Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jakob Nielsen Doesn't Appreciate "Scent-Baiting"

Usability Czar Jakob Nielsen has just released his review of the world's best web headlines. He was looking for who created the most precise communication in a handful of words. He gave his award to BBC News for "offering remarkable headline usability. " I have to agree with him. The BBC News website does a lot things wonderfully, not just crafting extraordinary headlines. Here are some of his guidelines for web headlines:

  • short (because people don't read much online);
  • rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
  • front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
  • understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
  • predictable, so users know whether they'll like the full article before they click (because people don't return to sites that promise more than they deliver).

Where I find fault with Jakob's review is that he assumes that the task is boolean. In the current, disastrous state of most newspaper organizations, getting eyeballs on news items takes more than just precision-crafted headlines. Last year I wrote about "scent-baiting" on AOL. AOL has nurtured this style over the last year, adding more pages of tantalizing blurbs.

At first, this style bothered me. Over the last year I've clicked on more stories on AOL than I care to admit to. This was, of course, AOL's goal because they got paid for every news page I served up. Those headlines teased me enough to get me to click. I needed to know what was the "act" that a pair got caught doing on the Queen's lawn. What "Nation's" women are planning a sex strike? What was that "unusual buddy" found by that ancient mummy? If they were explicit, I don't think I'd click on most of these headlines. If you're a news organization, would you follow Jakob's guidelines or AOL's? Ka-ching rules.