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Stack Exchange started a while ago to add the most-used tag at the front of the HTML title to prevent scrapers from being ranked higher on Google than the SE site itself.

This makes a lot of sense for Stack Overflow, where the most important search term is often the programming language, and this search term is very often only present in form of a tag, and completely omitted in the actual question title. So you get titles like

python - How do I do X?

This addition improves SEO a lot as the programming language is an important search term most of the time, and it is often omitted in the question titles. The same goes for game names on Gaming.SE, where adding the tag to the title is critical for SEO.

But is the basic assumption behind this feature valid on other SE sites as well? Do the question titles regularly omit important search terms that are present only in tags?

In my observation, adding the tag in front of the title doesn't help for many other SE sites. I did have a look at the most popular search terms that were used to find questions on Skeptics.SE, and I didn't find a single one where the search term was in the tag.

I strongly doubt that adding the tag to the title helps the SEO for questions on SE sites except SO and Gaming. And adding a tag that isn't an important search term does cause some harm:

  • Google cuts off the title after around 70 characters, a long tag in front significantly reduces the space dedicated to the actual question in search results
  • The tag occupies the most valuable spot of the title, in many cases this valuable space would be better used by the actual question title

Is my perception accurate that this feature might be doing more harm than good on many sites? Should this feature maybe be enabled on a per-site basis, instead of globally?

Here's one example where the tag lead to the question being cuts off:

enter image description here

The tag is perfectly fine, but it is not a search term people would use to find the question. And the wasted space in the beginning leads to the title being cut off early.

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This really reads like it should go to webmasters. –  casperOne Mar 29 '12 at 12:37
I've definitely found it annoying and/or detrimental on other sites (such as Programmers). At least being able to control which tag gets to represent the question would be an improvement. –  Anna Lear Mar 29 '12 at 16:37
If the most "popular" tag on a question is effectively meaningless in the title (whether as a prefix or worked in "organically"), you might want to re-think your tagging scheme. Funny enough, since you used them as an example: gaming had a major issue with this not too long ago, in that their most-used tags weren't the names of games - they were generic things like "strategy". –  Shog9 Mar 29 '12 at 16:40
@Shog9 Sometimes it's just an issue of a valid tag that has a lower importance to the question being more popular than the "primary" question tag. I'll have to hunt for a representative example. –  Anna Lear Mar 29 '12 at 16:42
@Shog9 It's often not meaningless, but also not an important search term. E.g. on Skeptics it will often be something like [medical-science], [biology] or [economics]. Those tags are perfectly fine for categorizing content, but they are just not the terms people are using in their searches. –  Mad Scientist Mar 29 '12 at 16:43
Specific examples would help here :) –  Shog9 Mar 29 '12 at 16:45
@Shog9 I've added an example where I think the current behaviour is harmful. –  Mad Scientist Mar 29 '12 at 16:52
@Shog9 the problem was those non-primary tags still were helpful, but they weren't primary. That's where marking a primary tag would help. –  Ben Brocka Mar 29 '12 at 17:07
«Google cuts off the title after around 70 characters,» Yeah, Google really needs to go back to not doing that. It's f'ing ridiculous. –  Josh Caswell Mar 29 '12 at 17:13
On boardgames I think prepending the tag (usually the game) to the title is positive, for similar reasons to Gaming. Usually the human-readable question title is clearer, and less artificial without the game specified. But we do have the problem with 'strategy', just like Gaming did... –  ire_and_curses Mar 29 '12 at 22:51
@shog actually I'd argue that this "problem" is rather specific to skeptics because everything is on topic there. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 30 '12 at 3:40

3 Answers 3

Worth noting that you (as an author or editor) do have some control over this:

  1. You get to pick which tags are used. This is fairly obvious, but if you're picking a tag that's incongruous with the title, you might want to pick a different one.

  2. If you work the tag into the title "organically", it won't get prefixed. So, "How do I do X in Python?" won't have "Python - " prepended to it. So if you're just looking to put something more important near the start of the title, use this method to enforce it.

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On nearly all Skeptics questions I'd prefer to not put any tag at all in front. We just don't leave out important search terms in our titles like SO does, the tags don't provide any benefit even if they fit reasonably well to the question. –  Mad Scientist Mar 29 '12 at 16:46

Gaming is going to have a serious problem if this happens; like SO we don't like to put tags in the title, so a billion questions aren't titled "How do I eat babies in Mass Effect?" Gaming's SEO would be butchered, and I don't honestly see much value in dropping it from other sites either.

Leaving the tags in the title is just generally problematic, for example on User Experience we have piles of Website-design questions but no one needs or wants Website Design: to prefix all those questions.

As for the title getting cut off...so what? Titles get cut off in Google search results. They're going to get cut off without the tag. Google highlights the bits that match your search so the cut off isn't significant. Saving an average of ~10 characters in the title won't help most people in most cases, but dropping the tag can harm scanability of our results in Google and harms the general SEO as well.

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Gaming is one of the two explicit exceptions I made in my post where this behaviour should definitely stay. –  Mad Scientist Mar 29 '12 at 17:08
@Fabian suddenly needing to make exceptions left and right for a behavior that doesn't seem to harm all the other sites anyway seems like a bad idea. Having to put the primary tag in the title on all those other sites for SEO seems like an even worse idea. –  Ben Brocka Mar 29 '12 at 17:10

I agree that putting the tag in the front of the title is less than ideal.

In particular, I feel this pain when I have a bunch of browser tabs open to SE questions (which is almost always). Due to the prepended tags, most of them look the same and I have to click through them all to find the specific one I want, since all I can see in the tab title is the tag. Typically, the start of the question titles is different enough that I can tell them apart, but if all I see is the tag, then I'm stuck.

Perhaps a JavaScript solution is the answer to this particular aspect of the problem: Just remove the front tag from the page title on page-load. This leaves it there for SEO purposes and gets it out of the way for the tab-fanatic users like me.

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