No pun intended

At The Atlantic Tech David Wheeler has a piece on the decline of witty headline writing:

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: “Better never than late.” Online: “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

The dearth of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry. But rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story.

Why is headline word play under threat? It’s not just “because Google doesn’t laugh” although that’s a great line. Yes, SEO is obviously a major reason but I’d argue it’s more than that: it’s about competition.

There is simply more competition for eyeballs than every before. I know I come across more interesting content each day than I could ever hope to read. I’m constantly bookmarking and instapapering and starring stuff and trying to carve out time to read it all. It’s overwhelming.

So when I’m skimming through Google Reader, I want headlines that make it clear what the story is about. “Better never than late” is likely to just get Marked Read. Who has time to figure out what that’s all about?

I don’t mind the nostalgia here; clever headlines are an art, and I’ll miss them if they do end up disappearing. But I’m also pretty sympathetic to no-nonsense headlines, and not just because of SEO. The bottom line is that they save time. And that matters in the attention economy.

(You may have noticed that my “headlines” on this blog are neither useful nor clever, not optimized for search or wit.)