This Boring Headline Is Written for Google
JOURNALISTS over the years have assumed they were writing their headlines and articles for two audiences â€” fickle readers and nitpicking editors. Today, there is a third important arbiter of their work: the software programs that scour the Web, analyzing and ranking online news articles on behalf of Internet search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN.
The search-engine “bots” that crawl the Web are increasingly influential, delivering 30 percent or more of the traffic on some newspaper, magazine or television news Web sites. And traffic means readers and advertisers, at a time when the mainstream media is desperately trying to make a living on the Web.
So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing. The software is a logical, sequential, left-brain reader, while humans are often right brain.
[...] In journalism, as in other fields, the tradition of today was once an innovation. The so-called inverted pyramid structure of a news article â€” placing the most important information at the top â€” was shaped in part by a new technology of the 19th century, the telegraph, the Internet of its day. Putting words on telegraph wires was costly, so reporters made sure the most significant points were made at the start.
Yet it wasn’t all technological determinism by any means. The inverted pyramid style of journalism, according to Mr. Schudson, became standard practice only in 1900, four decades or more after telegraph networks came into use. It awaited the rise of journalists as “an avowedly independent, self-conscious, professionalizing group,” confident of their judgments about what information was most important, he said.
The new technology shaped practice, but people determined how the technology was used â€” and it took a while. Something similar is the likely path of the Internet.