Link Baiting, New York Times Style

The blogosphere has been abuzz this weekend and today over this New York Times article, which covers the need to think about search engines when writing headlines. The article laments a reporter’s need to now write headlines for three groups: editors, readers, and Google.

Bloggers latched on to the story, with some seeming a bit gleeful that another old media practice is being forced to undergo some adaptation due to the Internet. The topic spent most of yesterday at the top of the Tech section of Memeorandum, and it was back up there again this morning.

The article actually shows how the Times uses technology to serve different headlines, depending on the type of reader. For example, a compelling human-focused headline will show on the homepage to prompt the click through, while the permalink page will show a simple, keyword-heavy title meant to be search-engine friendly.

This shows that the Times understands the importance of context. Not only do search friendly headlines get indexed, but those key word rich titles prompt action by people in search mode. On the other hand, people scanning the newspaper, or their RSS readers, or their email inboxes, read in an entirely different manner, and therefore they need a more compelling headline to get them to read more.

But everyone seems to have missed the most interesting part. Here’s the actual headline of the New York Times article:

“This Boring Headline Is Written for Google”

Now, who is this headline really written for?

Will the search engine spiders catch its self-referential nature? How about the irony and the false self-deprecation?

Far from being boring, this is a damn good headline. And New York Times writer Steve Lohr (and his editor) knew it. They also knew very well who might take a keen interest in this piece.

Bloggers. Yes, even those bloggers gleefully celebrating the thought of the Times using lame, key word rich titles got snagged by a compelling people-focused headline.

Dare I say it? The Old Grey Lady engaging in link baiting?

Well, even if unintentional, they created some great link bait nonetheless.

And I’d take all those incoming links, and all that buzz, any ol’ day of the week over search engine traffic. But the beauty of it is, all those links will likely ensure search engine traffic too.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it.

Write for people, people.

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  1. Right again!

    Anyway it’s a very human bit of hubris to imagine that anyone can know how a machine thinks 😉

  2. Clever bastards at the NYT. I’ve been on a headline rampage myself here lately, and I love it. There’s been a bit of a debate over headlines that appeal to people versus headlines that pack an SEO punch, but for me, the answer is clear.

    In fact, you’ve driven it home here: write for people. If you want a voice – a real voice – on the internet, then write for people, not programs.

  3. I wonder if you can kill two birds with one stone by using clever, catchy, titles which are good for humans along with a brief yet descriptive excerpt that tells the search engines what your post is about.

  4. Robb, that’s a pretty cool coincidence, because just yesterday I did research into the excerpt function in WordPress, and how Google uses it as essentially the meta-description in search results. It really does seem to be the way to get the best of both worlds.

    Post forthcoming. :)

  5. Brian,
    I’d love to know more about the excerpt function and how it works. If you do a post on that, be sure to let me know.

  6. It’s terrible that we have to think of writing for our readers and the search engines both. Our focus “should” be on the reader. But Google has caused us to do all sorts of things to get high rankings and to even be noticed in order to get readers.

    I don’t know the answer to it. But it is good to see the old media having to learn the new tricks. Hopefully someday Google will make it so we can concentrate on the reader.