'Google Doesn't Laugh': Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO

If online searches are literal, what happens to headlines that involve word play? Copy editors fear they're going the way of the classified ad.

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To Matthew Crowley, funny headlines are serious business.

"Come on," Crowley says, tapping his knuckle against the dry-erase board. "What else can we use from this story?"

It's Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, and the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference is drawing to a close. Crowley, a copy editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is conducting a headline-writing workshop inside a classroom at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. The conference has drawn hundreds of copy editors from newspapers around the country.

"It's not about getting the most readers; it's about getting the 'most best' readers."

In his session, "Heads We Win," Crowley is soliciting catchy headlines for a story on Leonard Nimoy's foray into cooking.

"Spice: The Final Frontier," someone offers. "Spice me up, Scotty," says another. "Vulcan Kitchen." And so on.

It's no surprise that the ideas come quickly. After all, these people write clever headlines for a living. But the task has a new sense of urgency. If all online searches are literal, what happens to the headlines that involve a play on words? Are those headlines relegated to the print edition, where headline writers have a captive audience? Indeed, as newspapers embrace search engine optimization, and as young journalists are taught to value Google visibility above all else, many copy editors fear that funny headlines are quickly going the way of the classified ad.

Despite the fact that Crowley has won ACES' top award for headline writing, he regularly finds that his funny headlines for the Review-Journal have been re-written by the online desk to be more search-engine-friendly. For example, when Harrah's casino announced plans to build a new entertainment center with an observation wheel, Crowley came up with the headline "Brave new whirl." The online desk changed it to "Harrah's plans retail, entertainment center."

"I understand the shift toward search optimization," he says. "But I think we're losing something when we take the wordplay and surprise out of headline writing."

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O'Brien's refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: "Better never than late." Online: "Conan O'Brien won't give up 'Tonight Show' time slot to make room for Jay Leno."

The dearth of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry. But rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story.

"It's not about getting the most readers; it's about getting the 'most best' readers," says David Plotz, editor of the influential online magazine Slate.

"There are headlines you can write which, because they're so clear and have so much of the subject in them, you will get a little bit more SEO," Plotz says. "But if you write a really clever headline that your most Slate-like readers love, and they think, 'I'm so in on this joke,' you will deepen that relationship with them."

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David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky, and an assistant professor of journalism at Asbury University.

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