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  • Writer's pictureJordana Weiss

Word Salad Titles: How Did We Get Here?

Before I was a content writer, one of my favorite TV shows in university was Boston Legal.

cast photo of Boston Legal season two

Don’t laugh.

It definitely doesn’t age well, but there’s one scene that stuck with me. In Season 2 Episode 21, Alan Shore (played by the inimitable James Spader) suddenly starts speaking word salad, which according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “unintelligible, extremely disorganized speech or writing manifested as a symptom of a mental disorder (such as schizophrenia).”

The show used word salad as a plot device for a few episodes, sending stressed-out Alan and his best bud Denny (William Shatner) to a spa to platonically hold hands, indulge in face masks, and relax in an attempt to cure the chronic stress that was causing Alan’s word salad.

Two men holding hands at a spa

When re-watching that episode recently, something hit me. The word salad that was pouring out of Alan’s mouth like water sounded strangely familiar- more familiar than it did back in 2006 when the episode first aired. It took a few minutes, but I realized that word salad was starting to have a more familiar ring because we’re used to reading it every single day.

(Key)Word Salad Titles

In an effort to catch the attention of readers (and more likely, the elusive Google Algorithm), writers are stuffing so many keywords into their titles that they’ve become the written equivalent of word salad.

Some particularly bad offenders include:

I'll give you $5,000 right now if you can tell me what this article is about just by reading the title.

Weight shake weight loss shake weight loss. Repeat twice for a great pre-public speaking tongue twister.

The phrase 'accelerate business innovation' is the type of corporate-speak that most people can't stand. This content may perform well on places like LinkedIn, but most of the time it just makes people wish that you could just say what you mean, rather than corporate jargon that performs well but obscure the real topic of your article.

All of these are legitimate headlines. Check them out for yourself.

These titles make it difficult to tell what each article is about. Most of them are so stuffed with keywords that it’s hard to believe they offer readers anything that’s relevant or interesting.

Don’t fall into the trap of publishing content that looks like this. Headlines like these turn readers off. No one wants to be talked to like a child, and you’re not doing anyone any favors by continuing to treat keywords as the gold standard of effective content marketing.

The History of Keyword Stuffing

It's unfortunate to admit, but keyword stuffing actually used to work really well. People caught on to this, and were indiscriminately filling their websites and article titles with their chosen keywords. Sometimes they even added a block of keyword text to an article in the same color font as the footer. This meant that a casual reader wouldn't see the stack of keywords, but the Google Algorithm would still recognize them and would give the page a more favorable ranking.

Around 2012, the engineers at Google wised up to this shady technique. Google's then-head of web spam Matt Cutts warned webmasters at SXSW 2012 about the new policy, saying:

"We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and a great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now."

Soon after Matt's speech, Google released an algorithm update that specifically targeted the practice of keyword stuffing. Now, the practice is considered a 'black hat' SEO technique.

man in black hat and mask
Ooh scary

This means that Google will actively penalize your site if they catch you doing it, forcing your online property down in rankings or even removing it from the internet completely.

There Has to Be a Better Way!

There are tons of ways that writers, editors, and marking teams can craft effective headlines that inspire readers to click through and read. Here are some tactics that I've found more effective than keyword stuffing.

Keep It Short

Search engines cut headlines off after 65 characters. If you don’t want your headline to read “The Rise and Fall of New Year’s Fitness Resolutions, in 5 ...”, you’ll need to shorten it. All headlines should be a complete explanation of the article topic. The better readers understand the headline, the better they’ll be able to judge if it’s something they’re interested in reading. Don’t be afraid of using numbers, either. They visually shorten the title and let your readers know what kind of length to expect.

Spark Their Curiosity

There are a lot of ways that you can get readers interested in your content. Connecting to someone’s curiosity is a good way to encourage them to click through and read. Cultivating a sense of urgency helps, but it’s best to do it honestly. Cite a relevant but shocking fact in the title, or begin with your most salient and emotional point. Articles that contain the phrase “...And You’ll Never BELIEVE What Happens Next” are devastating to your credibility.

Invite The Reader In

Start your headline with a question, or feature one person’s opinion while inviting readers to weigh in. A question can start a conversation, and invites readers to put themselves into your story. Humans are naturally selfish creatures, and a great way to get us interested in anything is to invite us into the action. Articles or blog posts that encourage the reader to think critically about their opinions or point of view are extremely valuable.

Use Keywords Intelligently

It’s a good practice to keep keywords the focal point of your headline- and not just because they’re capital ‘K’ keywords. Readers should naturally be able to figure out what your piece is about- they shouldn’t have to scan over 7-10 words before the subject comes up.

Crafting reader-focused headlines is a key step in the content creation process. Your headline lets readers know what to expect, establishes your credibility, and invites them to continue their journey into the body of the work itself. You can write the best piece in the world, but if no one clicks past the headline, it’s all for nothing.

If you think this is all BS and you want to take a chance on some word salad titles, Portent’s Content Idea Generator is a fun tool that you can use for headline inspiration. Take it with a grain of salt, though.

However, if you think this makes a lot of sense, and you want to build some high-performance content for your business together, get in touch with me here.


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