Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

Charlie Brooker fails at Search Engine Optimisation at the Guardian

Thursday, 24 July 2008

This week at the Guardian former PC Zone Editor and TV critic turned usually funny ranter Charlie Brooker penned a little rant against agressive online news marketing.

To my mind he's a little off the mark. Brooker suggests that news websites are dropping popular online search terms into stories just to build hits and advertising revenue.

Sure he's being deliberatly absurd when he drops BRITNEY and POKER into his headlines, but he never calms down enough to make a rational point or provide a single real example.

He suggests that popular but irrelevant terms are inserted into stories to make the stories rank higher on search engines. Personally I've never seen any example of this at the Telegraph. It's nonsense. Putting random words like Britney into an unrelated headline would distract the search engines and bury your story behind a mass of existing Britney content. And if readers did end up there they'd be quickly disapointed, which is fatal for free media which relies on it's reputation. So if you tried Brookers tricks you'd quickly find both search engines and users ignoring you.

The practice he's really aiming at but doesn't seem to understand it the dark art of Search Engine Optimisation. SEO is about making your story easy for interested readers to find; it's about being clear and explicit about your content so it can be easily located.

Online headlines on website news stories are read by machines, not people. The headline people read is the link that takes them there. It's the search engines which give priority to the page headlines and so yes, they are dull and descriptive. And descriptive means using the words a reader might associate with the story. If it's about Obama then you write "Barack Obama", you add "US Elections" to clarify the context and you outline the issue in the obvious language. This has always been the way because web users like to identify content rapidly and all good sites help them do this. Confusing newspaper headlines with puns that take a moment to register are no use online.

As for Brooker's suggestion that writers control the positioning of words on the page in an F shape; this is the sign of a chap who doesn't venture into the newsroom much. Writers rarely have any control over the published layout of their copy and thus little control over what words appear on what line. It'd be nice if they could, and I'm sure the F shape theory is true, but in practice it doesn't happen.

What is true is that writing should be diferent online from newspapers. I believe Amazon once calculated that users spend only 4 seconds on any given web page. The writer then has 4 seconds, or just a couple of lines, to impart the most vital information to satisfy the reader. Many users don't even read in chunks online. Studies that track eye movements show most users are able to rapidly scan for details and answers to their questions without reading whole paragraphs.

Writing should be tailored differently for the web to take into acount new forms of reading. There are dangers to the accurate and impartial ideals of journalism and I have a number of reservations about online news practice, but Brooker doesn't really pick up on them.


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