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Keywords Go First in Headlines, SEOs say

It is mini search engine optimization (SEO) for journalists lesson time!

News outlets want healthy traffic levels on their websites so that they can charge more for advertising.  In fact, The New York Observer's Michael Calderone quotes a former Forbes.com staffer as saying that their former workplace is "a page-view sweatshop " (hat tip: Romenesko).  Forbes isn't the only news outlet concerned about getting more page views.

Last night I met a writer for National Geographic News.  We were chatting about her job and when I mentioned that my company helps news organizations better harness the Internet, she mentioned how it was funny that her editor emphasized that headlines should have important keywords first, which is not how traditional journalists are taught to write headlines. This headline writing technique is aimed at attracting more visitors from search engines to the site by ranking higher for keywords web surfers use.

For instance, as a journalist she wants to write a headline like "Scientists say Canada's Low Gravity Puzzle Solved" instead of "Canada's Low Gravity Puzzle Solved, Scientists say."  This reminded me of the New York Times article from April 2006 that is infamous in the SEO community; its headline — "This Boring Headline Is Written for Google" – says it all. 

So, why are journalists who write headlines for the web encouraged to place important keywords at the beginning of the headline?  Basically, in many cases the headline is the article page's title since it is placed in the HTML title tags.  The vast majority of SEOs agree that search engines weigh the words in title tags the heaviest when ranking pages.  Search algorithms assume that if a page is titled "Global Warming," the page is likely about global warming.  Further, search engines typically only pay attention to a finite amount of characters in the title tags (I've read that 37 characters is close to the max).  Thus, an optimized headline with important keywords at the beginning has a better chance of ranking well in the search engines for relevant terms.

News organizations deal with the headline demands of print versus on-line writing in different ways.  For instance, Steve Lohr in the New York Times piece explains that:

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Based on my conservation last night, it seems that National Geographic News is focusing on one headline for its stories.

Search engines are important on-line, but humans are as well, I say about the tricky balance.Wink