Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

The problem with XML feeds.

Aggregators of XML feeds have come into their own in the last six months. I like them. They work. But they expose a serious deficiency among bloggers, a deficiency which journalists generally do not have. Bloggers write the worst headlines. Most feed aggregators show a list of headlines from sites which offer feeds. You click the headlines you want in order to read the linked item. The headline is often the only information you see, except perhaps the name of the publishing site, which is only marginally more informative. In my feed reader, NetNewsWire, there are at this moment these headlines: animal house
Jaybird There’s not enough information in any of those. Although I clearly pulled four of the weakest sample headlines, I’d say most blog headlines are like these. Why bother having a feed at all? Such empty headlines undermine the primary usefulness of the aggregators, which is to allow the reader to save time by not requiring that dozens of individual web pages be loaded and checked for new content. With weak headlines, time is spent anyway, either in pausing to determine what, exactly, the headline is referring to, or in clicking on the link to solve the mystery. Even a secondary usefulness is undermined: instead of providing another entry point to blog content, opaque headlines are only slightly better than no headline at all. We are less likely to click on the link because the headline does not promise compelling content. I intentionally chose the headlines above because they belong to bloggers I know or consider professional enough to respond intelligently to, or at least defend themselves from, any criticisms I make here, and to demonstrate another point: ineffective headlines are devaluing the content of some of the best weblogs out there. (And now my referrer logs zoom by as everyone pores through my archives to find all the atrocious headlines I’ve ever written). Now look at some journalists’ headlines from my aggregator: Baghdad’s exploded bombs
Bird flu suspected in Belgium
First female journalist dies in Iraq Healthy, informative, fully-formed headlines. Very useful. I have a clear idea of what I will be getting. I think part of the problem may be that many of the blogging packages include a headline field which must be filled, either because the software won’t accept the entry without it, or because the headline serves as the identifier in archives. There almost has to be a headline. Writing headlines is difficult. It takes a master. In journalism schools, a good deal of time is spent teaching people how to write tightly, and headlines (and cutlines) are a part of that. Tabloids like the New York Post and the New York Daily News try to summarize the day’s most important story on the front page in just one or two words, every single day. The Internet, with its utter lack of word limits and its infinite space, does not promote writing tightly (witness my own verbosity and surplusage), and certainly does not lend itself to any kind of short form summarizing. Yet, that’s what the XML feeds are: summaries. It depends on the version of RSS used, and the type of feed auto-updated by your feed generator, but for each entry, you get the first 100 words or so in the description, and 99 or so characters in the title. It’s almost a call for the inverted pyramid to dominate on the Internet, so that the most important parts of any blog entry will automatically be included in the feeds, but I’ll settle for better headlines. No blogger I know isn’t interested in at least a little more traffic. Those XML feeds aren’t just a public service, they’re an invitation for others to visit your site. Better headlines equal more traffic. The formerly omnipresent Jakob Nielsen has a useful article from four and a half years ago on writing headlines, but I’d like to embellish on his themes. I am less qualified than Mr. Nielsen, but I do have two small sources of expertise to draw on: One, I used to edit and compose newspapers. I remember a good deal about positioning content to make it attractive to readers, and to make it invite them, in many different ways, to read. Two, I remember hand-coding a RDF file in 1999, when such things were used primarily as side boxes on Slash code-based sites, and for the My Netscape start pages. I bloody well slaved over those headlines in those feeds and many times they were unique, offering information or opinions available nowhere else on the site. — Write your headlines as long as necessary, but tight. — Hook me. Make me want to read. — Information wins out over cleverness. Take the mystery out. — The headline should be able to stand alone.

author avatar
Grant Barrett