“Boob job scroungers” from Leeds, “va-va-voom” presenters out after hours in Sydney, twerking rappers in Beverly Hills: it’s hard to keep up when ambitious media groups start integrating their American, British and Australian stories into one big anglophone news agenda. And the fact that the stories are published online makes it even more difficult to understand, because headlines for the web are written to communicate with something even more important than the reader: search engines.
Search engine optimisation, or SEO – that is, the practice of ensuring that words likely to be used as search terms on Google are present in the headline and other furniture of a story – is a big deal. Studies at the Tribune suggest that no more than 30% of traffic to our website comes from people manually navigating to our homepage to see what’s going on: the vast majority comes from either social referral (people reposting links on Facebook and Twitter), or from search. In the case of one story I edited recently, about Black Friday, fully 90% of everyone who read it arrived via Google. Website front pages just aren’t pored over in the way that newspaper front pages still are.
What does that mean? It means that, in the limited space of a web headline, there’s very little room for jokes or obliqueness: not only do you have to include the keywords that sum up a story, it’s also best if they appear as close to the start of the headline as possible. But most of all, it means there’s not much room for explanations.
Take a look at the screenshot above from the Guardian website. As an American or British reader, you might find it largely baffling. Who or what are “Walkleys”? Which of the many Mark Scotts in the world is being criticised, and in connection with what – the American Broadcasting Company? The Audit Bureau of Circulation? What does the Duchess of York have to do with it (or perhaps it’s a different Sarah Ferguson)?
If you were writing a print headline for an international audience, you might put something like: “Star Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist publicly attacks boss at awards ceremony”. But if you were looking for it on Google, you wouldn’t type that. You’d enter something like “sarah ferguson mark scott walkleys”. And that’s what the headline is aimed at capturing. It contains almost every likely search term in 11 words. It’s good SEO.
Of course, the implication of this is interesting. The people who come to your story via Google – in other words, the majority of your audience, in many cases – are already familiar with the people they are searching for, and may even be previously informed about the story you have just published. It may be totally new to the audience coming from Twitter, who have seen a headline in a retweet, thought “what’s this?” and clicked on the link. But a Google audience is already sufficiently engaged with the personalities, or the politics, of the subject to compose a search string that can find a story they already assume must exist.
SEO headlines don’t explain what the story is about because they don’t have to: the audience they are aimed at already know. And that’s why it’s getting so hard to follow what’s going up on multinational news websites: even as the stories go global, the headlines are becoming local.