Today I edited out a section off a question that looked like the following:

<sub>search keywords: double array, first line, second line, third line, numbers, entries</sub>

When rendered:

search keywords: double array, first line, second line, third line, numbers, entries

What the heck? I thought to myself and removed it, because I thought it wouldn't be appropriate. In response to this edit, I received a mail from the author of this line, asking why I had removed it. I didn't know how to answer except for that I didn't think it was appropriate or sensible to have this "SEO" line there. I was then pointed to another question by the same user, employing the exact same way of adding metainformation to the question:

search keywords: Microsoft Excel 2007, MS Excel 2010; BIFF, Binary Interchange File Format, OOXML, OpenXML; component, toolkit, API, SDK

He says it's a good way to adding extra phrases that other users can search for. Tags don't seem to be flexible enough for him to express the key concepts of these questions.

Is this an allowed and even sensible practice on SO? I doubt it very much, but I'd like to hear your opinions.

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    I'm suspect of his justification: "Look, I did this once before, so it's obviously allowed and good practice!" – Cody Gray Mar 11 '12 at 1:33
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    "the author" here. :) @NiklasB.: thanks for taking the time to post this question (and in a complete manner)! – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 15:10
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    @accolade: Thanks for following up :) – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 15:12
  • "He just pointed out that the tags alone wouldn't have enabled anyone find that specific question." - that is not at all what I said either. I meant it to be helpful, not necessary, in searching. Which implies that some people will find it only with the keywords and some/most will find it in any case. – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 15:13
  • @accolade: Sorry, removed that comment. Still, the answerers are right, if this pile of keywords would help anyone find a specific question, then probably he wasn't searching for it in the first place. – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 15:15
  • @CodyGray: No no, I just pointed to a better example of using those search keywords (which I added to the question here now) - not implying any more acceptability. ;) – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 15:19
  • @Arjan: Look at the edit history, I even linked to it in my question. – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 15:35
  • Aha, so for the first question it was not even the OP who added the search words. – Arjan Mar 11 '12 at 15:37
  • Yup, which hopefully shows that I had no malicious intentions. ;) I just wanted to make the information better available/findable to people looking for it. – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 16:15
  • Very brave having your email published like that ;) – Lix Mar 11 '12 at 17:41
  • @Lix: Hehe yeah, that's just a disposable forwarding alias. – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 17:51
  • Why the recent interest in this question? Has a similar case occured? :P – Niklas B. Mar 19 '14 at 0:58

Keyword spamming like that is the fault of the user ejaculating all over the post in a way that naturally working the words in fails them.

If there are other words to describe a problem, then use those words in parentheses within reason. No need to leave pit stains all over the thesaurus with the excitement of throwing up all kinds of synonyms.

Other techniques include just plainly correcting the spelling of those that are shortened, (e.g. 1st → first) or actually take some time to lay out the question in full sentences without shorting everything in the first place and then squeezing out a dump of words at the trail.

Alternative wording does help for potential searches that never happen. But spritzing it like that muddies the waters for everyone.

  • Thank you for this elaborate, yet a bit drastic, answer ;) – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 15:05
  • Thank you for the advice on workarounds for those search keywords; if in somewhat… 'corporal' language. ;) The term "keyword spamming" might elicit false associations, since I only added relevant terms, not "Britney Spears nude pixx omg". – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 15:32
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    @accolade: I think what he means is that those search keywords are in fact only a workaround for improper wording of the question itself. – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 18:16

Is this an allowed and even sensible practice on SO?

I would think not. This is exactly what tags are for. If you can't express what categories your question fits into in 5 tags, then your question is probably too broad.

I think you did the right thing in editing that part of the question out.

  • 3
    Or too localized. – H.B. Mar 11 '12 at 2:01
  • Thank you, this was pretty much what I thought. – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 2:09
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    There is a reason why the SO search facilities search the full text of the question, not only its title and tags. Your answer seems to indicate that only searching these should be enough for all cases, which I strongly disagree with. – MvG Oct 17 '12 at 7:24

I recently answered a question which at the moment is titled

Hot to find the closest free points on grid

The typo is not the issue here. Now I wonder whether anyone is likely to find that question and its answers, using the search facilities SO provides. One problem is the high number of potential synonyms (or at least synonyms in this context):

  • grid = lattice = integer vectors = pixel offset
  • distance = length = euclidean norm = radius = radii
  • increasing = ascending
  • ordered = sorted = in order
  • closest = nearest
  • shape = object

Other answers here have suggested including these alternatives into the main body of the question, but that doesn't feel right here. Putting another name in parentheses after the main term will make the text harder to read, and add no value to the reader, as the synonyms are clear and obvious enough so they don't help towards understanding the text. Using different words in different places would cause me as a reader to wonder whether the change in terms implies a change in semantics as well, so that would be quite confusing.

You might also argue that as the alternatives are obvious, the searcher could simply try different forms. But keep in mind that there are multiple keywords with multiple alternatives, so the searcher would have to not only try all possible words, but all possible combinations of words. Given the fact that SO apparently uses the disjunction (“OR”) of its search terms, it might even work to specify all terms in a single query, but this aspect of the search is far from obvious, and results matching more words will still get sorted to the top, so you can't differentiate whether a post really matched more of the concepts you requested, or simply more alternatives of the same concept.

So I thought about adding a separate section. Perhaps not titled “Search keywords” but instead “Alternative titles” or similar, which would contain a bullet list of alternatively phrased question titles that among them contain all the relevant keywords. I wouldn't make the section artificially small, as I think that a reader might want to read these as well, and if not, he can simply skip the list after he figured out its nature. The list would probably look something like this:

Alternative titles:

  • Enumerating integer vectors in order of increasing length
  • Finding nearest lattice points matching some criterion
  • Generating pixel offset coordinates sorted by ascending euclidean norm
  • Placing objects on grid avoiding overlapping shapes and minimizing distance

But seeing this discussion here makes me wonder whether that approach would be acceptable. So I'll wait for a few more votes here, and see which directions they take, before employing that technique.

  • 1
    Excellent answer - in idea, arguments and example! Thanks! (I suggest "Alternative Question Title wordings" (or "Alternative Titles" if you want to keep it short) for more clarity. "Alternative questions" sounds to me like unlinked references to related but separate Questions.) – Aaron Thoma Mar 18 '14 at 15:45

keywords === tags*, anything else describing the nature of the post is noise.

A question (poster/editor) should use appropriately to correctly describe the technologies, platforms and issues discussed within the post.
The most clear advantage I can see (other than grouping then together) is spelling mistakes within the tags and also small variations. For this, the dedicated SE team gave us tag synonyms.
IMO - Anything else that is added (in the likes of keywords, complementary tags, etc...)
Is just N̐O͇̹̺ͅiŚ͖̩͇̗̪̏̈́e.

If anything other than the are needed then they should appear in the body of the question as part of the specificity that is required on SO.

* Lets not get all literal now - I mean within this context

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    I think what's even more important then the body is the title of the question, because that's what people see first when looking at search results. – Niklas B. Mar 11 '12 at 18:09
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    I stronlgy believe keywords != tags: The former try to reflect words users might use to search this specific questions, whereas the latter categorize and group similar questions. For me, keywords are thinks I enter into a search field without brackets, while tags are things I enter with brackets. As I use both, they are not the same. – MvG Oct 17 '12 at 7:26
  • @mvg - I'm not saying that tags are the same as keywords. However if a user manually adds keywords as stated in the OP it becomes noise. – Lix Oct 17 '12 at 8:43

So from this question, its two answers so far [as of 2012-03-11 16:12] and their votes I take it that search keywords in the <sub> form at the end of a posting are not favored by the community.

I would be curious about where you see the disadvantages (I couldn't find any in your writings, only opinions and alternatives, which is fine). I figure you see it as distracting non-helpful clutter for the reader who has already found the respective thread? To alleviate that, I made them small and put them at the end after a double blank line.

Taking that idea further, one could attempt to make them entirely invisible to the browsing user – akin to the deprecated HTML keywords <meta> tag. But that fact, that the keywords tag has been abandoned, admittedly suggests that similar approaches, with the same intention, are not a good idea either (anymore).

Well, now I'm curious whether it would work in principle at least, so here's testing a few ideas [2016]:

  • (1 pixel) image: → ImageAltTextHiddenWord
    • Alt text
    • optional title
  • URL:
    • unused parameter: https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/125281/164541?UrlParameterNameUnHiddenWord=UrlParameterValueUnHiddenWord:
      • name
      • value
    • optional title

Preliminary result: StackExchange search indexes none of these 5 text locations.

Now we have to wait a little bit until Google has reindexed this page. Search links for "2016-12-05_post_indexed": https://www.google.com/search?q=2016-12-05_post_indexed and https://meta.stackexchange.com/search?q=2016-12-05_post_indexed

Any other ideas?

Shortcomings of tags as substitutes for search keywords, as perceived by me:

  • There's a max of 5 per question.
  • They are not so well suited for (potential search) phrases of several words.
  • They are meant only for important concepts, not alternative formulations (possibly specific to the post) etc..


Not-working attempts at hiding text

  • Background (white) colored text: That HTML code would be stripped by StackExchange.

Broken: Nesting <sub>s

The following approach used to work as of 2012. It doesn't anymore (as of 2016).

I had written:

[O]ne could make [the search keywords] effectively invisible by nesting enough <sub>s:

One could make them much smaller so that they're not readable anymore, but the strange looking result might possibly prove even more distracting

Having the browser zoom at 100%, the text disappeared with 15 <sub>s for me. To make sure, one could go for 30. Sounds crazy, but why not?

Now the 4th+ <sub>s fail to further shrink the text. (Chrome version 54.)

Doesn't work: HTML comment <!-- … -->

I wrote in 2012:

Another option would be an HTML comment. With this answer post, I will test if Google and the SO search will pick that up: (--> <-- Invisible HTML comment is invisible (except in the source code)!)

Result: Neither Google nor StackExchange search index it.

  • Why would there be a need for tagging a post as well as manually specifying the tags within the post? – Lix Mar 11 '12 at 16:49
  • @Lix: I'm not talking about duplicating tags, but complementing them. – Aaron Thoma Mar 11 '12 at 17:07
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    If there is any relevant information then it should appear as a tag or in the body of the question as part of the specificity that is required on Stack Overflow. Anything else is just noise. – Lix Mar 11 '12 at 17:21
  • I would say the the title is where you should be putting phrases of relevant words... otherwise how is a future person with the same problem to recognise that they have found the relevant question? – ben is uǝq backwards Mar 11 '12 at 17:27
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    @Ben: the title is where the question should be summarized. Tags do not belong in the title. – John Saunders Mar 11 '12 at 18:04
  • @JohnSaunders, I wasn't suggesting that you should put tags in the title, merely that if the title should adequately explain the problem. – ben is uǝq backwards Mar 11 '12 at 18:22
  • @Ben: sorry, thought you meant something like "C# ASP.NET WCF SOAP WSDL Difficulty" – John Saunders Mar 11 '12 at 18:49
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    I'm against hiding the text, be it through nested <sub>s or other means, as that feels like cheating. But I strongly agree with asking about disadvantages up front. Therefore +1 – MvG Oct 17 '12 at 8:54

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