Manipulation of headlines in general and observations at the Huffington Post

– Text: Truth; Illustration: B. McCue –

{Author’s note: some of the techniques I’m going to introduce are simply common business practice today and are neither unique to the Huffington Post nor are they illegal, although Huff may top other outlets in the use of some widely practiced manipulation strategies.}

As Claire Cain Miller, New York Times wrote on NDTV:

The Huffington Post has hired veteran journalists to beef up its news coverage. But a significant chunk of its readers come instead for articles like one published this week: “Chelsy Davy & Prince Harry: So Happy Together?”

The two-sentence article was just a vehicle for a slide show of photographs of the couple and included no actual news. But “Chelsy Davy” was one of the top searches on Google that day, and soon after the article was published it became one of the first links that popped up in Google’s search results.

It was an example of an art and science at which The Huffington Post excels: search engine optimization, or S.E.O. The term covers a wide range of behind-the-scenes tactics for getting search engine users to visit a Web site, like choosing story topics based on popular searches. (…)

(…) There is a whole industry of search engine optimization and social media experts, and many of them have found jobs at Web publishers. Their standard strategies include things like filling articles with keywords that people might search for, writing teaser headlines that people cannot help but click on and including copious links to other stories on the same site. (…)

S.E.O. is “absolutely essential,” said Rich Skrenta, chief executive of the search engine Blekko. Still, he said, it can turn into a “heroin drip” for publishers: “They had this really good content at the beginning, but they realize the more S.E.O. they do, the more money they make, and the pressure really pushes down the quality on their sites. (

I think everybody who is familiar with the Huffington Post has encountered this trend ad nauseam and many have publicly and frequently complained about it – that is, when the comment didn’t fall prey to the dustbin.

Further, according to Zachary M. Seward there is yet another subtle method to adjust headlines in order to get more clicks, which is called A/B testing:

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. (…)

(…) 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. (…) ( )

Quite interesting! However, so far we are just talking about marketing techniques of which we oh-so-free-individuals generally simply are not aware. As I have come to know recently there are a few Planeteers who know from personal professional experience much more about advertising practices, and I sincerely hope they are going to share their knowledge with us soon – either here on the thread or in their own article.

Still, at the time when I used to comment at Huff a frequent occurrence was the annoying issue of bluntly misleading headlines. Since the number of them increased significantly over time, several questions regularly arose to my mind: why would a “progressive” outlet that abides by a certain standard resort to techniques like that? Or was there a possibility that the moral standard most of us starry-eyed liberals would expect in reality was non-existent at Huff? Or even worse: was there an agenda on its own?

Truly, I often wondered why the headlines were as inflammatory as possible in nature on a daily basis. To me it felt as if it was purely intentional and fights were incited on purpose. After all, it sure increases clicks (= revenue) when Progressives and Republicans fiercely fight each other for several hours a day.  And just in case someone secretly would like to weaken the Left, it would certainly be a good thing to not stop at that but to rile up the Left against each other as well. I suspect taking every opportunity to bash the President soon after he took office would be quite a sure path to achieve just that.

Needless to say that a fractured Left has no power. And needless to say that a demoralized Left, some of whose “own” (insert big fat question mark!) people are advocating not to vote – because the progress has allegedly been too slow – opens the door widely to the very forces that brought about the problems in the first place.

However, checking out the Huffington Post recently while searching for headline examples for this post revealed that the practice of bluntly misleading headlines seems not to be as rampant for the time being. Maybe with the bigger audience they have now, there is momentarily not such a dire need to coax people into getting upset to enhance the number of clicks. Plus the arrival of the AOL right-wingers on the scene ensures “naturally” that the fighting just goes on without any further aid from behind the scenes.  However, according to my observations during the past few days, which may not be sufficient to come to a valid conclusion, titles and articles matched more or less, with the exception of this one:


After clicking on it the second headline is: “Global Military Spending Hits High But Growth Slows”. Turns out the article is actually about how growth is slowing.

Oh how I don’t miss experiences like that! Further digging in the archives revealed a headline from January which was quite representative for how Huffington Post handled their headlines:

Dick Durbin Admits Senate May Face Health Care Repeal Vote”

What Durbin expressed: “Harry Reid has said we’re not going to bring up repeal of health care reform,” said Durbin. “If some Republican senator wants to offer it as an amendment at some point, it’s possible they will. It’s possible we’ll face that vote. But having spoken to my members in the Democratic caucus with Sen. Reid, we feel there’s still strong support for health care reform.”

Doesn’t sound that scary, after all. And frankly, the question arises why in the first place the headline was not taken from Schumer’s quote that followed later in the article:

During an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y. ) said, “If the Republicans offer an amendment on the floor, then we will require them to vote on the individual protections in the bill that are very popular and that even some of the new Republican House members have said they support.”.

But then, had this been the headline the message would have been supportive of the Democrats! Imagine the outrage, a message supportive of the Democrats on a so called major progressive outlet! Sadly it didn’t appear to me that it ever was a goal of the Huffington Post to strengthen them.

Part 4 of the series is going to deal in more detail with that issue and with the effect of misleading headlines on President Obama. See you next week!



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Great article, Emeralds! The thing I remember about PuffHo vis a vis their claim that the site is only a small percentage political–and that you address in the Davey reference–is that, yes, they have many more lifestyle type sections than they do political sections. But that is so disingenuous, because they are hardly any comments on those other sections. Davey might have been a big search engine term, but the vast VAST majority of the people going to PuffHo don’t go there for celebrity gossip. How does repeating the name Chelsea Davey give the site more eyes? What they seem to have accomplished way too well is this: if there is a story on Puff, that title will dominate Google. Many times while researching, say, Joe Biden, not only will a PuffHo title come up first on Google, but I was genuinely alarmed to see how many other news outlets–actual newspapers–repeated the Puffho article verbatim. The news has really become all aggregated by aggregators–very little original content. I am deeply troubled by this, especially since HP is so dominant.


I think we overestimated ourselves a tad over there… we were used and thrown away in favor of more clicks. After all, AH is not interested in progressive or conservative policies, as far as I observed she likes to have power.

Yet of course, when she launched the thing she started out as a counterweight to Drudge…… and was suddenly the Queen of Progressives. I would like to find out how she grabbed that title, I have not come to a reasonable conclusion yet.

Just yesterday I read in an article about AH that Huff is like a projection mirror: everyone sees something else in it. That picture was quite good. AH is such a chameleon that she can reflect just about everybody. (Chameleon was also the description her ex-husband gave of her after their divorce.)

Another article states: what is Huffington under her public persona? Her friends: more public persona.

***Edit: Here are two intersting quotes from

(…)On the other hand, Arianna Huffington told Politico that only 15 percent of their traffic goes to the political content on the site. While not surprising, this information might be somewhat sad news to those 6,000 bloggers who thought their audience was super-sized. (AlterNet averages 2.5 million unique visitors a month. Fifteen percent, of say, 20 million HufPo uniques, is only three million for politics. So any bloggers who are feeling sold out, feel free to head to AlterNet if you want an alternative.) (…)

So, that exposure thing doesn’t pay off too well, if you can reach the same amount of people on alternet.

As for the chameleon:

But then HuffPo always was a giant projection screen, being many things to many different people. In fact, that is part of Arianna Huffington’s brilliance. To a large degree, the value of the HuffPo brand lies in Arianna’s ability to create a very large tent among media, intellectuals, progressives, moderates, insiders, outsiders, and even conservatives, all pleased to be playing on Arianna’s stage.

***Edit: In the New Yorker article about AH from 2008 is written that politics is 50% of the traffic on Huff. So it looks like at that time it still was!


Cher, I forgot to reply to this: Huff comes up first in google searches exactly because of S.E.O. – Search Engine Optimization. Not only do they spike their articles with tags (which we can do here on The Planet too, if we choose to) which then in turn are easily detectable for the search machines. Another strategy seems to be that they first check what is buzzing, then they choose their content accordingly, sometimes like in the example above just by putting up a few pics. Next thing that happens is that their
stuff pops up first when someone googles the Buzzword – et voilà – this ensures them in turn more clicks.

The aggregation issue is yet another story and it is why the contents of most msm articles became so flat. It reduces costs if one copies another instead of doing research, which uses an incredible amount of time and energy.


Hi Emerald Project Team – thank you for this, if only for reminding me I was not nuts. The headlines did NOT reflect reality.

What was always scary though is how many people would rant against Obama or Congress based exclusively on the headline and NOT the story. You could tell who had and who had not read beyond the EXCLAMATION POINTS. Very few had read the text. Now that’s worrisome!

Thank you EP staff for outing the facts behind HP and how it works. It would be very fine if others could see what you wrote – it might be eye opening to would-be progressives who THINK they learned something over at HP. But then they’d have to admit they’d been snookered, and that’s as likely as Arianna’s becoming Obama’s biggest supporter.



Thank you choicelady, the juicier stuff is yet to come…

As for the people: many are so easily duped, no wonder that some smart heads try just with how much they can get away. Even some of the Left abandoned their own critical thinking skills in favor of ranting pudnuts’ drivel recently in anticipation what the President may say or not.

As for reading the articles at Huff: I know what you mean, a lot of people didn’t even read them and went right to the “battlefield”. But then, I understand them perfectly well, for the articles were usually quite bad. The information came from some good posters!

And Madame H thinks that there are no traces of her past incarnations on the Internet left, but that assessment might prove a little wrong.


Truth – Very good point about the headlines in this article and I have also noticed that they haven’t been as flagrantly false and misleading since the takeover. I like your point about the people going straight to the “battlefield” which would always become obvious from their comments. I’m so glad I found this site because I had tired of the negativity of HP, but what does the future hold if only a few companies own all the media and the masses are so easily manipulated?


Media reform – that should be the next project. I hope that someone is going to take that on…


“battlefield” is exactly the right word to describe the comments section at times. That atmosphere seems to have been what drove away so many of the very best, most articulate, thoughtful and informed commenters, leaving only a skeleton crew of shouty, sound-bitey folks with little to add to the discussion but “RandomRepublicanName is RandomInsult”. I’m not entirely convinced that it was HP policy alone that led to it, though.


Not just the headlines — sometimes there were very misleading photographs as well. One article about the Jewish community in The Netherlands, for instance, was illustrated with a photo of people draped in Israeli flags. An article about banning the burka showed women dressed in salwar kameez. And yet another article, about Bradley Manning, had a close-up shot of Julian Assange. A picture tells a thousand words…