An important role many digital editors are now responsible for is search engine optimization (SEO). Search engines algorithmically find and rank digital content using key words, looking especially in headlines and subheads, in tags typically listed at the beginning or end of the story, and in the HTML’s metatags.
When users type words or phrases into a search engine box, the search engine tries to match those words with words it has found and recorded previously, and from that matching, the engine delivers a list of findings.
Google data show that headlines of about ten words work best. Shorter is better, and important key words should appear up front. This is, of course, good advice for headlines that will appear on smartphones, the screens of which mindlessly, violently butcher headlines at the first available line break.
If you were writing a headline for a story about the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s airport in June 2016, for example, you would use the key words “Istanbul,” “terrorists,” “Ataturk,” “bombing,” and “2016,” among others. Some users may remember that it was in Istanbul but not when, and vice versa.
Will an interact or understand what the story is about by reading only the headline? She should, because distillation and signaling are important tasks for any headline. Most of the time, the headline is all that integrators will read. Given this punishing truth, it is amazing how few digital news organizations get this right.
Test your key words, and there are several ways to do this. You can use Google’s auto-complete feature, which prompts additional words to complete a phrase. You can also test key words using Yahoo and Google SEO resources.
Common also to these headlines is that all are direct, clear, and straightforward in signaling the content. If a visitor is searching for the latest information on the big Christmas parade downtown, don’t use the headline, “Yule procession to begin at 9 p.m.” No one will ever find this story using even the best search jujitsu. While “Christmas Parade” might not be the most politically correct label to use in the headline, it is the clearest. Google has made it clear that what counts the most is the content of the webpage itself.
Commercially Sponsored Search Results
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection staff sent out letters to search engine companies instructing them to better distinguish between commercially sponsored results (third-party ads) and non-sponsored (or “natural”) results to avoid consumer deception.
The distinction, according to the FTC’s letter, must be “clear and prominent” when evaluated from the perspective of consumers, taking into consideration how the results appear when using various browsers, apps, devices, etc.
As the FTC’s announcement noted, paid search results have become less distinguishable as advertising. Failing to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be determined by the FTC to be a deceptive practice. To prevent this, the FTC recommends visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements.
Some search companies have been doing the opposite. The shading in the top ad boxes, or boxes for paid ads at the very top of a search page, has lightened, making it more difficult for consumers to recognize them as distinct from natural search results. In addition, some search engines’ results that integrate or offer specialized search options as part of the service—for example, by allowing users to refine their search to categories such as news or local businesses—are, in reality, another way of presenting paid ads.
The FTC’s efforts to combat the resulting confusion is good for content producers that clearly and transparently label and identify what they publish, because, as the FTC posted, readers “expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party. Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising.
Google has long been upfront about what it’s looking for from site owners and publishers: great original content that serves the best interests of their sites’ visitors. This imperative valorizes good writing, and it rewards honesty and straightforwardness.