There’s provocative story today in Online Journalism Review by Robert Niles in which he argues that learning search engine optimization is more important than learning Associated Press style.

For years now, we’ve seen the erosion of quality journalism through staff layoffs and buyouts, the shrinking of physical newsprint, the reduction in the number of beats covered, significant budget cuts, a growing emphasis on “alternative story forms” that often do little to tell a better story and an industry-wide emphasis on speed over accuracy.

But suggesting that AP style — which is a standardized writing style to make copy an easier read for broad audiences — should take a back seat to awkwardly worded headlines designed to pump up your Google results, indicates that something is very wrong. You’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure. You’ll have a popularly-searched term (they call it a “keyword”), followed by a colon, followed by a sentence that often (but not always) repeats that search term.

I’ll give you an example. I covered the death of Anna Nicole Smith, since it was a local story in Fort Lauderdale. A “well-done” SEO headline might read:

Anna Nicole Smith dies: Anna Nicole Smith found dead at Hard Rock hotel

That’s a keyword-heavy headline that should excite Google’s robots to no end. To the human though? Not very exciting. Here’s the headline and subhead we did run:

Mystery surrounds celebrity’s death
Anna Nicole Smith, 39, collapses at Hard Rock in Hollywood

I’d argue the second is far more intriguing and powerful than the first. Subsequent stories had even better headlines that would lose oomph with SEO techniques: “Smith tragedy may be jackpot for Hard Rock/ Coverage will likely increase hotel’s profile”, “Smith’s death still `a medical puzzle’/ No illegal drugs are found in her suite at Hard Rock hotel.”

Here’s why I’m not bingeing on “Google juice”:
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