be as obvious as an ulcer. With that in mind, and being a natural-born pissant, the ﬁrst time I wrote the headline for the review of Leafs Abomination yesterday, it read like this: "Bad management and bizarre fans are reasons why the Toronto Maple Leafs stink, say Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange, authors of the book Leafs Abomination: The Dismayed Fans' Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How they Can Rise Again: review".
Of course, that's no good. It's too long. Can't have that, because even if it does have all the info Google needs, and is also comprehensible to people whose mental diets lack the proper nutrition, it won't appear in full in a Google search result or on an iPhone screen.
Thus, the only responsible Internet headline for a review of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker is "Book review: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker." Which is why, on Globe Books from now on, the headlines on the home page will read pretty much just like that. Do not take offence, or think us dull. Just remember that the headlines have been written for microchips (and microchipsters), and not for human souls.
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