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We get some really bad subject lines on SO, and also in some of the other forums I use. Examples:

  • Connection
  • Databinding
  • Consuming web service
  • Weird WebService behavior
  • Soap header
  • WCF help

Now, easy as it may be to attribute these titles to laziness or cluelessness, I've begun to wonder if it may not be something else.

This is a site used by people from all around the world. Does everyone have the same concept of what a title line is meant for and how to construct one? These very short title lines look more like categories than titles. Maybe the authors came from a culture (or even school) where categories were used in this way?

In any case, I wonder not only if there are legitimate differences in how people understand what's meant to be in a title line, but also what, if anything, we should do about this.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

My biggest gripes with titles are

  • Tags in the title, like "[CSharp] How do I compile?" We have tags for a reason. They're just clutter in the title.
  • "How to" titles, like "How to brush teeth?" They seem to come from users hailing from particular unnamed nations. It's just awkward phrasing. I like to change these to "How do I brush my teeth?" instead. It's a more natural sentence.

Categories aren't so bad, as long as they're more specific than the tags. We have tags for categorization, but titles are basically categories, too. When people are searching, a title like "Connectivity problem with PHP" is going to get a lot of hits, even though it's a category.

To me a title should give readers a clear idea of what the question is about, without giving too many details. So no "Help me with PHP" titles, and no "Help me to connect with a MySQL 5.3 database from PHP 3.1 on Tuesdays when the moon was waning the previous three nights" titles, either.

A good title gives the details of the question that, along with the tags, should allow any reader to decide if he'll read the question based on his interests. Bad titles leave people wondering about what the content is, or doesn't let people know about important details in the question. For example, someone may see a "connectivity issue" title, and skip it since he thinks it's a networking error, but really it's a user authority issue with MySQL. The title should have been more specific so that the answerer market has a greater chance of getting pulled in to answer it.

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I think you may have hit upon an interesting point. I'm not a linguist, so don't know what it's called when a child hears a phrase and understands it from a smaller knowledge base - and gets the wrong idea about it. Maybe "Connectivity problem with PHP" is a category to some, but to me it's short for "I have a Connectivity problem with PHP". I see how that could be understood either way. –  John Saunders Jul 9 '09 at 20:26
    
I've just realized that I'm "guilty" of editing titles into "How to". From "DateTime to get actual real time?" to "How to get GPS Time on Windows Mobile 6?" "How do I get" felt awkward since it wasn't actually my question. "How does one" seems a bit formal, though. –  John Saunders Jul 9 '09 at 22:59

You can add a hint to the question page, like:

Title (The title should be phrased as a question.)

Honestly I doubt that this will improve the situation, but it could be worth giving it a try.

Edit
Maybe it's better to add a link to this post instead of the sentence above:

Title (See "Howto writing good titles")

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5  
I am not sure we want the titles to all begin with "How do I.." –  Jeff Atwood Jul 28 '09 at 13:20
    
Good point, Jeff. –  Ladybug Killer Jul 28 '09 at 13:42
2  
That's why i like to switch it up with "How might I..." –  Shogging through the snow Jul 28 '09 at 16:51

When I first joined SO I just assumed that titles needed to be in the form of a question, even if the question posed in the title doesn't define exactly what the body of the question was actually looking for. I guess I just gleaned this from what I thought the spirit of the site was. If you look at the layout of the 'Ask a Question' page it flows like this: Ask a Question, Title, Tagline: "What's your bug, feature request, or meta-discussion topic? Be descriptive."|"What's your programming question? Be descriptive." I saw that and it immediately reinforced my belief that the title actually needed to be a question. Fast forward to after I asked a question, and I had quite a disturbing discovery. Several members read only the title on the question I posted, and didn't even bother reading the body of the question. Maybe the short titles were born from a reaction to this kind of behavior; eg: if the majority of people choose to read only the title, maybe I should make it nonsensical to force them to read the body of the question.

Maybe a way to refine what the community is actually looking for in a title would be allowing the lack of a title upon initial posting of the question. Community moderators could then fill in what they deemed an appropriate title. Taking it a step further, titles could be suggested and up-voted by the community, thereby allowing the 'cream' of the titles to rise to the top.

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No, don't get nonsensical on the title (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10938) you want people to, at a quick glance, know what the question is about and what you're trying to do. Are you saying that people didn't answer your question correctly or even in the bounds set out in the body as to why they didn't pay attention to the title? Upvotes on questions also signal to the rest of the community what you think is a good question, title and body. –  random Aug 1 '09 at 1:59
    
"Are you saying that people didn't answer your question correctly or even in the bounds set out in the body as to why they didn't pay attention to the title?" I'm not sure exactly what you are saying there. That being said, here is my stab at an answer. What I am saying is that they did not even read the body of the question, they just saw the title, decided they didn't like it, and flamed me. Not a great first experience. –  Charles Y. Aug 2 '09 at 4:43
    
"Upvotes on questions also signal to the rest of the community what you think is a good question, title and body." I realize this, but my suggestion about upvoting a title separate from the body was meant only towards questions that had 'community titles'. That is, titles that were suggested by the community rather than the OP of the question. I meant that this would allow the best title for that question to be voted on, just like so many other things on SO. –  Charles Y. Aug 2 '09 at 4:44

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