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I've seen a lot of issues recently where users put in a half-baked title, like:

What is the difference between these two lines of code? (About 1 Million Results)

Since I believe in organic titles, I believe we must do something, harrumph. We are optimizing for Google, but we should optimize for humans even more, and humans are much more likely to be drawn to the title than they are the tags.

I also believe the issue can be mitigated if we improve the title placeholder text. Right now it says:

What's your programming question, be specific?

I fear users are being a bit too specific, as in this question.

Feature Request

The title placeholder text for "Ask a question" should be changed to:

What would someone search for if they had your issue?

And to the side (in the sidebar) or below, there should be this text:


<language> programming problem  
What's wrong with this line of code?  
what's the difference between these lines of code?  
help with this problem 


I get Error: <specific error> when trying to update a widget in <language>   
How do I <do x> in <language>    


Now it's your turn. Improve on my idea. What can we do to improve titles on Stack Overflow?

share|improve this question
"They'd search for help. So that's why I'm here". :p –  Bart Sep 12 '13 at 11:47
I think that <language>in your examples is unnecessary, because that's what tags are for. Otherwise I agree with you. –  Philipp Sep 12 '13 at 11:48
@Philipp I believe in organic titles. We are optimizing for Google, but we should optimize for humans even more, and humans are much more likely to be drawn to the title than they are the tags. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 11:51
I wonder if something along the lines of "What is it you're trying to achieve?" might at least redirect the focus... –  Bart Sep 12 '13 at 12:11
@Bart That's a good idea, you should expand and post that as an answer. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:13
@Bart no one in their sane mind would search for help "I need somebody! Not just anybody" –  gnat Sep 12 '13 at 13:59
I like the idea, not because it will lead to better titles, but because the kind of people who write these bad titles often seem to have never even considered that someone with their problem would search for anything instead of just posting a question on SO. If reading your suggested replacement convinces a small percentage of these users to actually do a search first, you've already come out ahead. –  Wooble Sep 12 '13 at 14:53
I don't like the "in <language>" parts of your "good" examples; that portion should be in the tags, not the title, and using it as part of the subject will encourage that usage. –  Ken White Sep 12 '13 at 22:32
@KenWhite See Jeff Atwood's answer I linked to in my question -- specifically having the language in the title organically makes it easier for humans, and that's precisely what we want to optimize for. "Pushing Items into Array in JavaScript" is easier for eyes to track (and Google doesn't show tags) than "Push items into array" and then clicking on the link from google and finding out it was about Python. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 23:48
@George: Hmmm. I never have any problems finding an answer here by including the language in the Google search along with a few keywords (such as "array push items Python" or "Python array push items"), and the tags seem to work fine for classifying things for me when I look at the main page. Maybe I'm just lucky. :-) I always see the repetition of the tag info in the subject as space that could be used to better ask the question itself. (Also, one of the things in the linked topic you mention is that you should not start "How do I...", which is also in your examples. :-) ) –  Ken White Sep 12 '13 at 23:53
George, I just ran across this FAQ item in a comment posted here. It seems to directly conflict with the link you posted above. Now I'm really confused. :-) –  Ken White Sep 15 '13 at 0:14
@kenwhite it looks like it says exactly what I'm saying. Can you articulate the difference you see? –  George Stocker Sep 15 '13 at 14:28
@George: The "no tags in titles" part I mentioned before, that you then referred me to Jeff's post regarding. The one I linked says several times that tags in titles are discouraged, and the overall consensus is "don't use them" based on the votes it received. I'm trying to get this clarified, because John Saunders (the 100K+ user I linked also) and I (and others) have been editing to remove them, and citing the FAQ page as a reference. –  Ken White Sep 15 '13 at 15:42
@KenWhite Both the top answer in the question you linked me to and Jeff's post on the subject say the same thing: If you do use a tag or a language in a tag, it should make sense and be organic. That's exactly how I feel about it as well. In some cases, there is terminology that is language or framework specific (e.g., "How do I debug a Generic Class Based View?") and doesn't need a tag for a reader to figure out what you're talking about, yet some things do ("How do I pop an item from an array?"). Again, I'm not advocating anything other than what other posters already advocate. –  George Stocker Sep 15 '13 at 20:47
Improving the message is a good idea, but does anyone who is new to asking questions actually read the placeholder text? –  Travis J Oct 1 '13 at 22:43

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

This would probably not fit as a placeholder, but we could add clarification. Something along the lines of this, but better worded:

Your title should be able to stand on its own as a question, so please try to avoid vague titles.

share|improve this answer
I like that idea, and I would probably take out the 'please try' part and say something like, "Your title should be able to stand on its own as a question. This is what users will see when they are searching on the internet or browsing Stack Overflow, so make it a good title." –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 11:59
Perhaps if we told a white lie they would improve? "Users with vague titles will be banned automatically." –  user7116 Sep 12 '13 at 15:28

What words would someone use to search for if they had your problem?

We shouldn't change it to this. This sounds like I'm being asked for search keywords, and then I'd be very confused looking at the sidebar telling me search keywords are bad.

This breaks down if I'm the kind of person who enters only a few keywords into a search engine, and not the kind of person who enters a question or statement.

share|improve this answer
Ok. If you believe we shouldn't change it to that, what would you change it to? Or do you believe we do not have a problem with titles currently -- and if you believe that, why? I'm voting your answer down only because you haven't improved on my suggestion or said why we shouldn't change the title placeholder text at all. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 11:52
I do not have a suggestion, and I do not have an opinion on changing the title placeholder text. I have an opinion on what you suggest changing it to, however, and have voiced it. –  doppelgreener Sep 12 '13 at 12:03
@George Maybe it would be better to make this, instead, a question saying: "I think we can do something about this. What can we do?" - and have an answer saying to change the placeholder text in this way. –  doppelgreener Sep 12 '13 at 12:06
@George I didn't catch onto that until after I'd posted this answer - I think the search keywords problem is still there in the revised one, though. –  doppelgreener Sep 12 '13 at 12:09
@George You run the risk of distracting people (such as myself) into just responding to your particular idea, or improving on that alone. Maybe there are other ways to frame the discussion in your question - and you can already perhaps spur suggestions by making your own answer, right? –  doppelgreener Sep 12 '13 at 12:12
@George I did see that request - I just had no suggestion to make regarding improvements or alternative suggestions, so I voiced what I did have strong feelings about, leaving the rest to others. Maybe I could have mentioned that so you didn't feel like the point had been missed completely! –  doppelgreener Sep 12 '13 at 12:35

The purpose of a title is not really to inform anyone of where you're at, but more of where you're trying to go. It should clarify the goals of the question. This can still be the resolution of a bug, but a goal oriented title will almost always be better in my opinion.

With that in mind I wonder if something along the lines of

"What is it you're trying to achieve?"

will not direct their title away from something unclear and focused on the now, to something more solution oriented and informative for other users.

share|improve this answer
I really like this answer, I'm just worried that it may not effect the sort of change we're looking for. Maybe the SE team can do some A/B testing and compare the results of the titles when that happens. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:26
@GeorgeStocker Yeah, having written this I fear the "I'm trying to solve this bug" title. I'd love to see what the true effect of it would be though. –  Bart Sep 12 '13 at 12:26
What many of them are trying to achieve is to write a program for their programming class. If we gave them this placeholder text, many more would describe what their program is meant to do, instead of the problem with their program. –  Raedwald Oct 31 at 19:48

While I think it would be great to tidy up a lot of the question titles on the site, the sorts of titles that seem to be bugging you "What's the difference between these two lines of code" is probably an A->B problem. it's not the title that is poor, but rather it's likely that the question is exceptionally localized or the person asking it is simply not knowledgeable enough to be able to specify exactly what he/she wants to know.

I certainly agree that we shouldn't have things like "Please help" "I can't work this out..." and the like in titles (and I do sometimes clean them up if I see some other edits that need doing in the question itself) - and perhaps it might be a good idea to have some sort of smarts that points this out when a question is being posted.

I do think that a title that best describes the users problem in human readable terms is more helpful than just a string of search terms. I don't want to drop into a "What's the difference between these two lines of code..." when doing a search for a particular term, I would much rather see the title as probably not being helpful and move to the next search result.

Edit: Maybe the placeholder could be:

Explain your problem in a single statement, then post the details below

share|improve this answer
I agree in some places it's a localized issue -- but in others it's just a matter of a person not voicing the issue correctly (as the question I linked to shows). I absolutely do not want just a stream of keywords in the title -- if that came across in my question, it's certainly not my intent. If you can let me know what part of my question made you think that, I'll happily edit my question to reflect to improve on that miscommunication. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:08
@GeorgeStocker Actually it was from your placeholder suggestion. When I search for something, I always throw in a string of (hopefully) connected terms that I think will bring me back the answer to the question that is in my head. I never search by typing in an actual question. –  Fluffeh Sep 12 '13 at 12:10

Provide a summary of your programming question so others can quickly understand your problem.

I can't think of a better way to ask for human readable titles.

Going over the Ask a Question page, I think it might also be prudent to add some similar guide text to the question box:

Describe your problem in further detail, and make sure to discuss what you've already tried.

One of Stack Overflow's goals is to for questions and answers to be useful for others who have the same problem in the future, so phrase your question as universally as possible.

share|improve this answer

"What words would someone use to search for if they had your problem?" means it is a place for a keyword list. Not exactly what we want in title field. I would rather it to be something like:

"What would your question look like if there was no large text box below?"

That way users would not get tempted to throw in a keyword list, but (I hope) would try to do their best and provide as much data in the title line as sanely possible.

share|improve this answer
I've changed the title text in my question to reflect what I actually wanted to say, so the text you quote is a little older. I realized that I had used two different phrases in the title and in the body, so I changed the body's phrase to the one I like better (though by no means final). –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:01
I like the idea behind your answer, "What would your question look like if there were no large text box below". –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:03
@GeorgeStocker it's better now, but still smells like "put as much search keywords as possible" a bit. And that's not quite what I would want to see happening, titles should be good to read, not only searchable. Of course now we have a LOT of titles that are not good to read and not searchable. –  Mołot Sep 12 '13 at 12:04
I agree completely on the 'Titles should be good to read, not only searchable'. If you've got a good way of articulating that and avoiding the "What's the problem with this line of code" titles we get a lot of, I'll be eternally in your debt. –  George Stocker Sep 12 '13 at 12:05

Maybe we should add a

The question title is useless and must be improved


share|improve this answer
In this case no need to close the question. Just improve the title yourself if you feel that it doesn't describe the problem. –  nicael Nov 23 at 14:05
@nicael That is not always trivially possible, though I try that often enough. on the other hand I don't want to encourage new users into leaving bad titles since "someone will fix them" –  Tobias Kienzler Nov 23 at 15:33
Or even leave a comment asking them to clarify their question. –  NoviceInDisguise Nov 23 at 21:41
@NoviceInDisguiseGraphics That is of course even better. My answer is maybe too tongue-in-cheek, it's intention is rather for questions the OP doesn't bother to edit anymore since they already got their answer... –  Tobias Kienzler Nov 24 at 5:06

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