One for human beings and laymen; the other for search engines and insiders.
One of the greatest daily struggles faced by every professional, in every field, is to resist the allure of argot. That is, we think it’s easier and quicker to use jargon than it is to spell out and explain what a familiar word means.
This idea is hard to argue with, especially when we’re writing for people who are as knowledgeable about the given topic as we are. Yet even in those esoteric cases, it’s often better to use plain language.
This principle is particularly important when it comes to headlines, or titles. In general, your headline should speak to the public; you want to avoid insiderism. Let me explain by way of an article from last week’s Time magazine.
Why do search engines always rank certain websites so highly? Obviously, their content is kingly, but so is their search engine optimization (SEO). Indeed, for many sites, the search-engine spiders that crawl the Web deliver a third or more of their traffic. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the Huffington Post, which in February reeled in readers with the ingenious bait: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?”
In protest, writers for publications such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlantic each have taken turns slugging the SEO punching bag. The headlines describe their complaint: “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.” “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.” “Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO.”
In other words, algorithms don’t appreciate wit, irony, humor, or style. As reporter Steve Lohr put it, they’re “numbingly literal-minded.” Alas, Oscar Wilde!
These laments ring true in a big way: it is one of the definitive 21st century truisms that in addition to writing for eternity, or for one’s mother, today’s writer must also write for Google. Yet, as always, the devil’s in the metadata. The secret of stellar SEO is that you can have your cake and eat it, too; that is, you can pen pun-based headlines all day long and maintain your journalistic integrity. You just need to draft a second headline that’s straightforward and keywordy.
We’ve all heard the complaint before: Why doesn’t my Web page appear when I Google [fill in the blank]? To paraphrase George Berkeley: If a Web page is published but can’t be indexed, is it still published?
Let’s face it: If you don’t show up in a search engine’s first 10 results, you don’t exist. Indeed, that Google has made predictive search the default setting only hardens this race to the top. (According to the latest report from comScore, Google continues to process two out of every three queries in the U.S.)
Fortunately, this is a solvable problem—especially if your content contains a unique word or phrase.