This morning’s No. 1 Google-ranked search result for “Taylor Momsen.” David Carr, the article’s author, disavows any material knowledge of who Taylor Momsen is.
Last week, we proposed a new role for copy editors in the digital age. As pristine spelling and proper hyphenation have become subsumed by sheer volume of content and traffic-grabbing search gaming, we suggested that the copy editor become the standard bearer for the new-media headline. A search-optimized but clever and informative headline is difficult to write, and who better than copy editors, traditional guardians of the headline tradition, to take on the digital challenge?
David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times, titled “Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline,” shows in brutally honest terms that we may have been overly optimistic. The article, which has nothing to do with the “Gossip Girl” star has garnered the No. 1 spot in a Google search for her name, a highly popular and therefore competitive search term.
Headlines in newspapers and magazines were once written with readers in mind, to be clever or catchy or evocative. Now headlines are just there to get the search engines to notice. In that context, “Jon Stewart Slams Glenn Beck” is the beau ideal of great headline writing. And both Twitter and Facebook have become republishers, with readers on the hunt for links with nice, tidy headlines crammed full of hot names to share with their respective audiences.
Carr describes “digital nirvana” in a headline for the search-savvy Huffington Post as follows: “two highly searched proper nouns followed by a smutty entendre.” He talks to HuffPo editor in chief Arianna Huffington, who defends the practice. He cites Gawker publisher Nick Denton’s memo to staff that dismissed clever headlines as essentially useless.
Carr concludes that although the frenzy for search optimization does often preclude the level of poetry found in the photo-and-deck-accompanied headlines of yesteryear, the best headlines deftly accommodate both by integrating puns into highly valuable search keywords.
We offer another hope. As social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook grab hold of a greater share of the Web’s distribution channels, excellent headlines could reclaim their lost importance. Users tend to share funny and clever things, and “likes” and retweets are mercifully separated from the regrettably gameable Google apparatus.