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Search Engine Optimization

November 21, 2009

The beginning of the technocracy (or Googleocracy) or just lifting speed limits from the information superhighway?

When Allison Jones, the publisher of Quill and Quire, came to talk to my class this week, she mentioned something I’d only heard of tangentially: search engine optimization. She told us that titles for articles being published online were being simplified; in other words, replacing witticisms, puns and double entendres with keyword-heavy, searchable titles. This is a trend that is likely to continue. As more people access their news online, it becomes even more important for newspapers and magazines to make their articles available and easy to find.

While it’s simple to find an article in the print copy of a magazine or newspaper by simply flipping to the correct section or checking the table of contents, searching for news online requires an entirely different approach. Some will simply Google a few keywords, such as “H1N1 Toronto” to find relevant articles. (One article this search turns up is titled “H1N1 confirmed in Toronto teen’s death” from CBC news.) Others will use Google News or Google’s new service, Fast Flip. All of these methods will find articles with very matter-of-fact titles that tell you exactly what a story is about.

The BBC has recently made a change to become more search engine friendly:

The BBC will therefore allow its journalists to create two headlines for a story. While the shorter one between 31 and 33 characters appears on the front page and the website indexes as well as on mobile phones, the longer one – up to 55 characters will appear on the story itself – and in search engine results,

reports The Guardian. Some may, like Allison Jones, feel unhappy with trading creativity in titles for search engine optimization. In my opinion, making titles search engine friendly is an inevitable and positive step towards making online journalism more successful. It is no good having a fantastic title, filled with humour and wit, if no potential readers can find the piece.

Search engine optimization will affect magazines more so than newspapers

Newspapers, as The Guardian suggests, already conform to a search engine friendly model, using titles that are more informative than creative. Take this example from The Globe and Mail: “Canada’s H1N1 decision: policy or politics?” Compared to titles from magazines, even news-focused magazines, there is a noticeable difference.

Here are a few from The Economist: “The other D-word” (about Japan’s economy), “Stemming the tide” (about America’s debt) and “Ungreasing the Wheels” (about government corruption). I would be hard pressed to find The Economist‘s articles via a quick Google search, but The Globe and Mail‘s H1N1 article is right on the first page of searches when I Googled Canada H1N1.

The future of creativity

Unfortunately for writers and the puns they (and I) love, I think search engine optimization will eventually win out. With web journalism depending so heavily on Google and other search engines/news aggregators, it’s more important to put your material out there to be found than to amuse regular readers (those who, for example, have a site favourited rather than constantly googling for news).

It’s not all doom and gloom for the jokesters among us, though. Ian Brown, a writer for The Globe and Mail, manages to include the common search terms Amazon, e-reader and Kindle in a title with enough word play to compete with the best double entendre or pun: “Amazon’s e-reader doesn’t exactly kindle my passion.” So maybe search engine optimization isn’t the death of creativity, but a transformation.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. AMZB permalink
    November 22, 2009 12:59 pm

    Never fear! I will start googling puns to reverse the tide.

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