Poster for the London Evening Standard newspaper. The storm was in the United States. Pic by Darren Shrubsole
This is the third and final in a series of posts about Search Engine Optimisation, following Duncan Bloor and Oliver Bartlett writing about optimising Knowledge and Learning websites.
Headline-writing is a journalistic skill that provokes strong feelings – and of course it is meant to.
A sub-editor writes a headline to grab attention, to compel readers.
It’s also considered something of an art form, which will often see clusters of journalists poring over headlines at length, in the knowledge that the eventual choice could spell the difference between people reading the article or not.
Good headlines are passed around newsrooms in admiration, bad ones are held up to ridicule, and the best ones go down in history – think of the Sun headlines “Gotcha” and “Freddy Starr ate my hamster”.
Given that we are talking about such a cherished institution, it’s no surprise that when I as an SEO (search engine optimiser) come along and rewrite the headline rulebook there might be a certain amount of, let’s say, polite demurral among your colleagues.
But that’s often exactly what is needed at news websites which have previously paid no attention to search traffic when composing their sacred texts.
I moved from my role as BBC web journalist specialising in the Middle East to become the BBC’s first specialist SEO journalist in late 2009.
The headline system that I took over had not even been optimised for the web originally, let alone search engines.
Back in the mid-2000s, BBC News had merged the Online and Ceefax teams to write multi-platform stories whose headline length was designed to fit neatly on the old analogue teletext pages. These 31-33 character headlines didn’t allow much room to include search keywords; they barely had enough space to tell the story. But the format has been skilfully incorporated into our web journalism and to this day we should be grateful for how it has given the News website its clean, impactful appearance and pithy, easy-to-read headlines.
Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we devised a dual-headline system, which would keep the index headlines unchanged while introducing a longer, search-optimised text that would sit at the top of articles and supply the page title meta-tags, which are what search engines take most account of.
All we had to do then was to make sure that the hundreds upon hundreds of different story headlines written every day by teams scattered across the country and the globe were optimised for search!
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