SEO 101: Choose headlines, titles and names for Web search engines

February 3rd, 2007

Go ask your search engineMr. Google is a dull fellow. He doesn’t appreciate irony, have a sense of humor, get outraged or have an ounce of curiosity. If you want people to find your content, and who doesn’t, you need to think like a machine, not like a human. Give articles and posts a title, headline or subject that has the right keywords and phrases to ensure that they will be found by search engines and ranked high in the results list.

In Newspapers search for Web headline magic, CNET reporter Elinor Mills describes how main stream media editors are learning to change they way article headlines are written.

“Pithy, witty and provocative headlines–the pride of many an editor–are often useless and even counterproductive in getting the Web page ranked high in search engines. A low ranking means limited exposure and fewer readers.”

This holds for all kinds of content — news articles, research papers, dissertations, blog posts, Web pages, ebay listings, etc. It also works off the Web — pick good subject lines for your email messages and descriptive names for your files.

In traditional MSM, editors write headlines, not reporters. The assumption is that the reader is already looking at the story, holding a newspaper in her hand or seeing it on a news stand, and the headline’s job is to make her want to read the story. But on the Web, the scenario is a bit different. A person is seeking information about a topic and typing keywords and phrases into a search engine to find relevant documents.

News organizations that generate revenue from advertising are keenly aware of the problem and are using coding techniques and training journalists to rewrite the print headlines, thinking about what the story is about and being as clear as possible. The science behind it is called SEO, or search engine optimization, and it has spawned a whole industry of companies dedicated to helping Web sites get noticed by Google’s search engine.

It works, too.

In November, Nielsen/NetRatings ranked Boston.com, the sister Web site of The Boston Globe, as the fourth-most trafficked newspaper Web site in the country, even though its print circulation is ranked 15th by one audit bureau. “We’re regularly beating the bigger boys, like the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal…and part of the reason is SEO,” said David Beard, editor of Boston.com and former assistant managing editor of its print sibling, The Boston Globe. “We have Web ‘heds.’ We go into the newspaper (production) system to create a more literal Web headline,” said Beard. “We’ve had training sessions with copy editors and the night desk for the newspaper. It’s been a big education initiative.”

For our research group, we’ve been applying these ideas whenever we name or title anything. For example, I had to fight the urge to give this post a clever title, like Google has no sense of humor. If you must be witty, save it for the lede, the first sentence. Not only should the title be descriptive, it needs to be timely in using the current words and phrases being used for a topic.

So, (this is work in progress) instead of titling a paper Modeling trust and influence in the blogosphere using link polarity I think we should use the following title: Modeling bias, trust and influence in blogs using link sentiment is better. Few (maybe just one?) research groups are using the phrase link polarity to mean associating a sentiment (e.g., love it, hate it, don’t care) with a hypertext link. I’m guessing that blogs might be more common in a search than blogosphere. Finally, my choice reflects an intuition that modeling bias in news and information sources will be a topic of increasing interest over the next few years. Of course, I’d like to shove in some additional keywords, like community or opinion, but there is only so much that one title can bear.