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This Boring Headline is Written for Google 317

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the always-a-price-to-pay dept.
prostoalex writes "The New York Times is running an article on how newspapers around the country find their Web sites more dependent on search engines than before. The unexpected effect? Witty double entendres, allusions and sarcastic remarks are rewritten into boring straight-to-the-point headlines that rank higher on search engines and news-specific search engines. From the article: 'About a year ago, The Sacramento Bee changed online section titles. "Real Estate" became "Homes," "Scene" turned into "Lifestyle," and dining information found in newsprint under "Taste," is online under "Taste/Food."'"
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This Boring Headline is Written for Google

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  • by caffeinemessiah (918089) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @12:45AM (#15093824) Journal
    why on earth would you write an article about the style of headlines in Google's news aggregation? it really isn't like Google is creating its own summary by mashing all the aggregated news articles together. some reporter somewhere wrote that dry headline.
  • Re:Kryder's Law (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hackwrench (573697) <hackwrench@hotmail.com> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @12:49AM (#15093834) Homepage Journal
    Some formulation of the hard disk law has been around long before the SciAm article. It seems to me that some Wikipedia author remembered such a variation, went looking for "verifiability" found the SciAm article, slapped Kryder's name onto the "Law" and voila! Kryder's Law was born!
  • Revert the Pyramids (Score:3, Interesting)

    by n8k99 (888757) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:01AM (#15093871) Homepage Journal
    Maybe now the articles will be written in a manner which actually resemble a story rather than having a fistful of facts crammed down your throat in burst of staccato like phrases. It would be quite an innovation for the newspapers to tell stories that make you want to read them rather than wrap your fish. Might even include some room for style to enter into the picture.
  • by prockcore (543967) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:22AM (#15093918)
    I thought most journalists were already "creative" enough without needing to put miserable puns in their headlines.

    Copy editors write the headlines, not journalists. That explains why you get those kitshy headlines in the first place, it's their only creative outlet.
  • by NetSettler (460623) <kent-slashdot@nhplace.com> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:34AM (#15093942) Homepage Journal

    I can use CSS to give the tag an image, and shift the plain-text version of the content off to the side so it doesn't appear on graphical browsers

    I completely agree with the spirit of your remark insofar as you're suggesting that technology can trivially solve this problem.

    Not just for this, but for an international audience generally (many of whom read English but have trouble with idioms, sarcasm, and other advanced usages), it wouldn't hurt to have an XML or HTML markup that is, effectively, the ability to associate a plainer meaning to text for alternate use. A browser could be put in a mode to show the fancy use, show the basic use, or show the fancy use but with plain use pop-ups like tool tips (or plain-use explanation-on-demand-by-right-click). Doing it this way would allow search engines to offer a radio button saying "search idiomatic uses" which was, perhaps, defaultly off, but that could be re-enabled if the witty text was what stuck in your mind.

    Good headlines are like good subject lines in mail. One of the best subject lines I ever saw in email was the text "crowbar in head". No, it wasn't about crowbars, it was about a "brain-damaged program" someone was alleged to have written. It might be a bad search keyword if I was searching for info on crowbars literally, but it is very easy for me to find in old mail because it was unique and easy to remember. I would hate to see the net move away from the ability to make useful labels.

    I also worked at a company where the User Interface people got overzealous and started to rename all the editor commands from things like "View xxx" and "Show xxx" and "Print xxx" and so on to just "Show xxx" because they thought that was more regular. But at some point someone noticed that the emacs-style command keys like Control-V (formerly mnemonic for View) no longer made sense. Those UI people were soon pejoratively nicknamed the "View Police" because their entire focus seemed to be on stamping out flexible use of language. People started to rightly question whether eliminating all the synonyms in the language was good, because it meant every time you searched for "Show" you got a zillion hits and every time you searched for "View" you got zero. There are times when this is right and times when this is absolutely wrong, but the problem is not fixed by renaming commands. A better fix would be to have search commands that understand likely synoyms and then the option to turn that on and off. I think that lesson might apply here, too.

    So I think there's a lot you could do with, for example, an extended USAGE="sarcasm|wit|pun|joke|..." MEANING="this is a rewording" attribute in, for example, a SPAN element of HTML, for example.

    What I don't agree with is doing something like making an IMG tag that has sarcasm or wit or whatever in it and then having the ALT attribute for the IMG element use the plain text. The reasons are many, but include such issues as: eventually Google will search text found in images so it's a temporary solution, people on non-image-based browsers (including the sight-impaired) deserve access to wit, and, most fundamentally, the whole point of markup is that it allows a flexible ability to tag things with their true nature. The true nature is not "wit is graphical and plain meaning is text"; that's just a way to shoehorn a solution into existing frameworks.

    (If this is not what you meant, then I've misread you and would appreciate a more detailed explanation of what you're going after.)

  • by David Hume (200499) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:40AM (#15093955) Homepage
    There may be two other factors involved such that the trend to write headlines in this way would remain even if there was no "Google / crawler" bias.

    First, I think newspapers on the web have a far broader, and less knoweldgeable (or at least less "locally" knowledgeable) audience than their paper brethren. I know before the web I would read the LA Times (I'm in LA), the NY Times, and *maybe* the Washington Post. Now, I read newspapers from all over the U.S. and the U.S. and the world. In that setting puns, allusions, double entendres, sarcastic remarks, etc. don't work for me. I'm supposed to understand puns in headlines from the Pakistan Times? Sophisticated allusions from the Soweto Daily? I don't think so. Even headlines from Birmingham, Alabama that require I'm knowledgeable about "obvious" local knowledge? No. Just give me a "boring" headline that might catch my interest and that I can understand.

    Second, I recently read that English is, or soon will be, the first language in the history of the world where more people speak it as a second language than speak it as their first language. This is expected to have an impact on the evolution of English. I think it will have an effect of "dumbing down" the language on the Net. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune headline writer is now thinking of his audience in Japan, Korea, etc.
  • I personally like them. Give me some dry wit - or "32 Scoot to Shoot with Plane Aflame" (see comments above) - over a boring summary of the facts any day of the week. Personally, I'm apt to think this is symptomatic of the decay within our society - but then again, I'm apt to think that over the latest Steven Spielberg movie as well, so go figure. Really, it harkens back to a day when those who read the paper, read the entire newspaper, and thusly would know the entire news. The headlines were there more to prepare your mind for the inevitable than to attract the reader's eye. This USA Today trend of posting full color buzzwords on the front page, so Joe Schmoe can skim it and knows what names to drop around the water cooler today, has got to stop.

    -1 Flamebait out of the way, it's time to go for my weak attempt at +1 Insightful:

    Wouldn't it be relatively simple for Google to allow newspapers the use of "alt" or "meta" tags for their headlines? Considering there's a small, reasonably finite number of trusted news sources, couldn't some sort of whitelist be easily implemented?
  • by rolfwind (528248) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:16AM (#15094116)
    I think we'd be better off with a digg type system - anybody can upgrade or downgrade a comment. Comments have bigger or lower threshholds - -25 to +100 or something. Not every post downgraded should be consider crap, make browsing -4 and above default.

    I like digg style moderation better, it's more spur of the moment - I can sit there and say "wow, that was a good comment" or "that was really stupid" and assign a plus or minus point without hassle and spontaneously, when I feel like it.

    With /.'s system, everytime I have mod points, alway assigned to me when there are no decent article I like or don't feel like grading shit, I feel like a $8 an hour data entry clerk monkey or a middle school teach, trying to assign grades to the first f-ing posts I read to get it out of the way and not to "lose" my points.
  • by Ru55el (967148) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:22AM (#15094132)
    Alas I work for a company that SWEARS by Google. GoogleAds get twice my annual salary every month from us and it amounts to... lots of dead leads. A veteran journalist / PRO-writer I am employed to make sure I write all my articles and website pages according to the Google-friendly template drawn up for me by a manager whose home language isn't English. I get crapped on if I deviate from the Holy Template. Any suggestions we try and break the mold and develop relations with the press to obtain credible editorial are laughed at. Of course I am looking for something else but you know what? Every company I try out for asks me the same question: "You can do Google Ads?" It's like the pre-windoze days when all a secretary had to do to get a job was know WordPerfect 5.1 yeesh In closing I recall a discussion I had with a former editor of the Jerusalem Post. He told me that all his jouralists use Google to find leads and implied I was a fool for suggsting otherwise. Investigative reporters have become librarians.
  • by mashade (912744) <mshade @ m s h a d e . o rg> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:27AM (#15094138) Homepage
    I don't really mind drab headlines as long as the point is clear. What really gets my goat are authors that think they're being clever when they twist a headline's grammar simply to insert that lovely pause -- the comma -- thus saving a word or two.

    You've all seen it before, but for example:

    In house, wife murders husband

    By all, a good time had

    On spring break, not taking it Easy

    I couldn't think of many good examples, (the last is taken from washingtonpost.com) but I'm sure you see my point. Why bother? It sounds dumb. It looks dumb. And in the case of my silly examples above, doesn't even save a character.

    Stop twisting the headlines to make them sound like bad headlines.

    Wit is good; puns are fine. God dammit, make it readable!

    -- Shade
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:33AM (#15094147)
    This is bad news... these puns are quite entertining at times. The subject of this post is an example of one of my favorites: British Left Waffles on Falklands.
    I find it hard to believe that posters don't see the value in this sort of word-play. For goodness sake, as a computer scientist, language and grammar are highly important and our wordplay sets us apart from the machine!

    -Starfishprime
  • by LowlyWorm (966676) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @04:32AM (#15094246) Homepage
    Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good

    --Lau Tsu
  • The Guardian ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tim Ward (514198) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @05:02AM (#15094282) Homepage
    ... has the worst puns and is the best online newspaper ...
  • by Ru55el (967148) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @08:43AM (#15094608)
    As a search engine Google is great. The one beef I have about Google-driven news is in terms of me obtaining credible editorial for my company. I would much rather it was solicited by journo's genuinely interested in what we have to say, and offer, rather than print our PR verbatim. When Joe Bloggs reads a press release in PC Mag he can see it for what it is, just another advertorial. Why should he believe it? Nor do I believe it's an 100% positive change for the profession I am in in as it forces publications to pick up on wire service releases to please the advertisers; not the man in the street. While that may bring home the bacon for one and all it certainly stifles investigative journalism, which means the man in the street - while happy to be fed kittypoo all day long - is left in the dark as to what is going on under his nose.
  • by vadim_t (324782) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @09:57AM (#15094807) Homepage
    I completely agree.

    English is my third language. I'm capable of talking to people online without problems, and can read technical manuals and books just fine. However, I wouldn't get even half of the witty headlines.

    To put a few examples from the comments here:

    "Super Calligraphic Raster SPX Projectors": This would take a while to sink in, but I'd eventually get it, having seen part of the movie. Have in mind though that not all movies are translated so literally that you can tell a reference to something in English when you've only seen the Spanish dub.

    "Foot Heads Arms Body": This would be completely puzzling, as I've never heard of Michael Foot. Just that stops me from getting at all what is it about, even though I have heard about the IRA. Changing it to "Michael Foot Heads Arms Body" would give me a clue, but still require thinking about what arms body they're talking about, as the IRA isn't in the news often here.

    "Headless body found in topless bar": Easy.

    "Sick Gloria in transit Monday": Don't get it.

    "Schizophrenic man rapes woman and flees.": Interpreted literally, I assume there's more there than I can see.

    "CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR": Don't get it. Heard the expression but never found the meaning.

    "COPS MAKE BUTT-ER KNIFE CON SPREAD 'EM": Don't get it.

    Despite any atrocious grammar mistakes that could be above, my knowledge of English is very good by local standards. Most people coming out of school here wouldn't be able to finish even the Harry Potter books, as it'd take them months to read one of the large ones, with constant use of a dictionary.
  • by GnomeChompsky (950296) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @09:58AM (#15094811)
    is that computational linguistics still hasn't been able to make reasonable progress into Pragmatics; but then again, neither has plain-old-offline linguistics, so that's not unexpected.

    Is there nothing Bayesian/connectionist we can do? Some sort of probabilistic contextual indicator of meaning? With-what-certainty-do-I-as-a-machine-believe-this -to-be-sarcasm-or-wordplay?

    It's still basically a mystery how we understand metaphor and sarcasm as quickly as we do (despite the Gricean notion that they involve some kind of reanalysis, there's no processing delay: an argument, some say, for a presemantic pragmatics...)

    Something with a semantic web could probably determine what was going on in wordplay.... and might shed light onto how we as humans understand these "problematic" (from a generative/UG point of view) utterances. Maybe then we could get past issues like the following sentence:

    Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

    I'm needfully vague here, as I myself am not (currently) a CL...
  • by NetSettler (460623) <kent-slashdot@nhplace.com> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @01:35PM (#15095522) Homepage Journal

    is that computational linguistics still hasn't been able to make reasonable progress into Pragmatics

    Two quick points, one regular, one meta...

    First, I wanted to say something more but didn't want to read all the posts to see if I was duplicating. So thank you for saying essentially the same thing as I was going to say. That is, that mostly this shows up the limitations of full text search and that I hope Google and others are investing in better forms of search. The whole point of full text search was to take un-marked-up text and just use it as is. Having to change your un-marked-up text to be "even less marked up" is the wrong way to go. Alta Vista and its successors were on the right track before by saying we must build tools that accomodate language as it is written and index it in spite of itself. This is no time to turn back.

    Second, in the meta level, I was happy not to have to search the entire text of everything people wrote to find this. I just read all the level 5 posts (not many) and then scanned the unattached posts for an interesting headline that would give me the hint of someone describing the limits of computational linguistics. Your post, here titled "All this tell us..." was perfect to allow me to select its content on first try, avoiding a bunch of posts probably on other topics. But this header would be terrible for full text searches as currently implemented. Anyway, I thought it was great that this message and its subject itself were an existence proof of the claim that was made within the post.

    Tools will continue to evolve, but the data we're searching is a static record. If we dumb down an entire culture to to accomodate our current tools, when we get better tools will one of them be something that un-dumbs-down the time period from 2005-2010 when we though dumbing things down was necessary? Or will it just look to people of the future like we had a sudden five year interval of being idiots?

    p.s. Mod parent up.

  • Re:God forbid... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 09, 2006 @02:11PM (#15095637)
    If I want to read some puns, God forbid, I'll get a book on puns or look them up on line, not trawl through newspaper headlines.

    I understand that among media professionals a headline is something prestigious, so making it in to a joke lets off some steam and lets you pretend that your tacky taste for puns can pass for wit.

    But as a consumer of information, seeing a pun in a headline is like seeing a turd at the top of the page. I really couldn't care less what some copy editor thinks is funny. Just give me the essence of the story, not your idea of a joke.
  • by ctwxman (589366) <me@@@geofffox...com> on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:04PM (#15095806) Homepage
    I have read through the comments, and I haven't seen anyone mention (I could have missed it) the major change that's brought this about. Search engines are the outward evidence of a totally different way to use information. It used to be you would pick up a paper or turn on the TV news and see what someone else had planned for you. Now, it's information on demand. That's an immense change.

    Oh - the Times article's own headline will be ineffective to search engines.

    I've written more about this on my blog: http://www.geofffox.com/MT/archives/2006/04/09/its _not_smart_to_be_clever.php [geofffox.com]
  • Re:GOOOOD (Score:2, Interesting)

    by corblix (856231) on Sunday April 09, 2006 @03:11PM (#15095831)
    the author didn't seem to consider the possibility that readers prefer this.

    Indeed. As I see it, this is obviously a good thing. Putting a negative spin on it is bizarre, from the reader's POV.

    On the other hand, I can see why journalists might not like it. And the author is a journalist.

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