Ambient Truth: In Search And Social, Headlines Are The Message

If my title premise is correct, then my point has already been made, and this column should really end right here.  But what really amazes me about online publishing these days is the power of the headline.  Every day, both great and godawful articles alike thrive or die by their headline quality, or lack thereof.  In just a few short words, writers have the opportunity to relay the crux of their point, to include relevant keywords that might encourage scanning or clicking, or to just simply engage overall with a potential reader who may never see anything other than the title, and make a final judgment on the quality or truth right there.

I've lost track of how many times I've been in a meeting, and someone quoted an erroneous report or other incorrect information, based on the title of that particular piece of research, blog post, or article, because that was all he bothered to read.  In trying to work out a problem or recall information, I've also found myself questioning the accuracy of data based on my own recollection of only headlines, as I find it typical to scan hundreds per day. 



We all make mistakes, but the trend I've been seeing more of lately is that titles, when ranked highly for a given keyword or widely propagated via status in social networks, are mostoften taken as fact without even critically assessing or reading the document.  Headlines have long been the judgment and end of the story in print and other media, but there is something completely different going on within the speed of the network and search world.

If you want to know how much the misperception of quickly spread headlines in the digital realm cost, just ask United Airlines. Back in September 2008, an old news story about United's 2002 bankruptcy was recrawled on a Web site with an unclear date, and subsequently posted by Google News.  The story was picked up by a Tribune Co. news editor who saw the bankruptcy headline title on Google, but apparently did not verify the date or accuracy of the story (United was in fact not bankrupt at the time of the recrawl, and well past its 2002 troubles).  The editor added this news bite to South Florida's Sun-Sentinel Web site, and a degenerative stock -selling frenzy ensued, taking out a 76% shark bite in one day before trading was stopped.  Though United recovered some ground when people started actually reading the story below the headline, the company ended up losing almost 11% in market cap for the day.  Many investors who bailed out at the bottom also lost big as well.  Again, this was all based on the frenzy of an unchecked headline that could have been easily verified, if anyone had bothered to do so. 

Building titles (as well as thinking critically about titles as a reader, searcher, and network user) is a serious deal, and though I'm not going to write an expanded how-to here, let's just say that more often than not, the success of your article or blog post hinges on it.  Here are a couple of fundamental make-or-break strategic details (misinterpretations notwithstanding) that are worth kicking around a bit more in the writing and content strategy process: 

1)     Write your headline with consideration of the reader or audience you wish to engage.  What is captivating about your piece, or are there any salient points in your article that sum it up?  In short, what is it about your article that would be compelling enough to make someone want to pass it along to their friends and networks?  It's a key question to ask, because in a world where content is disseminated instantaneously, grabbing your reader against the other hundreds or even thousands of daily headlines is critical.  It's a do-or-die proposition: whether your content travels via engagement with the headline, or not.

2)     Write your headline with consideration for how machines may interpret it, but not at the ultimate expense of your audience.  The bottom line is that when practicing "free range SEO" -- that is, creating your content and setting it free to earn SEO benefits on its own -- a good title that addresses the literal ways people use search will ultimately determine whether that page ranks or not.  So that awesome 20,000-word tome on the benefits of "online banking" should have the keyword "online banking" somewhere in the title, if that is what the article is about.  If the writer chooses to use "non-searched for" terminology, fine.  Just don't expect it to independently have the slightest shot at ranking for a highly desired term not included in the title, or have any extended shelf life in search, no matter how engaging the article is, or how many links it attracts. 

And make sure that your date stamps and conventions are clear and accurate for the purpose of real-time search.

Certainly there are deeper pieces of research going on about this phenomenon of the decline of critical analysis and attention spans in the digital and networked world.  If you have read this far, you are also probably interested in this topic.  For those interested persons, I'd recommend reading a great piece in the August 2008 The Atlantic ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr -- great title, by the way) about how technology changes the way we think (the part about Nietzsche's change in writing and aphoristic thought is particularly compelling).  Also check out for other excellent writing tips if you haven't already done so. And don't forget the timeless, self-deprecating classic, "'Search-Engine-Friendly' Copywriting Style Is Often Not Very Friendly To Humans," which still ranks at #2 in Google for the term "search engine friendly copywriting" to this day.

4 comments about "Ambient Truth: In Search And Social, Headlines Are The Message".
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  1. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions, August 4, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.

    Writers should also keep in mind that a headline is intended to be a means to attract the reader to the story and NOT be a summary.

    This sounds simple, but too few writers follow this formula. If every headline told us the basics, we would have little to no need to read the article, and the publication or web site would soon fade away.

    If a headline doesn't leave its readers curious, it shouldn't be published. It should be "Man Bites dog" instead of "Rover Bitten by Homeless Joe". Which headline would make you want to at least begin reading the story? I thought so.

    The United mistake referred to wouldn't have happened if the headline writer had been awake that day.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 4, 2010 at 2:01 p.m.

    Let's just blame the messenger and it will all go away. Just twit it. (Birds tweet. People are twits. Did tweeting first start being called tweets for twits becasuse someone thought so many people are birdbrained? If you think sounds mean spirited and plain stupid, then this article would be written differently.)

    But of course, headlines are important. So is the article and how well it is written. So should a person read it before ass-suming. Hope your doctor reads the entire articles and books.

  3. Kevin Farr from Business OnLine, August 4, 2010 at 2:57 p.m.

    Great article! As a writer (now working in social media) with a background in traditional journalism I can attest to the need for a well written, descriptive title/headline. It should be provocative and/or evocative too.

    Users' first engagement with content or media is often through search. They will scan the page for the most relevant and interesting content that also satisfies their search query and they will read the title (and sub-text) then click on what's relevant.

    For this reason titles and the first few lines of content are paramount to getting the user to have deeper engagement with the content. The article "Are you staring at this Title? You're interested, want to know why?" provides deeper insight into how to engage users interest especially in titles. Link:

  4. len stein, August 4, 2010 at 3:01 p.m.

    We've now reached the depths of "The Shallows," as detailed in Nicholas Carr's book, we're all spread so thin, there's no time, or interest, in reading below the (head)line anymore.

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