This article from The Atlantic has been making the rounds among all my geek/writer/geeky writer friends.
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.
It’s a good read, and well worth the look… but if you’ll permit me to summarize: the writer is basically lamenting the fact that writing for the web often means writing for the benefit of the all-mighty Google spiders… and the Google spiders prize “clear” over “clever.”
There’s more than a little truth to that sentiment. If you write copy for the web directly following an SEO guide book – and especially if you’re following the wrong SEO guide book – your text will be drier than a Triscuit left out in the sun.
In the Sahara.
So don’t do that.
On the other hand… it’s important to understand how people consume content on the Internet. Most of the time, the headline of a given article isn’t just a line or two of copy that appears above the body of the piece. That headline might also serve as the link that appears in search results… or in an RSS feed… or in a block of “related articles” dynamically generated by your site’s content management system.
In that case, your headline is the only thing a potential reader has to go on when he or she is deciding whether or not your work is worth a click. And those decisions happen in split seconds.
Now consider – in that situation, does your reader want a punny take on the article content? Or would he or she be better served by an idea of what the article is actually about?
Now… this is not to say I’m against clever writing. I’m for writing that is both clever and informative – particularly where headlines are concerned. Again, consider the ol’ RSS scenario. Your potential reader is looking at a list of headlines that could number in the hundreds. What are you going to do to grab that reader’s attention, while still giving him an idea of what he’s about to see?
Sounds hard, right? That’s because it is. It’s certainly more difficult than coming up with clever puns that impress your co-workers. But ultimately, that’s what will serve your audience, and your web site, best.