'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.

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."

However, even this happy-medium approach has its naysayers in the SEO camp.

"Readers need more information when they're browsing content on the Web -- it's a fact," says Ian Lurie, president of a Portent Interactive, a Seattle-based Internet marketing agency specializing in SEO. "Depriving readers of valuable information in an effort to make them click will backfire every time."

Because young journalists are beginning their careers at the dawn of the SEO craze, some funny-headline advocates wonder if the battle has already been lost.

"Sharp, witty headlines that stray off the 'literalness' line will live, barely, for a little while longer," says Lexington Herald-Leader copy editor Will Scott. "However, as the veterans of newspapers are gradually replaced by younger copy editors who grew up with the Web, we will see such headlines less and less."

Indeed, the same week that Crowley was sharing his passion for puns with fellow copy editors in Phoenix, SEO experts were sharing their zeal for data with college students in New York City. At the national College Media Advisers conference, students attend sessions like "SEO 101 for Journalists," where they are told not to be "tempted" (the word used by one session leader) to write funny headlines.

"People are flat-out less likely to read funny headlines," says session leader Aram Zucker-Scharff, an SEO consultant who works as the community manager at George Mason University's office of student media. "You have to be transparent."

Back in Phoenix, Crowley is generating headline ideas for an article about Gilbert Gottfried, voice of the AFLAC duck, who got fired for insensitive tweets about the recent earthquake in Japan.

"Duck and cover," someone shouts. "AFLAC roasts its duck," suggests another editor. "Offensive remarks ruffle duck's feathers," says a third.

At one point, San Francisco Chronicle copy desk chief Andrea Behr raises her hand to speak what she calls "a little bit of heresy."

"I was once showing my brother, who lives in Washington, D.C., what I thought was a really fabulous headline," she says. "It was a really clever play on words. I was so impressed. And he said, 'Why do you people do that?' He just thought those puns were stupid, and he hated them."

"Some people don't like puns," Crowley says. "And some puns are forced. You know when you're forcing it. It just doesn't feel quite right." He presses his palms together. "But I think reading a newspaper should be fun."

Before the session wraps up, a young copy editor raises her hand to ask Crowley about the conflict between funny headlines and SEO guidelines.

"A lot of times I'll write something, and the online desk will rewrite it because it doesn't work." He crosses his arms and leans against the dry-erase board. "And that's because Google doesn't laugh."

Image: Alexis Madrigal.