Huffington Post and the Art of the Headline

Everyone’s heard The Huffington Post described as the Drudge Report of the left, but someone once told me that they thought of the HuffPo as the New York Post for liberals, which I think makes a lot of sense. Both share a refined taste for the salacious, lowbrow, and downright distasteful; both take an almost palpable pleasure in writing eyeball-grabbing headlines on such subjects, though the way they go about grabbing eyeballs is quite different.

The content isn’t all that different. The seedy tabloid underbelly of the progressive HuffPo, dedicated to nipple slips and upskirt shots, is a sort of constant stream of gossipy Page Six material.

As Mary Elizabeth Williams once wrote for Salon:

… For a site that has attracted a stellar roster of contributors and is an admirable model of innovative social media experimentation, it’s a bummer to watch HuffPo lazily relying on a steady diet of T & A and crotch grabby headlines. It’s just so … Old Media.

There is something distinctly old media about this “sex sells” approach, though HuffPo’s unabashed attempts to draw clicks—all of which could be headlined simply “Boobs!”—are in this way not as clever as the classic, pun-tastic New York Post headlines thought up by the paper’s ingenious copywriters (See: “Headless Body Found In Topless Bar”). As Williams wrote in her open letter to HuffPo,

If the 838 comments regarding Jennifer Connelly’s see-through dress or the 755 debating the best chest in Hollywood don’t make you consider changing the name of your own site to, you are far less cynical than I.

But though the wordplay in HuffPo headlines isn’t necessarily as clever as the Post’s, the system behind them is pretty genius.

The HuffPo is well-known for excelling in the dark arts of search engine optimization, keywording its posts so they often show up higher in a Google search than the actual original piece that the post is about.

But they are also known to employ a time-tested advertising technique, using an A/B approach to testing headlines, writing two or more to see which gets the most clicks in the first few minutes. The winner becomes the site-wide headline.

And, in September 2009, Huffington Post began a less scientific, but no less clever experiment in occasionally soliciting (non boob-related) headlines from readers—a brilliant stunt that capitalizes on those millions of eyeballs and gets readers excited to participate. Headline-winners, thrilled to have their words chosen, then crow about it on Twitter where even more eyeballs see it.

But when HuffPo isn’t using its readers to write headlines or filing items under “Boobs!,” it simply tricks its readers into clicking on things that sound like they might feature boobs. Take, for example, the recent headline: “Tiger Woods Sex (Video).” You might think you’d be seeing a leaked sex video of Tiger Woods with one of his many barmaid paramours. Instead you will see tigers. In the woods. Having sex. It’s a nature video, with zero news value, better suited for a NOVA special.

And then there’s the downright puerile, when HuffPo sheds any pretense about the actual content of the material and simply, gleefully snickers out loud with headlines like this one: “Walrus Oral Sex: Pleasures Self in Sex Act at Aquarium.”

Back in January, our Megan Garber linked to the walrus post with the simple line, “Guess Who?”

HuffPo, that’s who. So until they switch their name to, which as far as I can tell is an unclaimed domain name (hint!), here’s to the HuffPo and the art of the headline. Happy Birthday.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.