Every Onion article starts with a great headline:
Once the editors approve a headline, a writer amasses 150 to 900 words to support it. This method has served the Onion well for many years. It’s a perfect system for writing fake news.
The problem is that, in an attempt to game search engines, this is pretty much how purportedly real news organizations work too. The Huffington Post is one such offender, with articles like “What Time Does the Superbowl Start?” whose only purpose is to gain top rankings in Google search results. It’s non-news like this that makes following links to the Huffington Post such a crapshoot: You never know whether you’ll find real news, or a snippet of an article from another publication, or time-wasters not intended for human consumption.
Because HuffPost is successful, there are scores of copycats polluting the Web. Google’s recent algorithm change seeks to address this problem but may not go far enough. After all, a large part of the problem is us. (“What Time Does The Superbowl Start” has over 3,000 “likes” on Facebook.)
The Jesus Lizard, one of my favorite bands, uses the Onion approach for song titles. The bassist and guitarist write music, come up with a name for the song, and then hand it off to the singer, David Yow, to write lyrics. This system has given us gems like “If You Had Lips,” “My Own Urine,” and “Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along” (and these are just from their first LP).
What can be done? Well, until online publications begin randomly substituting headlines with Jesus Lizard song titles—thus putting SEO out of business—we can do our part by not visiting websites that flagrantly appeal to search engines over humans. It won’t be easy; we’ll have to hover over those hyperlinks to see where they go before we click. And for cryin’ out loud, go easy on the “like” button!