The Top 5 Things That Bother Me About This Headline

How knowing exactly what people click on has ruined creativity.

Of the thousands of decisions that Jamie Divine made when working as an experience design director for Google, the one that got the most attention was about a certain shade of blue.

In developing a new search results page, Divine created a blue toolbar button. The team agreed that this particular hue was the best, until a project manager noted that a greener shade of blue in a nearby ad had performed much better—meaning that users were more likely to click it. The team was ordered to test 41 different blues to see which one users would choose, instead of relying strictly on Divine’s expertise.

The story was picked up by The New York Times and quickly rippled through the design world as creatives accused Google of “smothering” and “undermining” designers. One of Google’s designers, Douglas Bowman, cited the incident as a reason for quitting the company. Bloggers vilified Marissa Mayer, the “keeper” of Google’s homepage, who had mandated the testing as part of her ongoing reliance on charts and graphs. They felt she had gone over to the side of the numbers.

In the age of instant feedback—with its usability studies (which sound boring) and eye-tracking surveys (which sound painful)— our well-crafted prose and art are swiftly reduced to revenue, translated to a string of dollar signs. All too often it feels like the choices made by writers and designers aren’t as much creative as they are knee-jerk, robotic operations to capture more clicks. With one eye always trained on the traffic numbers, do we ignore our own creative intuition?

I remember the first time I was confronted with this new reality. I had written a blog post with the most perfect, pun-filled headline. But when I saw it, edited and published, I did not recognize it as my own. My headline had been swapped with a gimmick that anyone who writes for the web (and anyone who reads it) will instantly recognize: The dreaded formula of “The Top 5 Things That Will Prove Something Important.” My post had been turned into a list. My editor—a hardened blogging authority at the age of 26—shrugged. It had been proven somewhere (where?) that people love lists.

At first I was skeptical, borderline insulted. But when I saw how a slight tweak to my text would make my page views skyrocket, I became a convert. Now, instead of organizing my thoughts into pithy paragraphs for readers, I engineer my words so they’re algorithmically attractive. I rewrite my headlines to make them more enticing to Google. I tag them with dozens of relevant phrases to boost my authority on specific topics. I add search terms to my text to further optimize my SEO ranking. I admit that I don’t totally understand what that last sentence even means.

Here Are The Top 5 Things That Bother Me About This:


1. It has changed the way I write. If a bulleted listicle is proven to perform better than a well-crafted essay, I’m going to write the listicle.


2. My headlines are noticeably less interesting than they used to be. But, as an editor once told me, clever headlines are dead, unless you’re The New York Post.


3. After I publish a story, I spend an hour feeding it to social networks and aggregators when I should be writing the next piece. That doesn’t even count the hours spent composing the perfect social media haikus that serve as the lead-ins to my links. It’s reducing my per-word rate to pennies.


4. I stay up at night worrying about how many people will tweet my as-yet-unpublished story. Add to that the endless perusing of other people’s Twitter streams to see what they’re reading and writing about and where my work can fit into the conversation.


5. I wonder if I’m still a writer, or if I’m a content creator.


One of the reasons I wanted to become a writer is that I was fascinated by a journalist’s ability to shape public opinion. Yet, the more information I have about who actually reads my words, the further removed I feel from the field of journalism. Sometimes my writerly self takes a back seat to my other personality, the one that’s obsessed with getting strangers to like me for something I wrote. As a slave to data, my success as a writer now hinges on how often I get Stumbled Upon, Voted Up, Promoted, Ffffound, Dugg, RTed, and Liked.

One might argue that I’m more machine than journalist. I actually enjoy the rush of attracting traffic. But does it make me any less of a creative person?

I posed this question to Divine, the poster child for creatives wronged by data, who says this is the compromise we have to make. “For traditionally trained designers, a lot of your training is about process and intuition and figuring out how they have a relationship together,” he says. “Now we have data and live traffic experiments and lots of other signals in that realm that serve to influence whether or not an idea is good. I want as much information as possible.”

Ostensibly, having this data at our fingertips would mean that we’re producing better ideas. The more you know about what your audience wants, the better you can create stories and infographics and art for them. If writing a certain headline or choosing a certain color for a button means that the most people will get access, shouldn’t you do it? It’s an interesting question.

And it leads to another: What time does the Super Bowl start?

This is what potentially millions of people were asking on Saturday, February 5—or at least what they were Googling. An uncredited editor at The Huffington Post seized the opportunity, filing a story at 8:49 p.m. with that question as the headline.

“Are you wondering ‘what time does the Superbowl [sic] start?’” the story began. “It’s a common search query, as is ‘what time is the super bowl 2011,’ ‘superbowl time’ and ‘superbowl kickoff time 2011.’” In the third paragraph, the story finally got to the answer (Sunday, February 6, 6:30 p.m.).

The article has since been “edited for greater clarity,” with the first two grammatically offensive paragraphs stripped out. But the truth remains: In its bald-faced grab for traffic, HuffPo even chose to include a typo—the headline still says “Superbowl,” not the correct “Super Bowl”—because most people were searching for the misspelled version. Data in action.

Take it as the exception, but in fact this is not too different from how many sites with a veneer of journalistic integrity are generating stories right now. The sorts of stories you’ve no doubt clicked on. Instead of stumbling across a story idea while walking down the street, or meeting a stranger, or pondering an issue in the shower, a writer—maybe even me—skims Twitter’s trending topics or the most-searched phrases on Google Trends and then writes a piece. In most cases, a piece of crap.

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