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Human Optimization: 'The New York Times’ Love Affair with Headlines

Search engine optimization (SEO) has sidled into the reading experience unbeknownst.

The New York Times is the most trafficked newspaper on the Web, and is using its status to influence the newspaper industry as it searches for a profitable future. Seamlessly but for design differences, it now breaks news using the traditional story format and blogs, effectively shaking hands with the blogosphere (and, by offering dozens of its own blogs, hugging it). NYTimes.com also brandishes peerless data collection and graphics, and is not shy about flaunting them in the homepage’s center ring.

But the most trafficked newspaper on the Web is also bucking change, refusing to surrender its headlines to the forces of search.

On NYTimes.com, a recent and perfectly vague headline, "The Rebel without the Claws" (Arts, 17 March 2009), appeared on the homepage as such. But click through to the article page, and the top of the browser window revealed something far more explicit: "The Guerilla Artist of Obama Poster Fame Has a Retrospective." There, high above where the average Web reader ever glances, search engine optimization (SEO) has sidled into the reading experience unbeknownst.

The staff at NYTimes.com has realized that successful "human optimization" of its unique journalistic offerings, as opposed to SEO, adds mystery, suspense and relevance to many of its headlines. The more mysterious the headline, the more suspenseful and relevant it becomes to the reader. (The headlines also have the ability to lend an article an air of journalistic uniqueness to a subject that may have been discussed on a blog weeks ago.)

Another example: "In San Francisco, a Coed Retreat Dedicated to Female Sexuality" (Fashion & Style, 15 March 2009). On the article page, this is whittled down to the bare, clickable, minimal "The Pleasure Principal". This second headline takes the reader back to vague memories of Freud and, more importantly, his or her own personal associations with the word "pleasure". Click. This article made its way into the "Most E-mailed Articles" list.

For clear-cut content—announcements, deaths, statistical reporting—NYTimes.com reporters and bloggers know not to beat around the bush. For "Natasha Richardson Hospitalized in New York," (Theater, 17 March), human-optimized headline and search-engine-optimized headline were one and the same. The reader of this article has traveled to NYTimes.com for its take on things he may not know about, such as a coed retreat dedicated to female sexuality. While he’s there, he has also conveniently found an attention-grabbing story appearing everywhere else, from the homepage of AOL to Google Reader to Twitter.

The thoughtful, human-optimized headline is, of course, a holdover from the paper edition. In the paper, the headline "The Pleasure Principle" will, along with a photo and a grabbing lead, immerse the reader between two inky pages just as capably as a more explicative headline.

That the website of the paper can showcase this legendary editorial vision so seamlessly in a world of search bots is commendable. It is a feat owed no doubt to the NYTimes.com content management system, the people who wield it, and the people who explain it to the editorial department. The New York Times’ often poetic and sometimes hazy headlines are, after all, what a print subscriber or impulse paper buyer wants—and knows he will get. The same goes for the loyal online reader. (Though I know of one person who has been tricked into clicking a headline containing a sole keyword—‘racer’—that, as she put it, "seemed like it was going to be about Lance Armstrong, but wasn’t.")

To engage the fly-by Web user with such headlines is a challenge that NYTimes.com is evidently trying to meet—with clearer headlines from itself and other publications. In the technology section, for instance, headlines range from flowery to straightforward. But the providers of the content also range—from The Associated Press, NYTimes.com, and its proprietary blogs, Bits and GadgetWise, to outside publications—GigaOm, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat and other influential tech blogs, here gathered under the Times umbrella. So in this section at least, NYTimes.com is offering feeds and full-text syndication of popular technology blogs to supplement its own output. And here, headlines are cut-and-dry and all slight variations on each other.

On the technology landing page on the night of 17 March, news of the release of iPhone OS 3.0 and other important headlines of the day amounted to a sea of keyword-filled headlines from around the Times and Web. But the Times’ own iPhone story sat calmly in the middle of the swarm, seemingly unaffected by the race to get spidered by Google. It read: "Capitalism, Apple Style".

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