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Did Google Kill the Witty Headline?

Over at The Atlantic, David Wheeler has written about how difficult is it to write goofy, punny headlines in a time when Google values facts and keywords in headlines more than wit:

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: “Better never than late.” Online: “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

The dearth of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry. But rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story. “It’s not about getting the most readers; it’s about getting the ‘most best’ readers,” says David Plotz, editor of the influential online magazine Slate.

But Jake Brooks points out that, on a technological level, Wheeler is just plain wrong:

Since clicks are still every sites’ currency, copywriters online have to write one headline that will sell the story to the search engines and one headline that will sell the story to human beings. Turns out, doing the latter is not so easy. For print people, think about it this way: Every headline on a homepage is a wood headline. Every headline needs to sell. On any given day, a newspaper has to write at most 3 headlines to compel someone to buy the paper at the newsstand. Online, you have to do it FOR EVERY STORY.

Meanwhile, Dominic Litten delves more deeply into the villification of SEO in Wheeler’s article:

For many journalists, SEO = headline + keyword stuffing. It’s all they know. However, if journalists really want to know and understand how SEO can help them and their publications they should worry a lot less about the importance of headlines and focus on their company’s sitemaps, site architecture, endless duplicate content, internal linking and the like. But they won’t. Many journalists opine about headlines and keyword stuffing because that’s all the information their SEO team is giving them. And it’s all most care to know.