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The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

‘I’ve got a great idea …’

6 Jul

…let’s do a mock-up of Harry Kane as Michael Caine for the front page! The Euro 2020 quarter-final’s in Rome, so it’s “The Italian Job”, get it? (OK, so The Italian Job was set in Turin, but close enough.)

However, there are deep undercurrents of British popular culture swirling here. Ostensibly, the visual references are indeed to the evergreen heist film – there are the England flags, the patriotic Minis and so on. But the “Harry” of Kane’s name, as well as his lugubrious expression and black-framed glasses, point to a character in a different film altogether – the laconic spy Harry Palmer in one of Caine’s early breakthroughs, The Ipcress File. Charlie Croker, the cheery criminal he plays in The Italian Job, hardly wears glasses at all. And the instantly familiar phrase on which the headline is based – “My name … is Michael Caine” – doesn’t come from a film at all, but from a song. It was a hit for Madness in 1984, with a voiceover by the great man himself, and a video that, again, draws on an Ipcress-ish aesthetic.

All of this probably got processed completely subconsciously by readers: you have to stop yourself to notice that you’re looking at a portmanteau joke comprising two cinematic genres and a pop lyric. And it also happens too quickly for you to remember that The Italian Job ends with the plucky Brits teetering on the brink of disaster and the prize slipping out of their reach. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen on Saturday.

Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?

Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

Stunning figure (of speech)

15 Sep

New on the Sidebar of Shame, amid the barely-there beachwear, implied-object verbs and discontinuous transitions: zeugma!

And while J-Lo is “teasing her hair and new music”, Lewis Burton almost gets there by “brazenly flaunting his second holiday”, although for the true effect, of course, he would need to have been brazenly flaunting his manly physique and second holiday.

But it’s early days, and  there’s every reason to think Mail Online will master this new classical figure of speech  – after all, look at its command of hyperbole and euphemism. So what’s next? Naomi Campbell covering her face and Vogue Australia? Kim Kardashian pouring herself into a swimsuit and her work?

Sous rapture

26 May

“Since the word is inaccurate it is struck through,” Heidegger wrote, “Since it is necessary, it remains visible.” And so was born the concept of sous rature (literally, “under erasure”) – the simultaneous printing and crossing-out of a word on the page to show that, while you have no alternative but to use it, it does not fully mean what you need it to mean.

The word Heidegger wrote and struck through was “Being”. The Deconstructionists loved the whole idea, of course, and merrily struck through many more on their way to discovering, over and over again, that the signifier was not the signified and the author was dead.  Now it looks like sous rature has broken out and is going to make some serious money at last, because it’s found its way into the self-help publishing market.

Except that – and this is the annoyingly vigilant editorial conscience at work again – if you state something is not a diet book, and then you cross that out … doesn’t that mean that it is a diet book? Or is the language of deconstruction – like the English language itself – capable of supporting more than one negative in a clause?

Batwoman or bane?

14 Apr

REVEALED! Shady Chinese lab was performing experiments on BATS! REVEALED! Heroic Chinese lab sequenced virus genome and was GAGGED! Oh no, hang on, they’re the same institution! Aaaaah!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Mail on Sunday’s coverage this weekend, especially when these two stories are right next to each other on the homepage at time of writing (and, indeed, appended to each other as footnotes). Are the staff disgusting Frankensteins playing fast and loose with nature, or courageous boffins trying to save the world?

In the scary story:

The Chinese laboratory at the center of scrutiny over a potential coronavirus leak has been using U.S. government money to carry out research on bats from the caves which scientists believe are the original source of the deadly outbreak.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan which were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government …

The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 – and doing so with American money – has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

The $37million Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type on the Chinese mainland, is based twenty miles from the now infamous wildlife market that was thought to be the location of the original transfer of the virus from animals to humans.

According to documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday, scientists there experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health, which continues to licence the Wuhan laboratory to receive American money for experiments. …

The news that COVID-19 bats were under research there means that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory can no longer be completely ruled out …

American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while the evidence suggests COVID-19 was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analyzed.

Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.

In the heartwarming story:

… Shi Zhengli [is] known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.

The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing …

Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.

She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China …

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.

It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.

It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.

Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.

She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.

Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.

‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said. …

Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.

‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’

The fact that Shi’s superiors at the lab may have hushed up her conclusions is not contradicted by anything in the other story, and the wider narrative of Beijing’s bad faith in relation to the outbreak is not affected by either. But this seems to be essentially the same set of facts cooked two ways: one flavoured with angry, shoot-from-the-hip congressmen and conspiracy theories, the other with a personable heroine and glowing character references. An instructive reminder that journalism is not just about what you find out, but also who you then approach for comment.

Parachutes for miles

10 Dec

It’s admire-the-front-page time again:

This time, it’s the old broadsheet Daily Express from 16 August 1944, breathlessly reporting news of Operation Dragoon, the Allies’ invasion of southern France that was supposed to take place on D-Day but happened five weeks later.

Look at that two-deck strap, another New York Times-style omnibus headline, then the two subheads and long standfirsts to herald each of the main reports, from north and south, that split around the picture as though it were a breakwater.* Reporting from “the gap” in Normandy, the renowned foreign correspondent Alan Moorehead is already famous enough to be mentioned in the big type (“Moorehead drives round it”). Around the two main stories there are 15(!) other articles and a map, including the shortest NIB I have ever seen (“News of the Allied landing in South France has elated the people of Moscow”, stop, ends) and a somewhat uninformative paragraph of anti-news (“NOT GEN. DEVERS: The immediate commander of the Allied Forces in the South of France has not been identified, but reports naming General Jacob Devers are described in Rome as incorrect.—A.P.”).

This is wartime, so the blackout times – rather than the lighting-up times – are listed in the masthead, and there are a couple of obvious flag-wavers downpage (“Hate? –’British do not know how'”; “Trapped Germans were all drunk”). But other than that it’s all hard news and clean copy, crashed together overnight as a new front opened on the Riviera. And in the spirit of making do, even Brylcreem seems keen to encourage economies: “Grasp the bottle as shown (note the finger firmly on the cap), then flick the wrist smartly to and fro in semi-rotary fashion for a few seconds; on removing cap, the cream will then flow without difficulty.”

 

*The second headline looks like it might be a flying verb – [Troops] storm over gap? – but in fact, it’s a weather report: “storm”  is a noun, not a verb.