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I saw a question on the front page of Stack Overflow that had a title that intrigued me.
If you search for a keyword: question you will find a set of what I would consider poorly titled. You see, questions with "question" in the title will hardly ever contain a question in the title at all.

So we have 3720 poorly, similarly, titled questions. Who has an idea on how to fix them?

Update: If you search title:question you get over 5000+

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16  
Git t' editin'! –  Rob Hruska Aug 11 '11 at 14:32
6  
Well, let's see... You have the ability to suggest edits to posts on Stack Overflow (like all users), and if those edits are good, they'll be approved and you'll net +2 rep for each one. So it sounds like a good way to spend a rainy day to me. :-) –  Cody Gray Aug 11 '11 at 14:32
3  
Don't you mean title:question? –  Jason Plank Aug 11 '11 at 15:20
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@Jason Plank 5000+ It's like when you're watching a summer horror film like cloverfield and they show the monster, then an explosion goes off and you realize the thing they showed you was just a tentacle. –  James Aug 11 '11 at 15:21
    
Lol, 52 points for editing and still rolling –  James Aug 11 '11 at 16:03
2  
These were the final some edits needed for my second gold badge, thanks! –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 12 '11 at 20:00
    
There's >= 10 more Copy Editor badges in this pile. –  James Aug 12 '11 at 20:01
    
Another similar word: "help". –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 13 '11 at 19:54
    
And another one: "problem". –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 13 '11 at 20:20
    
I also got the new Archaeologist badge, supposedly partly for this. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 15 '11 at 10:05
    
See also: "doubt". –  jtbandes Aug 21 '11 at 20:33
    
.... just done the same search on SharePoint overflow... It seems that there is also much work to do there. –  SPArchaeologist Oct 19 '12 at 7:06

7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted
+500

Indeed, there are a lot of badly-titled questions in there. Time for a posse!

Pick a badly titled question. Edit the title. There are conflicting opinions as to what constitutes a good title; browse these meta questions. Be sure to edit the body and tags as well, if you can improve them. And if you find a question where the title is useless and the body doesn't make sense either, especially if it's lingering unanswered, vote (or flag) to close. Oh, and don't forget to vote if you happen on a question that deserves it (one way or another).

It would be better to concentrate on the worst problems first. There are two priorities:

  • Fixing the most important questions.
  • Fixing the worst titles.

The most important questions are to a first approximation the questions with the most views. Highly scored questions matter too: there are perhaps gems that have escaped notice due to a poor title. Try starting with the Greatest Hits list at

http://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/greatest-hits

(obviously, edit the URL to reflect the site you are most interested in.)

I've put up a SEDE query to list questions with suspiciously bad titles. I use a badness heuristic based on views, score (of both questions and answers), and title length (“Interview question” is worse than “Boost shared_ptr container question”). You may want to tweak this query to try different heuristics.

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Quite a lot of the high-voted ones have "interview question". –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 12 '11 at 9:43
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@PaŭloEbermann “interview question” is a badness of its own ): –  Gilles Aug 12 '11 at 23:57

Based on this data, we are flat-out disallowing the words:

... from all future question titles on SO, SU, SF.

help was also blacklisted, but as of 2011-10-11 has been forbidden in most cases but not quite all. In particular, help may not appear as the first or last word of a title.

See for yourself the carnage these words have wrought. All questions with this specific word in the title on...

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There are actually some justified usages of question (which are those I let alone on my edits), but really most are bad. Looks like now my cleanup can finally keep up with the new questions, thanks! –  Paŭlo Ebermann Sep 29 '11 at 22:56
    
those seemed like the worst offending title words based on the data; feel free to suggest more as you find them –  Jeff Atwood Sep 30 '11 at 1:04
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The only problem with this is that it tends to introduce new and creative ways of people butchering titles in order to avoid the disallowed words. –  Joachim Sauer Oct 12 '11 at 6:46
    
@joa the data doesn't support your claim; see meta.stackexchange.com/questions/113151/… –  Jeff Atwood Dec 27 '11 at 13:04
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@Jeff: I bow to the power of science. –  Joachim Sauer Dec 27 '11 at 14:44

Fixing up titles came up in this podcast (10th and 11th bullet).

It turns out that while people treat titles like email subject lines, titles are in fact very important since they help search engines and also help people when scanning search restults.

One example that came from the podcast was this question.

Removing lubricant from the rear brake and rim?

Originally the title was "Lubricant on bike brake".

See this question for a discussion with specific guidence on how to make the titles better.

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2  
I would also often like better email subject lines, for emails I'm receiving. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 12 '11 at 0:49

I just did go through my "small tags", and cleaned most of them. (See below for details - I'm using this to keep track of my progress.)

Some recommendations, if you want to do this, too:

  • First pick the tags where you are knowledgeable (or where you want to learn more).
  • Often these questions have other things to correct, too. Do this, if you are already editing.
  • Some questions are just bad, or off topic. There vote to close instead.
  • Also have a look at the answers - are they good, or are comments/downvotes needed? Maybe you should even add another answer (if you happen to know one, and the existing ones are not correct).

Questions with question in the title:

Finished:

The following ones I started, but certainly not finish alone:


Similar signal words are help and problem ... and the plurals questions and problems (even helps). I started to clean up some of them, too, mostly the newest ones.

Where I put an => arrow, I've already cleaned all the questions. The remaining ones are either legitimate or should be closed anyways. Arrows in parentheses are work-in-progress. (The links now show only the non-closed questions, and ordered by activity.)

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3  
Good idea on filtering by tags. Here's an updated version of my badness query with a tag filter. –  Gilles Aug 12 '11 at 23:58
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You should filter out closed questions, I think. (It just found one which was already migrated to meta: stackoverflow.com/questions/6405663) –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 13 '11 at 0:03
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Done (and I've also fixed a bug with non-alphanumeric tag names, the representation is slightly different on the Trilogy and on SE 2.0 sites). –  Gilles Aug 13 '11 at 0:21

There are also several very poor question titles with 'information' in them. Here is an updated query:

Here for this:

DECLARE @tag nvarchar(25) = ##tag:string##
-- FIXME: uncomment this line on SE 2.0 sites, and also use the line with
--        Replace(q.tags, …) below instead of the straight AND q.tags line
--SET @tag = Replace(Replace(Replace(Replace(@tag, '-', 'ö'), '+', 'ç'), '#', 'ñ'), '.', 'û')

SELECT
  q.Id As [Post Link],
  q.Score As [Score],
  q.AnswerCount As [Answers],
  q.ViewCount As [Views],
  (q.ViewCount / 2 + q.Score
   + (SELECT Sum(a.Score) FROM Posts a WHERE a.ParentId = q.Id)
   - (Len(q.Title) - 8) * Len(q.Title)) As [Badness]
FROM Posts q
WHERE q.PostTypeId = 1
  AND q.Title LIKE '%information%'
--  AND Replace(Replace(q.Tags, 'à', '>'), 'é', '<') LIKE '%<' + @tag + '>%'
  AND q.Tags LIKE '%<' + @tag + '>%'
  AND q.ClosedDate IS NULL
ORDER BY Badness DESC

This is probably my favorite of the lot, though it's from 2008: DLL Information (Badness of 532)

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I've personally asked questions about "information theory," and I would be thoroughly annoyed if the system automatically prevented me from asking them. –  Michael McGowan Oct 11 '11 at 18:59

No "magic wand" exists for users to globally search/replace or update titles. Perhaps at the programming level, using a stream editor or an SQL update statement might help, but the most economical and efficient solution I can think of is to notify each OP to edit their titles and review the content of their questions while they're at it.

If a screening process is implemented, where submitted questions are reviewed, approved or rejected, prior to being posted on the sites, then this and many other problems would become academic.

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If you ran a script to pull the first sentence ended with a question mark and made it the title, I bet you would get markedly better titles than what is already there.

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5  
Not necessarily. The first line of most "poor" questions will be either a salutation or the start of a code block. Neither of those make particularly good titles. Microsoft Word tries to make the same assumption about file names, and it doesn't work very well there, either. The only real solution is a human editor. Fortunately, we have one right here on tap! –  Cody Gray Aug 11 '11 at 14:34
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We like to leave most editing to the humans. It's very hard to get even the simplest edits right mechanically. –  Bill the Lizard Aug 11 '11 at 14:41
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@Bill the Lizard After running through a bunch of these, many of them are harder to coax titles out of than I originally thought. –  James Aug 11 '11 at 15:50
    
@cody: James said "the first sentence ending with a question mark". Neither a salutation nor a code block usually ends with a question mark (though the latter ones sometimes contain such). –  Paŭlo Ebermann Aug 12 '11 at 2:04
    
That kind of script would change this question's title to "I saw a question on the front page of stackoverflow that had a title that intrigued me?" –  CanSpice Aug 22 '11 at 21:36
1  
@CanSpice, no, it would change it to "Who has an idea on how to fix them?" which isn't much good. –  Kate Gregory Sep 29 '11 at 12:37

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