Sun 9 Apr 2006
Today's NYTimes is carrying an interesting article about the ways that newspapers have had to alter the way they write headlines and articles to try and increase traffic from search engines. Because web crawlers can't recognize a witty headline – or more specifically because they don't assign a higher pagerank for a witty headline – online media sites are dumbing them down to 'just the facts.'
The article is both a description of why this phenomenon exists and a discussion of whether it's a good thing that online media outlets are doing this. But I think it misses at least one important point: people who search for media online often want something different from their experience than those who pick up a printed newspaper. After all, how do people usually end up at the NYTimes, for example, through a search engine (as opposed to through a feed or some other aggregation mechanism)? By starting with a goal for search, even if it's a loose and abstract one. The technology allows us to generalize a wide variety of contexts because if you want to search, there's no way of getting around it, you have to type in some search terms, a phrase, a topic. When the results come up, I'm not searching for the wittiest headline. Maybe I pick the one at the top of the list, or I'm searching for a page title that matches my keywords. It's all about knowing a valuable link when I see it.
Contrast that to the experience of a newspaper reader. When I pick up the paper, I am bombarded with articles that I didn't choose. I chose to buy the paper, yes, but the process of searching is about finding things that interest me in the mire. When headlines catch my eye, that's absolutely how I choose to start reading that article.
So, what I'm saying is, media outlets would do well to provide a solution that caters to both types of reader. It's not an argument about 'good' journalism, as this quote from the article suggests:
Such suggestions stir mixed sentiments. "My first thought is that reporters and editors have a job to do and they shouldn't worry about what Google's or Yahoo's software thinks of their work," said Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is a visiting faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
It's about understanding what readers want in different contexts.