Real Talk: Pondering how headlines became uninformative

First published at Circa. 

On Sept. 5 Techmeme made headlines. Literally. It was the first time that the popular aggregator began writing its own headlines instead of excerpting them. The change is a win for readers and for Techmeme. You can read Gabe Rivera’s reasons for the change here.

tl;dr version: It comes down to understanding what the relationship is that Techmeme has with its readers. Techmeme provides a service where readers get value out of skimming headlines and then leaving the site when they find something they want to read. If Techmeme does a good job, the reader will be loyal and come back. It is a relationship of trust that builds value over time.

So why change in the first place?

Somehow, after almost a decade, the excerpted headlines stopped working for Techmeme. For better or worse headlines evolved and so too must the larger news ecosystem, which Techmeme is a part of. This is not the first post to notice that headlines have evolved:

Take A Minute To Watch The New Way We Make Web Headlines Now.”

Are you a sucker? 8 secrets writers use to trick the smartest readers into reading their shittiest writing, backed by psychology and scienti-logical awesomeness

Somehow the priorities of the new headline schema are out of whack with the priorities of Techmeme. So what is that new schema?

Exit SEO, Enter SMO 

It was only back in 2006 when headlines went through their last evolution. Captured best in the article “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google,” journalists learned that their headlines had to be SEO friendly. We all learned what that meant and the tricks of the trade. SEO was all the rage!

Only six years later SEO is cluttered with black hat actors and while effective in search, these boring headlines are anathema for social sharing.

Enter social media optimization: the idea that you can, through tricks and tactics, increase the virility of content. More people will share the content and the people that see the shared headline will be enticed to click into it – in order to satisfy the emotionally alluring nature of the headline itself. Share, rinse, repeat.

There is a formula for this. I’ve seen the founder of Upworthy write it out with mathematical symbols.  “At Upworthy, the team has tried to boil virality down to this quasi-scientific equation: “Virality = strength of the applicability of content and packaging x shareability of original content x size of distribution + luck.”

These headlines have a schema not to inform, be easily scannable or send you away for more information ala Techmeme. They are designed to go “viral.”  At best, the priorities of a viral headline are meant to entice you to share and reward your friends’ dopamine centers for clicking in.

But just as SEO had a dark side, so too does SMO. These headlines are innately inward looking and self-referential, whereas more traditional headlines would refer to the world in an attempt to quickly inform. The propensity of headlines with a “?” at the end are proof positive.

“Is this the reason why X did y?”

Is the news organization asking me? Shouldn’t they know?!?!

H/T on the image:

There is an entire law about why these headlines are bullshit (Betteridge’s law of headlines says if a headline has a ‘?’ in it – the answer is always “no.”)

For a headline scanner, SMO headlines mean the only way to accomplish their goal (of getting a sense of the day’s news) requires lots of clicking into articles, and a lot of potential disappointment (“I actually didn’t care about this”), hence the popularity and humor of HuffPost Spoilers.

 It Comes Down to Relationships: What is Valued and Measured

In the end, it always comes down to money. What is the relationship a publication has with readers and how do they monetize. Of course, in between those two is the all-powerful “metric.” If you are monetizing banner ads, your metric is all about eyeballs. What most publications measure is eyeballs. How long those eyeballs are on a site. How many pages before the eyeballs leave. Everything is about eyeballs.

Headlines aimed at virality are grounded in this metric. They are meant to draw eyeballs in. The reader gets a release of dopamine (filling in the emotional gap the headlines create) and in exchange the publication gets a pair of eyeballs while the gap is closed.

At circa, with the follow function, we measure … people. They are not mere eyeballs. They make a choice to follow a story and we keep track of what they know and don’t know. We keep them up to date on the facts around the storylines they are interested in. That is a relationship that develops and lasts over time.

From a fantastic PaidContent article recently: Metrics can improve newsrooms but only if the culture is ready.”  Please excuse the long excerpt – but when something is good….

Editors worry that the influence of metrics will lead journalism down a path recently skewered by the Onion in which Miley Cyrus’s tongue will always take precedence over military action in Syria. Those editors are right to warn of the unintended impact of thoughtless metrics.

We saw it in medicine when U.S. hospitals agreed to make public their mortality rates in the 1990s. What better metric? However, it turned out that the easiest way to improve mortality rates was to stop admitting the sickest patients (luckily the practice was stopped).

We see it in education, where Atlanta schools superintendents were recently indicted on racketeering charges because they forgot that their goal was not to have the highest test scores but to educate their students. And we see it in publishing, where linkbait, content farms and slideshows are the consequence of chasing pageviews.

In each of these scenarios, people confused what was measurable with what mattered. The purpose of a hospital is not to minimize the number of sick people it deals with, the purpose of education is not to narrow the minds of its students and the purpose of publishing is not to simply make people click more.

In this, the obsession with pageviews has let us all down. Pageviews do not measure the quality of a piece of content or its ability to hold and engage an audience; it’s a measure of the provocativeness of link copy. That’s it. It’s highly gameable, and by separating the metric of success (clicking on the link) from any relation to the content itself, that means the cheapest, most provocative link creator will always have the advantage.”

We have to start questioning what it is we measure. Is it eyeballs, or the relationships we have with real humans (readers)? Is that relationship one-off or does it blossom over time? Does that relationship serve your greater purpose – or just serve a metric?

Headlines should be content, not advertisements for content; the internet equivalent of a carnie caller trying to get you to “step right up, step right up and see the 10 things that will X your awesome day.”

3 thoughts on “Real Talk: Pondering how headlines became uninformative”

  1. Dave:

    Nice piece. I think it sets out well the crossroads we are at. Problem is, too few people in news orgs (and media orgs in general) really understand metrics, let alone this thing we call “engagement.”

    Pageviews, etc., are easy and fall nicely in line with the “easy” metrics used for decades in Nielsen ratings and circulation numbers (notwithstanding that old chestnut of “I know half my advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half”).

    Engagement is hard. Rewarding, but hard. Bean counters and others like “hard” numbers that can be generated easily.

    (Just the other day I was noting the proliferation of question heds and also pointing out that you actually have to think about heds online, even after you post them. That’s a tough idea for the one-and-done mindset of trad newsrooms.)

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