Recently an operating system's error message included the word "help" in it. I added the error message to the title (always helpful for those perusing questions and most certainly for SERP placement) and of course got stiffarmed by ServerFault's word blacklist for titles. "Please do not use these words in titles: help" Now I cannot include the exact error message in the title (Google search results are now buzzkilled so future searchers are less likely to find it).

  1. Are we certain that this is the best way to handle the word help?
  2. Error messages that have the word help in them occur often enough, and including the error message in a question's title really... sunglasses ...helps.

Bonus question: Is there a canonical list of blacklisted words somewhere?

EDIT: Here's the question that spurred this post: The "Offer Remote Assistance" option is not working. Error: Your offer could not be sent

I see horrible things with help in the title. However, the horror appears to largely be unrelated to the word help. It's more because the titles are just... horrible. Focusing on removing the word help from question titles, at least in the current way it's done without an explicit encouragement to make a better title, is like seeing people getting sick from eating paste and only barring them from specifically eating Elmer's brand.

EDIT 2: I totally acknowledge that this little problem of mine is pretty irrelevant to the larger issues at play on the sites. I am of the opinion that blacklisted words don't help increase the quality of question titles but rather simply change the available words that the same quantity of bad question titles will have.

What would be the ultimate solution to bad question titles? An act of God. We cannot change human behavior and our tendency to the path of least immediate resistance. Only those who are repeat "customers" of ServerFault can have their behavior changed through exposure to the culture here. One or two-time posters won't be deterred from bad titles unless they have to jump through flaming hoops backwards to post. ("Make sure your title ends in a ? and has at least four English lexical categories. Proper usage of full syntactic categories as well as contractions will place your question higher. Bonus point for active voice.")

Really, I was mostly interested in people's perception of the value of blacklisted words. Seems pretty worthless to me. shrug

  • can you provide the exact message? Also, please to be enjoying the utter horror at this link: serverfault.com/search?q=title%3Ahelp – Jeff Atwood Oct 6 '11 at 5:42
  • Problem also appears to be on the banned in a subject list. – Iain Oct 6 '11 at 17:41
  • Maybe block them only when they are the first or last word of a title? "Problem with X" or "Not working, Help!" seem to be the major offenders. – Shane Madden Oct 6 '11 at 19:27
  • @ShaneMadden I had considered the possibility of barring it from being the first word. Look at the search for questions with help in the title. Most of the worst offenders are first or last word usage. – Wesley Oct 6 '11 at 19:54
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    @WesleyDavid "Help center won't launch - 'error frobbing the sprockets'" (to give a devil's advocate counterpoint where "Help" as the first word might be valid) – voretaq7 Oct 7 '11 at 2:18
  • Perhaps a compromise...if you use a "banned word" and it could be part of an error message instead of a "HELP ME WITH THIS PROBLEM!?" it could be flagged for community attention to reword or allow? – Bart Silverstrim Oct 7 '11 at 10:51
up vote 8 down vote accepted

I like the "allow users with X rep to bypass the blacklist" option that ChrisS suggested. It lets users who we as a community trust bypass a filter that's designed to keep the low-quality "HALP! HALP! ITS B0RKEN!" stuff out of our hair.
Two caveats:

  1. I would set the bar a bit higher than the "Established User" (1000) mark -- Maybe 1500?

  2. It should only be the title/words blacklist - It's too tempting for the more jaded among us to use LMGTFY links if we were freed from all blacklisting :-)

  • My rationale for 1500 rep is that it's pretty easy for an active user to hit 1000 in a short time. I think anywhere between 1500 and 5k makes sense but to put a softer/more meaningful threshold on it, you should need to be above say the 20th percentile rep-wise – voretaq7 Oct 7 '11 at 2:15
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    It's about time that people finally realized that, yes, it IS all about us. – Wesley Oct 7 '11 at 2:43
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    @WesleyDavid when designing a system always plan for the lowest common denominator. And judging by the Star Wall over in The Comms Room… – voretaq7 Oct 7 '11 at 3:04
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    Don't knock our star wall... – Bart Silverstrim Oct 7 '11 at 10:48
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    Mister @BartSilverstrim - Tear. Down. This. (Star.) Wall. – voretaq7 Oct 7 '11 at 14:35

I don't think there's a real need to put the error message in the title. However, if you feel it is necessary or desirable then stripping out the offending word, as you have done, is a small price to pay. The benefits of the blacklist far outweigh the downside. Of course that's just my opinion and you are perfectly free to disagree.

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    Agreed; though a good compromise might be to allow 1K+ Rep Users to bypass the blacklist. – Chris S Oct 6 '11 at 13:24
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    One of my main concern is for search engine results (the other being fighting human nature with spitwads). I know that, for my own blog, when I put exact error messages in the title of blog posts I can come close to beating a vendor's own KB / help files in search engine results. Without exact messages, your SERP ranking is significantly lowered. Then again, perhaps the number of error messages that include blacklisted words is low enough to not matter. Again, shrug. – Wesley Oct 6 '11 at 17:27

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