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Changing headlines

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 17:04 UK time, Thursday, 19 November 2009

From today users of the BBC News website will start to see a slight change in some of our headlines on stories.

In some cases these will be longer than they are now, to allow us to spell out in more detail what and who the story is about. This is so that people using search engines to look for the story can find it more easily.

That's probably enough detail for anyone who's read this far. But if not, and you'd like to know more about why we are doing this, please read on...

Screengrab of headline index and story level

The practice of "search engine optimisation" - making content in such a way that it is easily retrieved via search engines - is an important area for us and for others across the web.

A growing number of users come to stories on the BBC site from places other than our own front page - for example search engines, other sites, personal recommendations, Twitter or RSS feeds.

So our developers have done a bit of work to allow journalists the scope to create two headlines for a story if they want to - a short one which appears on the front page and our other website indexes, and a longer one which will appear on the story page itself and in search engine results.

The front page headlines will remain limited to between 31 and 33 characters and will continue to appear on Ceefax and Digital Text, as they do now, along with the top four paragraphs of each story.

The space constraints on those platforms mean that on the website the headlines have always been short - which, it has to be said, also has its merits, making them easy to scan and fit into lists. They will also continue to appear on mobiles.

The new longer headlines will be up to 55 characters (with spaces) and will aim to include any key words which we might expect a search engine user to type in when searching for news about that particular topic.

So, for example, the difference between a longer and shorter headline version might be as simple as: "Queen's speech: Brown draws election battle lines" instead of "Brown draws election battle lines". Or "Possible counter-bid for Cadbury" might become "Ferrero and Hershey in possible counter-bid for Cadbury".

It'll also be easier for journalists to include full names eg "Janet Jackson blames doctor for Michael's death" instead of "Doctor 'responsible' says Jackson".

None of this should affect the way you can use the site once you are here, but hopefully it will make it easier to find our stories if you are somewhere else.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

  • Comment number 2.

    Compare
    Murderer of have-a-go hero jailed
    with
    Man jailed after father killed defending his neighbour

    I'd take the first, less long-winded version every time.

  • Comment number 3.

    And I'd go for the longer, less tabloid-y one.

  • Comment number 4.

    Also
    Record October rate for UK public sector borrowing
    and
    Rise in public sector borrowing

    They are two completely different meanings for the same story.
    What is the record? Is it a good, or bad one. The second headline gives that, the first doesn't.

    Just get to the point in the headline, and leave the information for the story.

    This just seems to me to be a grab for overseas readers, who get adverts, and therefore revenue for the BBC, and not a benefit for the Licence payer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Steve Herrmann: I think the idea should have really been to ASK if the people who use the website like this as an idea.

    The idea of a blog is to FLOAT and idea first, see what gets thrown at it and then proceed from there.

    Fait acomplis come over very, very badly.

    I presume the BBC has some research done to show that headlines are too short?

    Have you leant NOTHING from Twitter? LESS IS MORE!

  • Comment number 6.

    #5. At 00:36am on 20 Nov 2009, Briantist wrote:

    "Steve Herrmann: I think the idea should have really been to ASK if the people who use the website like this as an idea...//.. I presume the BBC has some research done to show that headlines are too short?"

    I wonder how many who have read this blog actually understood what the blog was saying, very few judging by the comments left...

    "Have you leant NOTHING from Twitter? LESS IS MORE!"

    Not were web search optimisation is concerned!

    As long as the 'longer headline' doesn't actually end up being less accurate due to being needlessly padded out, take the example used in the mast head image, the short title to the H1N1 article is actually the more accurate, the longer headline is totally meaningless as the phrase "young children" means different things to different folks - to some a 'young child' is a pre-schooler (in the UK that means a child below the age of four and half), to others a child of 10 years is still a 'young child', the phrase "Under-fives" gives a far more accurate account of the government announcement, the only problem I see with the headline is that it's so accurate one hardly has to read the actual text of the article!...

  • Comment number 7.

    Boilerplated "I wonder how many who have read this blog actually understood what the blog was saying, very few judging by the comments left..."

    Good point. This page needs Tweeting!

    I have no objection to the BBC trying to get more Googlejuice, but this might be at a loss of usability.

    It is more important to be well indexed or be easy to use? For one thing, the "Reading Score" (206.85-(0.846*S)-(1.015*W)) goes up with the long winded headlines, which makes them harder for poor readers.

    The above blog post doesn't justify the changes balancing these two factors.

  • Comment number 8.

    re comments @ #7:

    Sorry "Briantist", you still don't seem to understand what is/has been done, sigh...

    Anyway, we are not all Twits [1], more people do NOT use Twitter than do.

    [1] 'Twit', those who use products from Twitter Inc.

  • Comment number 9.

    Oops, its another one that's less descriptive, despite being longer.
    Your stories: Cockermouth floods
    or
    Eyewitness: Cockermouth floods

    So your stories could be your Aunties half brother 3 times removed telling you about the flood, or, it could be seen by yourself.

    Little more thought required to justify this change for journalistic reasons, and a comment to the commercial implications would not go amiss.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    This seems reasonable to me.

    No doubt sometimes, the journalists (or headline writers) will get it wrong. But broadly, I see no problem here. If anything, I'm happier with slightly longer and less tabloidy headlines.

  • Comment number 12.

    Is there any progress on the news RSS/Atom feeds' titles changing from the even-shorter and less informative version to either of these longer forms? I ask as both the 33- and 55-character titles convey far more of what the story is about than the oft 3-word/15-character titles.

    For instance, an article in my feeds today has the title 'Puzzling choices', but upon opening the article on the website this expands to 'EU foreign head dismisses critics'. The ultra-short tile conveys nothing about the story, and is as useful as a title to me as the article's ID - '8370191'.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

  • Comment number 15.

    Is this the right place to suggest that the writer of the headline,
    "Nick Clegg says poll shows next election not 'shoo-in'", should
    visit the ITV Teletext or just go to Google and key in "Shoe-in"
    for the correct spelling and understanding of this term ?


  • Comment number 16.

    #15. macalban wrote:

    "Is this the right place to suggest that the writer of the headline,
    "Nick Clegg says poll shows next election not 'shoo-in'", should
    visit the ITV Teletext or just go to Google and key in "Shoe-in"
    for the correct spelling and understanding of this term?"

    Actually, "shoo-in" is the correct spelling.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    It looks like this change has caused the news radar to break. As of posting it's latest headline is from 4 days ago.

  • Comment number 19.

    I've just(again*) Googled ''Changing headlines''.......
    *because my first comment apparently broke house rules.

  • Comment number 20.

    #19. SSnotbanned wrote:

    "I've just(again*) Googled ''Changing headlines''..."

    So you've Googled "Changing headlines". And? What's your point?

  • Comment number 21.

    I would have thought that a website like the bbc would have had enough authority with the search engines to not need to make such a dramatic change. However, I remember reading about this happening in the New York times a while back ( http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/weekinreview/09lohr.html so it's likely that it will have an impact on most newspapers over the next few years.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 22.

    As long as we still get headlines from the BBC like "Moorcock set for Doctor Who story" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8362658.stm) then I'll be happy.

  • Comment number 23.

    #20
    Owing to an abnormality in the system, I(''SSnotbanned'') am also #13''you''.Since my point apparently ''broke house rules'' I can only leave you to work it out for yourself.

  • Comment number 24.

    #21. Kate wrote:

    "I would have thought that a website like the bbc would have had enough authority with the search engines to not need to make such a dramatic change..."

    I don't think it's an issue of "authority"; it's a simple matter of improving a user's chances of finding a story on the BBC's website via a search engine while retaining necessarily brief (and, unfortunately, often meaningless) headlines on the main news page.

    Nor do I really think that introducing slightly longer headlines on the story page itself is such a dramatic change.

  • Comment number 25.

    #23. SSnotbanned wrote:

    "Since my point apparently ''broke house rules'' I can only leave you to work it out for yourself."

    If you can't make your point without breaking the rules of the forum then I doubt that it's important.

  • Comment number 26.

    Glad I'm not the only one who has absolutely no idea what SSnotbanned is on about.

  • Comment number 27.

    Changing headlines indeed Ed!As in removing the Comments from your climategate article,naughty,naughty!Have a lovely,warm,snug evening.

  • Comment number 28.

    I would rather have the longer titles, I'd take the easier search-able stories.

  • Comment number 29.

    #25 rbs-temp.
    #26 dotconnect

    My point concerned the BBC pandering to Google to get their ''headlines'' onto page 1 of a Google Search. I suggested that this was the real reason for enabling online users to ''find the story more easily''.
    I also suggested that this was a step towards Product Placement on programmes and receiving increased advertising income on web content.

    If I am addressing anyone in particular I usually signpost their comment number or name.

    Accessing my e-mail account, the BBC has said the reason for removal of the above is that I am ''off-topic''

  • Comment number 30.

    "children under the age of five are to offered..." - reckon you should have used an example without a typo in it.

  • Comment number 31.

    Just wish the BBC stopped the American use of the comma in headlines and instead used an ampersand (&) to mean 'and'. Longer headlines are much better for the story's page. Short headlines for where space is limited.

  • Comment number 32.

    As a professional SEO expert it all seems a bit unnecessary really. The general SEO for the BBC News website is so strong that the longer headlines will have minimal impact on search results to say the least. Far more important would be to ensure the body text contained as many relevant search terms as possible while maintaining a clear, user-friendly writing style, with the headlines supporting the main keywords but importantly also working as headlines.

    Remember, showing up in the search results is only half the battle (possibly less than half) Getting people to click is what matters. If I'm presented with two headlines - one from the BBC and one from, say, CNN - on the same subject, I will click the most compelling one. I can't help but think that the shorter and punchier the headline, the more compelling it will be.

    You're also dealing in live searching, which for a news story from a leading media source is best handled (in Google at least) by the News Results, which tend to use other criteria for deciding on placement. For instance, a search today for "bank overdraft charges" does not show the BBC's long-headlined story anywhere on the first page of news results, but in second place is "FTSE 100: Lloyds Banking Group profit taking starts".

    This latter story only mentions the Supreme Court case in passing, but it is from the FT - which has more credibility with Google on banking stories than the BBC. No headline in the world will change that.

    In fact, the top related search result on this subject for the BBC is for a short-headlined video story 'Bank charged me nearly £3,000 for overdraft'. Probably because it will have been linked to far more than the main story. This ably demonstrates that more text in a headline is no substitute for other, more effective, SEO techniques - and that what is lost (good headlines) far outweighs what is gained (minimal SEO).

    Yes, as mentioned, the NYT tried it - no, it didn't work for them either except in increasing visibility of archived stories, which isn't really what it's about for live search.

    The first and most important target for any SEO text should always be the human reader - the one who decides what to search for, and what to click.

    Ultimately, even if it worked, Google aims to reward good writing on the web, and if long-winded headlines start to reap rewards over well written ones, I think we can forecast an algorithmical tweak or two that addresses this down the line.

  • Comment number 33.

    Interesting stuff Jake.

    You missed out a sentence at the end though:

    "That'll be £4,800 please"

    ;)

  • Comment number 34.

    I had to read this article twice to really understand why you are doing this. I think limiting he title under 32 characters is great. After reading your article, I quickly did Google mobile search and indeed the titles appear much shorter there. Longer titles seem to get cut off.

    You guys do an amazing job not only reporting good news but also presenting it very appropriately.
    ~JP~

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 36.

    @SSnotbanned - I have to agree with you about BBC pandering to Google's requirements with respect to SEO. Unfortunately this is a reality now for all content providers considering Google is the primary search vehicle for most Internet users.

    @Jake Hadlee - disagree with you on this. Search engines are becoming increasingly sensitive to the content in the page headline and despite BBC having its pages ranked highly as a reputed source, matching additional keywords as Steve suggest will get BBC increased returns on search result pages.

    -Craig-

  • Comment number 37.

    re: ginger-feathered dinosaurs

    The type of feather along the back is not Mohican but Mohawk after the native American tribe of that name who wore their hair only in a stripe along the head from front to back. This was generally to show how fierce the warriors were. The Mohicans are a tribe from Connecticut who generally gamble and play the stockmarket!!

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment is not about this item in particular, but about the International edition of the BBC News website generally.
    I am a Brit, living in Asia.
    I recall seeing a few months ago a 'blog' from one of the senior BBC News website staff, advising of various 'improvements' to the International version.
    One stated change was especially welcome to me, namely the plan to prevent the appearance of apparently-accessible video (or other) items that were not actually available outside of the UK.
    I am an avid sports fan, and it is often hard to get access here in Asia to rugby and cricket broadcasts, or even video highlights.
    So, when I see them offered on the BBC site, I often click on them - only to find the item comes up with 'not available in your region' tag.
    I had understood that the International version of the BBC News site would not be carrying such 'unavailable' items - and so would save me time trying fruitlessly to log into them.
    However, having tried to watch various highlights of the weekend's 6 Nations rugby, I find that nothing has changed - the 'not available in your region' tag appearing with monotonous regularity.
    When will the change be effected?

  • Comment number 40.

    I've always had trouble getting the information I wanted using your search engine, but maybe now things will look up.
    I remember searching "economy, derivatives" and getting "derivative companies fail". I wasn't worried about the companies; I was worried about countries.
    Maybe I lack the ability to select good search words. Maybe it's not your search engine at all. Regardless, thanks for trying to help me out.

  • Comment number 41.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 42.

    Why can't we comment on the Men At Work- I come from a land down under claim? As a competent musician personally I think that Larrakin "music" are simply a business enterprise exploiting the talents of real musicians (and not the other way round).

  • Comment number 43.

    They've employed a solid SEO format. Much like Search Engine Optimisation Wales where they've maximized the use of keywords and keyphrases. This is by far one of the best on-page SEO works I've seen. This would not only help in search volumes but also give readers a format that is both convenient and concise.

  • Comment number 44.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 45.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 46.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 47.

    I think people need to understand this SEO is not 'pandering to google' but 'pandering to searchers'.

    As an SEO Expert [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] who has done this kind of training with journalists (mainly print journalists) The concept of more plain spoken, vebose, less cryptic title for any piece of writing, simply allows people looking for it to find it via a search engine.

    Journalists have traditionally been trained not to 'give the goods away' in the headline, and use the headline as a hook that may or may not contain the salient details of the article.

    Also clever title writing often uses word plays and the like, which may be vibrant and meaningful in context or on the site, but thoroughy confuse people looking for the information out of context on a search. engine.

    I thoroughly commend the BBC for this approach. Even though it potentially makes it harder for me to compete against their site for 1000's of different terms.

  • Comment number 48.

    I'd have to agree with you Jon, seeing as how many people has a misconstrued idea on how SEO works, they forget the fact that it was develop in order to better the online community, by placing the users first and providing them with quality content. You've also mentioned wordplay, which is often mistaken for keyword stuffing. Going through countless articles online, I saw a bunch of headlines that have an insane amount of keywords to the extent that humans can't understand the very essence of their titles, and the same could be said for their topics. I'm very much glad that BBC has shifted to a much "User" friendly format. In my years of experience as a SEO Reseller, site aesthetics is part of information exchange, wherein a much clearer and convenient presentation of information will attract users to read on and visit more often.

  • Comment number 49.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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