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Paper Monitor

13:21 UK time, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A service highlighting the riches of the daily press.

The Sun is offering a second helping of its greatest headlines as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations. But as the internet asserts its dominance over delivering news, the rules of headline writing are changing.

The buzz phrase being bandied around multimedia newsrooms these days is "search engine optimisation", or SEO for short.

The rules of SEO dictate that headlines ought to be clear rather than cryptic, include famous names where appropriate and generally not be too clever. That's because search engines - and we all know which one in particular we're talking about here - use headlines in ranking stories. The clearer a headline, the more likely people are to search for the words used in it and, in turn, the higher up a search engine ranking it will sit.

All of which makes disturbing reading for those skilled headline writers who populate the red top papers.

So as the Sun reprints some of its best known headlines, Paper Monitor has decided to assess them on SEO terms.

Leading the first of the Sun's two-part "greatest front pages" supplement is its 1986 headline "FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER". In SEO terms, this is a winner - it distils the whole story into five words and includes a celebrity name in full. The only drawback is the slightly idiosyncratic spelling of the star's name - had Google been around in the mid-80s, any dyslexic users searching under "Freddy Star" would've missed out on seeing this.

"KING ELVIS DEAD" (1977) and "JACKO DEAD" (2009) - two headlines about famous pop stars dying, but the Elvis one scores more SEO points in this run-off. To most of us Elvis was... Elvis, whereas Jacko reeks of journalese - clich├ęs disseminated by journalists but with little currency in the real world. In short, most people would search for "Michael Jackson" not "Jacko".

But at least that's better than the headline on the day after Ronnie Barker died. With just Barker's trademark glasses cast under a spotlight and the headline "GOODNIGHT FROM HIM" (2005), it was a work of understated beauty (most un-Sun-like). But it's an SEO no-go - no name, no mention of demise, no hits.

"GOTCHA" (1982) - this notorious headline that marked the sinking of the Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano in the Falklands War (and was swiftly replaced in later editions) is a stinker on the SEO front. Got-what?

"STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA" (1982) - also from the Falklands campaign, the obscuring of the story behind a pun is a red rag to the SEO police.

"UP YOURS DELORS" (1990) - not an SEO beauty it nevertheless warrants more than nul points for at least including a surname.

"IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS" (1992) - long headlines rate well in SEO terms: the more words you use the more likely a user is to type one of them in. But this loses points for missing out the killer word "election" - the peg for the story.

Of course all this matters less than it might seem as newspapers such as the Sun these days operate a twin headline strategy - clever puns and large print impact in the paper, longer SEO-friendly takes on their websites.

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