Google juice dampens news headlines

August 13, 2009

Mic Wright

– Mic Wright is Online News Editor at Stuff. The views expressed are his own –

Google juice – it sure isn’t tasty but it is vital for anyone writing news online. The slightly irksome term refers to the mysterious combination of keywords and linking that will drag a webpage to the top of Google’s search pages.

While the exact way Google’s search algorithm works is largely a mystery to outsiders, news sites know it’s vital to write headlines stuffed with the keywords that the search engine seeks out.

Online, the perfect punning headlines created by The Sun newspaper’s super sub-editors just won’t cut it. News stories on the web are all about the facts and the most successful sites are constantly checking to see what keywords will send you soaring up the Google search rankings. If you story isn’t on the front page, it’s not getting clicks, the less clicks you get the less likely it is that your advertisers’ ads are going to get seen.

Now Google has announced that it’s been working on a brand new version of its search engine and it’s likely that online headlines are about to get even more straight forward. The new iteration of Google’s most profitable invention is codenamed Caffeine thanks to its speediness. It has already been made available for users to test and besides the noticeable increase in speed, it appears to make search a more real time experience than we’ve previously seen.

The move to real time search, showing web pages in search results as soon as they appear, is a response to the instantaneous nature of Twitter which has recently got the jump on Google when it comes to breaking news. Currently there is a slight but noticeable lag with Google results – its search crawlers (programmes that scour the web to see what sites have been updated) don’t grab changes immediately. But with the new version of the search engine they will.

This slight change in approach will make the way news organisations write their headlines even more important. It will also be like pressing the fast forward button. News writers will need to get their stories up faster and add new information swiftly to ensure that they remain high in the Google search rankings. A test by Mashable found that the new Google Search algorithm rewarding news gatherers for adding new information to their stories by placing them higher in the search results.

The new Google relies even more on keywords than the old version. Headline writers jobs have just got a lot harder. For readers, it’ll mean more and more matter of fact headlines carefully crafted to include the keywords that Google’s crawlers are after rather than created to entertain you. The days of the pithy, pun packed headline are over, at least online.


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Well, I suppose that explains why headlines have become more and more misleading recently (the nadir surely being the Times headline about David Hockney and iPhones, when the accompanying article did not even contain one occurrence of the word “iPhone”), but I’m not sure I’d call that more “straightforward”!

What depresses me most, though, is that you seem to have already hoisted the white flag. Do you really assume that you have no loyal readers whatsoever? (With the attendant implications for your employees’ attitude to quality?) Or merely that they are all smart enough to be running ad-blockers, and that therefore they “don’t count”?

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

How one supposedly with-it guy can so totally miss the boat beats the ‘ell out of me. Afraid of Google? Surely not, and yet… sure looks like it.

Sorry, mate, but Google rankings already have everything to do with website refresh rates over time in terms of hard content, as vehemently opposed to synthetic keywords, Flash panel bling or clunky headlines alone. And rightly so.

The Caffeination you see coming simply (to my mind) puts more onus on web Content people to inject some – or more – of that elusive Substance into their actual copy, and to keep it dynamic at all times. Far from draining their native creativity such as it may be, rather it should make them perforce a bit more productive, possibly faster as well. The net result ought to finally separate the espresso from the fluffy decaf soy latte, if you catch my drift.

Have some faith in the powers of human ingenuity, willyer? Moving with the times, loik… You know, as in, more so-called web content creators actually earning the paycheck only a few of them ever deserved to begin with.

What all this really means in subtext is that Google is about to deal flimsy Do-It-Yourself, me-too-LOL, scuse-me-Sergeant-I-think-the dogs-‘ave-found-something search engine substitutes like Twitter a bit of an ‘arsh blow upside the head with a pointed instrument. And not a moment too soon, if I may say so.

So, come on, Mic… You’re a bloody News Editor fergawdsake. This story’s not worth a tweet. As though one should ever emit such a thing.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

Interesting points raised in this piece. Will Google ultimately controle how news is covered?

Posted by Cyril | Report as abusive

Hi “The Bell” and Ian,

I don’t think we actually disagree on this. To put the short post into context – it was written at Schiphol airport at very short notice at Reuters’ request. I was glad to contribute but it represents a very slight comment on an issue which I could speak about for hours.

I agree that creativity remains the key in getting your news noticed. I also believe that it’s important to have a dedicated audience and to serve them well. My comment was purely on the way that Google’s search algorithms affect the craft of writing headlines. It’s moved from an art to a science in some respects.

I work on a site where quality is our biggest watch word. I have not hoisted the “white flag” nor will I ever do so. I have a background in both print and online journalism and I love good journalism. I work hard and I believe in creating great features and news stories. But as a professional working in this industry, I can’t ignore the material realities of getting things noticed online.

The Bell – I did not deny that Google search results are based on many more things than simply keywords. BUT this piece was about the affect that Google changing their approach to keywords and headlines will have. The recipe for their algorithm is a mystery in many way – very few people know everything they take in to account and how that mix is worked out. I am not afraid of Google, I am not claiming to be “with-it” or totally on the ball about everything.

However, I’m also not big on being called “mate” by anyone. You make some good points but this was a very short and quick look at a particular element of Google searches and their affect on the way news is written. I don’t make the rules nor do I believe that it’s necessary to stick to them slavishly. You clearly know your stuff but don’t presume that I’m a knumbskull. I’m not.

Posted by Mic Wright | Report as abusive

Hard to imagine what reading news online will be like in a few years. Will websites even exist anymore? Or will everything look like a Twitter or RSS feed?

Posted by Mary-ann | Report as abusive

I am very confused by this. Haven’t headlines been altered for a long time now? How dull can they get?

Posted by John Twillingham | Report as abusive

Cyril wrote:
“Interesting points raised in this piece. Will Google ultimately controle how news is covered?”

As far as a few dozen colleagues and I are concerned, they already do!

They control, filter, downgrade, eliminate and “bury” whatever news they don’t like!

Posted by Randy | Report as abusive

As headline editor of the 1974 Westminster (Maryland) High School ‘OWL’ newspaper, I must say this is very bad news.

But wait, journalism has been effectively dead since the advent of “Good Morning America”, at least in this country. The Web and it’s pseudo news reporters have done nothing more than put another fork in it. Is it done yet? Rightly so.

Civilization as we know it is dead and we can thank Al Gore for that, eh?

tim in san jose

Posted by t obrien | Report as abusive

Blimey, is it just me, or was journalism always this stressful? Writing on the laptop as one occasionally must en route to Casablanca in midflight 3-drink-minimum mating embrace with a couple of leggy Euro-supermodels, it might appear as though I had failed previously to spell out the digitally obvious. Sorry…

For present purposes I might’ve said – and definitely meant – this:
Headlines are, as they always have been, to all news articles as meta-tags and superficial keywords are to all websites.

On the logically robust assumption that Google’s new souped-up search algo will be no less mature than its existing one, I believe it fair to insist that the tradition of inventively cryptic, tongue in cheek, hog-wild, at times debatably relevant headlines including the one above, is under no form of assault whatsoever – well, perhaps other than from cagey, possibly insecure editors reluctant to rely on absolute editorial excellence.

Regardless of any mystery surrounding its formulation, Google’s new algorithm may be expected to go even deeper into content and thus be even less headline-centric than the way things presently function. Which is to say, Google won’t be limited to online-headline evaluation at all, nor has it been anytime recently.

In the final analysis, it’s only en passant about the headlines, it’s mainly about the content; always has been, always should be. Ergo: the headlines of the future need be no less inventive than those of the past, or present. And if they are, it won’t be on account of Google.

No hard feelings, Mic, old chap. That is, if I may call you “old” or “chap”… there’s really Schiphol to worry about. Certainly not as long as the content measures up.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

The best of both worlds is possible. While headlines will become keyword Google-fodder,there is always the subtitle for our pithy pun-packed headlines. Write for the search engine to get eyes on it, then write to the human. Google and journalism need not be mutually exclusive. We need to let go of our “paper thinking” and think about the reader, who these days, is online.

Posted by Killer | Report as abusive