Digg and the art of the headline

Tony resigns

[The entry has been cross posted from my work blog]

When it comes to the web, there really aren’t many ways in which to gain readers for your site. Not that many practical and legal ones, anyway – sure, I could pay a dodgy bunch of Eastern European types to knock up a virus that sets everyone’s homepage to custompc.co.uk, and I could hire a team of skywriters to put our name above London.

Increasing readership online is fairly similar to increasing readership of a magazine in real life – although at first glance this isn’t the case. The New York Times has run stories about how search engines are changing the dark art of writing newspaper headlines. Instead of witty puns, the story goes, the importance of appearing high up the Google rankings means simplicity is more important. There is a truth to this: Google drives a lot of traffic, and while humans will understand a punning, tabloid style headine when they see it on the page, when people Google, they Google in simple, explanatory language. The headline in the picture above is a good example: I know it’s about Tony Blair’s resignation announcement, but if I was searching for that story online, I wouldn’t necessarily Google “beginning of the end.”

However, while Googlers prize simplicity, the art of headline writing lives on: submit a story to online news aggregators such as Digg or Slashdot, or even to one of the big blogs such as Engadget, and you tend to find that plainly worded stories die an obscure death – unless of course, the story itself, even worded plainly, is powerful enough to draw people in. I don’t think you’ll find anyone going through these sites extolling the virtues of the headlines in the way people do for the Economist or the Sun, because I don’t think the bulk of the submitters to Digg and Slashdot have honed their skills in the way sub-editors on big publications do; but the big stories on these websites do tap into their audiences’ interests in the same way ‘Gotcha’ et al engaged the Sun’s readers in the 80s.

The reason headline writing is still important on the web is that increasing readership in the online world, as in the offline world, basically comes down to increasing visibility and word of mouth. A good headline – which is both hook and synopsis for a story – does both. It pulls the reader in (visibility) and by reducing it to a soundbit, makes it easy to share (word of mouth).

That said, while headlines are important for getting noticed on sites such as Digg, there are a lot of other considerations which go into why a story makes it big or dies. Some of them tally with media experience in the real world. Stories on Digg stand a much better chance if they have a well-known source – large US sites such as Engadget, Gizmodo and mainstream media titles such as the New York Times contribute a lot – and stories will do better when they’re back by a well known digger. Case in point, our “10 Hardest Games” feature. I submitted it and garnered a woeful 4 Diggs; almost exactly 24 hours later, another Digger submitted it using very similar langauge, and it attracted 1,234 Diggs. To some extent, this mirrors what happens in print – if the Daily Telegraph prints a story, people will pay it more attention than if it appears in Bedfordshire on Sunday.

The audience on Digg is, despite the site’s efforts to expand its topics of conversation, generally very focussed, too: iPhone stories, Ubuntu plugs, anti-RIAA pieces pop up time and time again; but likewise in print, successful titles learn what their audience is interested in and generally tap into that.

And yet all this reasonable talk, is little consolation for the fact that so few people Digg our stories – or at least the ones we ourselves submit. Perhaps it’s just the case that we just need to get Custom PC more – tough, I think, because there are no shortage of tech sites out there (although most are a load of cobblers), because there’s a US-bias to the Digg, and because there’s always something that looks obscure and dull to me that’s hoovering up all the Diggs.

Still, we need to persevere I guess. If you fancy helping out, add me as a friend on Digg 😀

One thought on “Digg and the art of the headline

  1. I really enjoyed this musing about headlines – all too true and very interesting and thoughtful. Not that I could dream up one – I suspect the best people to ask about headlines are the sort who can concoct tie-breakers for competitions on the back of cornflake packets (now that’s showing my age!).

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