March 18, 2008

In Blogging and RSS, Headlines Can be Make or Break

In mainstream print journalism, a good headline can be remembered for decades, whether for its unintentional incorrectness ("Dewey Defeats Truman" -- Chicago Daily Tribune, November 3, 1948), its unconventional approach ("BASTARDS!" -- San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 12, 2001), its editorial wit ("Headless Body In Topless Bar" -- New York Post, April 15, 1983), or its emotional angst. ("Ford to City: Drop Dead" -- New York Daily News, October 30, 1975)

With social aspects of blog consumption becoming increasingly important, as well as the meteoric rise of RSS feed readers to take in information, a good blog headline can mean your story will be read instead of others on the same topic.

A good headline can mean the difference between getting ignored and getting Dugg, and as seemingly everyone is adding new feeds by the day, the sheer overload of information virtually guarantees a high number of your readers may never get to the full body of your story, if the headline doesn't grab their interest, or even turns them away.

Today, it is well accepted that Google Reader is the most widely-utilized RSS feed reader out there. While some have said it's not capable of handling the most avid feed consumers, I've yet to see one built more robustly. Helpfully, the service also offers a full set of historical statistics.

My Google Reader data as of this evening.

On a typical weekday, my stats show I'm seeing 700 to 900 items in my Google Reader, and need to make a quick judgment call on whether I'll read the full story, click through if it's a partial feed, hit share, or move on.

Just how little time do I have to make that decision? Assume that I read every post for 1 minute apiece. This would mean I spend 12-15 hours a day just in Google Reader. Take that number down to only 10 seconds, and you're still looking at 2 hours a day. What about three measly seconds? Taking a mere three seconds per headline means I've carved out 45 minutes a day just for feed reading, assuming 900 items. On the low end, that would be 30 minutes a day for 600 items, including those you actually read, and don't just scan the headlines.

RSS feed reading at that volume only truly becomes trivial if you think you can read and determine an action for the average post in one second. One second per post could take you all the way down to a stressful speed reading demonstration of 15 minutes a day. (Don't even try and get me started on how folks like Robert Scoble, who read more than I do, manage to cope.)

Contributing factors to whether I share a post on my link blog include the newness and uniqueness of the information, the quality or brand of the source and conversely if it's a new and emerging blogger, the amount of interest I have in the topic, that I perceive my readers to have in that topic, and the quality or content of the post itself.

But also a factor? The headline. If I happen upon two stories on the same topic, of interest to me and my readers, where the source is equal, it can be the headline and first paragraph that make one item shared over another. And as it is only the headline that is displayed in my Google Reader shared items on my blog or on FriendFeed, that's sometimes all the consumers see as well.

The issue of headlines becomes especially important for sites like Digg, Reddit and the like. Reddit, in fact, shows only headlines, begging for an up or down arrow. Digg shows a headline, and a submitter's authored one paragraph description. When you see stories that have hundreds or thousands of Diggs, do you really think all of those folks clicked out to the story, read it, and returned to Digg it? I doubt it.

Outside of social news submission sites, you can also see the importance of the headline on places like TechMeme. Items in the TechMeme discussion links show only a headline, and the story's source. Often, there can be 5-20 different stories from different sources on the same topic, making the headline, or the brand of the source, be the deciding factor for which post to click.

An example TechMeme discussion from tonight.

In 1998-1999, while wrapping up my senior year at Berkeley, I worked at a Web site focused on Internet and Silicon Valley history, called Internet Valley. My boss was certain that Web site consumption would change, and that the era of long textual pieces without styling was dying, in favor of pieces highlighted by bold, italics and colors. His theory was that Web users would "skim" and no longer "read" articles.

While his design tendencies were abysmal, he was right about people changing the way they consume news in this firehose of information. Now, it's obvious that you can lose them from your headlines alone, so for as much work as you may put into your writing, and getting the data or sources right, give your headlines their due.


  1. Hi Louis,

    Sorry to hear about the laptop screen issue.

    This is an interesting post. It is very much inline with the behavioral data we have collected when doing usability test on feeddo, specially for what we call scanner/searchers. The other factor which seems to end up being very important is a picture: basically the eye travels from the title to the picture and in about 2-3 seconds the user knows if he or she will read the article of skip to the next one. What we are trying to find out is how this behavior extrapolates to none scanners...and if people as you say adapt to the information fire hose by mutating from non scanners to scanners. What is your thought on that?

  2. This post summarizes the problem that I have been feeling over the last couple of weeks (since i got a FF a/c). I am a very lite reader (< 25 feeds in Google Reader, Techmeme and now FF) - and I struggle to keep up with these.

    The last couple of days I have resorted to techmeme and FF - and am picking specific posts to read in detail.

    PS: I checked if this post was already up on FF and was not there - so decided to comment here :-) (picked this on techmeme)

  3. Along a similar vein:

  4. Comes back to the point I made re Friendfeed - this does not solve the fundamental problem.

    Any system where the proposed solution is to reduce the art form freedom of the communication is imho intrinsically going in the wrong direction.

    Filtering those 900 or so posts before I have to read them is the issue to solve.

    I want a filter, not a better firehose.,-I-want-a-filter,-dammit!.html

  5. This is a trend we saw recently on an aggregation site my IdoNotes blog is part of. The titles became immediately important as people scanned looking for topics and eye catching titles only.

    @Alan P - filtering is one of the reasons I use Particls since I can blog future content by topic of site in my stream. I am also playing with Tiinker, Streamy and some others in this same fashion.

  6. Hi Louis,

    some good advice here--but you made me giggle a bit, as I'm a female blogger writing on a variety of topics, who's gone pretty far on writing some really funny, keyword loaded headlines over the past few years...

    Headlines mean a lot in search--as does how you load the first couple of lines of your post. If you don't rely on social news sites like Digg to get readers (where there's a preponderance of young men digging other young men's stuff) you have to find a variety of ways to goose Google just right. It's a skill that takes a bit of time, something like an old-fashioned "nose for news" (knowing what's hot enough, but not so hot that you'll get squashed by someone else) an old-fashioned "ear" for word rhythms and a big ol'vocabulary.

    Oh, and no editor telling you to "be serious." Sometimes the best headlines are the ones that make readers groan just a bit! ;-)

  7. @edwin, I had thought about mentioning graphics as well. Graphics are an important element, but I didn't want my post to be any longer or less focused. Your reference to non-scanners vs scanners is in line with what I would expect for consumers vs. producers of info. People do change from reading to skimming if they don't have great filters.

    @tish, you're right about having a nose for news as well. It's good to know when you're sharing info, breaking news, or following a story from somewhere else.

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