Going by what the hot searches are over at yahoo.com, the above title should get this blog post 500,000 hits. In editing class today we discussed the art of writing headlines for the web. The primary purpose of web headlines, we learned, is to get results on search engines by loading your headlines with keywords. This is certainly a very useful exercise for up and coming bloggers or web site hosts, but I worry about the implications that it may have for reputable news sources.
We broke down into news teams this morning and selected hot stories off of the AP wire service to apply effective web headlines to. It was a fairly entertaining exercise, but it is also where I began to have some concerns. News outlets are already oft-criticized for being sensationalistic, and it seems to me that writing headlines with online keywords in mind may lead to a compounding of that problem.
For example, one of the stories that my news group elected to cover was about North Korea's statement regarding U.S. spy planes. As we brainstormed to find a good web headline, we decided that the it should contain one of these words: threaten, violence or military strike. We ultimately settled on this headline: "North Korea threatens U.S., Japan over rocket." The headline isn't exactly false, but it also isn't completely accurate. North Korea was taking exception with spy planes in particular. It was also taking a defensive, not offensive tone (though it was aggressive).
But we figured that searchers would either include the phrase in their search or would pick our story over the rest of their search results because it connected with their preconceptions. Is that a good practice for editors? Does anticipating people's stereotypes and attitudes towards something rather than capturing the essence of the story seem ethical?
What are your thoughts?