HOME
          
LATEST STORY
How The Forward, 118 years old, is remaking itself as the American Jewish community changes
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 14, 2009, 10 a.m.

How The Huffington Post uses real-time testing to write better headlines

From direct mail to web design, A/B testing is considered a gold standard of user research: Show one version to half your audience and another version to the other half; compare results, and adjust accordingly. Some very cool examples include Google’s obsessive testing of subtle design tweaks and Dustin Curtis’ experiment with direct commands and clickthrough rates. (“You should follow me on Twitter” produced dramatically better results than the less moralizing, “Follow me on Twitter.”)

So here’s something devilishly brilliant: The Huffington Post applies A/B testing to some of its headlines. Readers are randomly shown one of two headlines for the same story. After five minutes, which is enough time for such a high-traffic site, the version with the most clicks becomes the wood that everyone sees.

Headlines have always played the most promotional role in news, charged with selling readers on the articles they adorn, so it only makes sense to apply the best tools of market research to their crafting. Think of it as a more rigorous version of magazines adjusting their covers based on newsstand sales.

Paul Berry, chief technology officer at The Huffington Post, spoke briefly about their real-time headline testing on a panel at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco earlier this month. When I talked to him afterwards, Berry said the system was created inhouse, but he wouldn’t disclose much else about how or how often it’s done. He did say Huffington Post editors have found that placing the author’s name above a headline almost always leads to more clicks than omitting it.

Though it’s unrelated to this A/B testing, The Huffington Post’s new social media editor, Josh Young, has also been soliciting better headlines from readers on Twitter. That’s not as awesomely scientific, but it’s a pretty good use of the crowd.

Studying and responding to users was the theme of Berry’s panel, which also included Steve Dorsey, who conducts qualitative research on reader behavior for the Detroit Free Press, and Eric Brown, homepage planning editor for Yahoo.

Brown said Yahoo closely tracks clickthroughs to measure which content does well with which audiences, as illustrated in his slide below. Yahoo may eventually use that data to serve, say, teenage girls a different version of the front page than they serve to middle-aged men. (Brown’s entire presentation from ONA is here.)

On the topic of audience segmentation, Berry told me that The Huffington Post is considering separate East Coast and West Coast editions. He used the example of morning-after Oscars coverage, when readers flock to slideshows and blog posts about the event. But the story is old news to East Coast readers by noon, when the West Coast is only first logging on, so it would make sense to serve New Yorkers fresher headlines while Californians get their Oscars fix. Identifying readers’ location from their IP address is easy, but coordinating different editions of the site would be a challenge.

POSTED     Oct. 14, 2009, 10 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
How The Forward, 118 years old, is remaking itself as the American Jewish community changes
The newspaper, first published in Yiddish, is facing all the familiar pressures of print, combined with a shifting base of potential readers.
Newsonomics: Are local newspapers the taxi cabs of the Uber age?
Local newspapers still act as if they’re monopolies — despite all the new players eating away at their audiences’ attention. Is there room to adapt?
The Dallas Morning News is building data (and sources) through its new Rolodex tool
The open-source tool lets reporters contribute contacts to a centralized newsroom collection of sources — but it can also be used to build larger reader-facing data products.
What to read next
2401
tweets
The Economist’s Tom Standage on digital strategy and the limits of a model based on advertising
“The Economist has taken the view that advertising is nice, and we’ll certainly take money where we can get it, but we’re pretty much expecting it to go away.”
889A wave of distributed content is coming — will publishers sink or swim?
Instead of just publishing to their own websites, news organizations are being asked to publish directly to platforms they don’t control. Is the hunt for readers enough to justify losing some independence?
448This is my next step: How The Verge wants to grow beyond tech blogging
“We want to use technology as a way to define pop culture, in the way Rolling Stone used music and Wired used the early Internet.”
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Fuego is our heat-seeking Twitter bot, tracking the links the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about most on Twitter.
Here are a few of the top links Fuego’s currently watching.   Get the full Fuego ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Conde Nast
Politico
O Globo
MinnPost
GlobalPost
The Globe and Mail
NBC News
Flipboard
The New Republic
E.W. Scripps
The Atlantic
Drudge Report