After You Read This Headline, Please Click It

The New York Times' David Carr has an interesting column on how the Internet changes headline writing. A century ago, headlines meandered down the page like a "wedding cake," Carr writes. Some magazines like the New Yorker and New Republic still hold fast to two-word punches. But the trend online is toward short, keyword-heavy descriptors that trade cleverness for clarity.

This makes sense. Twenty years ago, if I bought a magazine, its editors could afford to write witty and indirect headlines that offered more of a mood than a complete picture, because after all, I bought the magazine. Nobody owns our time, online. Selecting an article to read on the Internet is like running through a bazaar while the merchants shout their wares. For online headline writers, the wares are the news, and they don't waste time selling through witty indirection.* What's more, since many readers get their news through search engines, putting key words in the headline maximizes the chance that Google's robots will identify your story and place it toward the top of a relevant search page.

Carr writes that, "Google's crawlers and aggregators like Digg quit paying attention after 60 characters or so, long before readers might."  But Digg and Google aren't providing aggregation services for robots or aliens. They're keeping things short because on the Web, because human audiences ruthlessly scan lots of content in little time, and short, descriptive headlines do better than long-winded "wedding cake" titles that amount to short paragraphs.

"People who worry that Web headlines dumb down public discourse are probably right," Carr says. Really? I like wit and puns and alliteration as much as the next guy. But knowing headlines are often about making the reader see the copy editor's wit. Descriptive headlines are about making the reader see the story's purpose. The "public discourse" is a fort under multi-variable assault from cable news and hysterical media entertainers and all the old villainous culprits. One hopes it can at least withstand a battery of prominent keywords.

* Incidentally one reason why I write many headlines in the form of questions is that it's a way to touch the heart of the story without resorting to boring newsy statements. For example, if the story is that Democrats and Republicans have reached an agreement on leverage limits in financial regulation, rather than stretch for cleverness with something like "Dems and GOP, Together, Sing 'Take It To the Limit'" it's more valuable for readers to see a headline that acts as a kind of lede or prompt: "Will the Bipartisan Deal on Leverage Limits Work?" That headline tells you (1) the news that there is a bipartisan deal on leverage limits and (2) that this is an analytical story that will evaluate the news. It's more literal, of course, and less whimsical and maybe even more boring. But it's also arguably more useful for the Web's speedy readers.