Writing a good headline is part art, part science and very important. In the age of online news, articles tend to be optimized for maximum traffic from search engines. Keywords, such as Apple or iPhone, are used in the headlines based on the likelihood the article will gain traffic from search engines and services such as Google News alerts. As a result, bad headlines often misrepresent the capabilities of companies, the state of marketplaces and the level of competition between peers in a marketplace.
You, the reader, need to wade through all this bullshit. It's not difficult to spot a search engine-optimized headline. Look for references to popular companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify in a headline that could easily do without them. Not all mentions of Apple or Google are superfluous. But many headlines with names such as Apple or Google misleads the reader because an editor puts search engine traffic.
Here are three things to watch for when reading headlines that put search engine optimization over common sense.
-- Ignore headlines that suggest a new music service threatens the market leadership of an unrelated peer. Earlier this week, tech blog GigaOm chose to warn the leader in Internet radio that a repeat digital music failure had launched another product in the U.S. " Listen Up Pandora: Nokia Music now playing in U.S. for free" fits Pandora into Google news searches but lacks plausibility.
Nokia has never achieved more than middling success in the U.S. digital music and is coming off a major failure, Comes With Music. Nokia Music takes a safer route - it's going to be hard to go wrong with preprogrammed playlists, an MP3 store and a concert finder - and merely augments the value of Nokia handsets. This strategy makes Nokia Music more like Sony's value-added Music Unlimited subscription service and less like a standalone Internet radio service. Pandora has over 54 million monthly U.S. users that listen on a range of smartphones while Nokia Music is currently available on two Lumia devices that run Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system. So, no, Pandora need not heed the advice of Nokia on choice of streaming business models.
Digital Spy's headline, " Nokia Rolls Out Spotify Rival on US Lumia Smartphones" will certainly benefit from Spotify searches but is just plain silly - Nokia Music is nothing like the on-demand service Spotify. To put this in understandable terms, any sports fan knows a weak team really isn't a rival just because it plays in the same league as a successful team. The same goes for digital music. Just because you play on the same field doesn't mean you can compete on the same level. A bad headline will imply exactly the opposite.
-- Dismiss any headline with the term "iTunes Killer" or "iPhone Killer." Editors used to love putting "iPod killer" in the headline of any article about a new MP3 player. No MP3 player could touch or has touched the iPod. Then came the "iTunes Killer" tag in headlines for everything from Spiral Frog. Putting "iTunes Killer" in a headline with these services has a strong chance to improve upon iTunes' market share or kill its category. Reader beware! This is wishful thinking by an ignorant editor who does a disservice to a writer who may - but not always - knows better.
The same goes for "iPhone Killer" headlines. Apple dominates the smartphone market. A recent Canaccord Genuity report estimates that in the second quarter of 2012 Apple had a 71% share of smartphone profits and Samsung had a 28% (which implies some competitors had net losses) So when you read a headline like "Is Beats Coming Out With an iPhone Killer?" at AllHipHop.com you know the answer. Beats and its investor, smartphone manufacturer HTC, may be working on a smartphone, but Apple doesn't shed profit share easily. Beats by Dre is a strong brand and Beats Electronics has the capacity to introduce innovative thinking into HTC's design, but dominance in the headphones market doesn't necessarily translate into profits in the smartphone market.
Feel free to dismiss any headline with the dreaded "-killer" suffix (Spotify killer, iPad killer, Netflix killer, et al). It indicates somebody has put SEO optimization over accuracy and signals that you will need to examine the body of the article with an eye for detail.
-- Be wary of headlines that read like press releases. Many blog posts are copied and pasted from SEO-optimized press releases with little independent thought given to the headline. These probably make the press release-issuing companies very happy - free marketing! This article with the headline " $99 Lifetime iTunes and Amazon Distribution from Music Spray" simply parrots the claims of the South Korean digital distributor even through the obvious problem with the claim - will the company be in business in one, five or ten years? - is actually discussed in the fourth paragraph. Unfortunately, many people rarely get to the fourth paragraph. It doesn't matter that some people do not get to the first, second or third paragraphs. The damage was done once the company's marketing message was parroted in the headline.