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Which will be the better title in the long run?

"How to paint a ceiling" or "How can I paint a ceiling?"

I am curious what yields better search results. Has this been worked out on other sites? For a wiki I would expect a title that was the topic and not a question. For a Q&A or FAQ I would expect the title to actually be a question. What do you suggest?

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    Your title should maybe be: "Should titles be questions?" – Vebjorn Ljosa Jul 22 '10 at 19:28
  • Or maybe the title shouldn't be a question at all if you're going down the "How to paint a ceiling" route. It should be "Question definition" or "Title definition". ;) – x3ja Jul 22 '10 at 21:19
  • This should really be a wiki – txwikinger Jul 22 '10 at 23:06
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For many questions, the initial "How can I", "How do I", or "What is the right way to" is uninformative and can be left out of the title in order to make it more concise.

Edit: Over time I have come to prefer leaving in the "How can I," etc., because it helps ensure that question titles can be understood without reading the rest of the question. It also helps focus the question.

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    No, you had it right the first time. "How can I" is redundant--we can infer it from the fact that they're asking the question in the first place. The title should be detailed, but the boilerplate should be left out. – Brad Mace Jul 30 '12 at 15:09
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    You are right that we can infer it, and in theory people could come up with titles that are concise summaries of specific questions, just with the "How can I," etc., left out. However, empirically it seems that this is very hard for people to do: when they don't actually make the title a question, it is frequently a vague topic rather than a summary of a precise question. That's why I think the title always should be a question. – Vebjorn Ljosa Jul 30 '12 at 18:51
  • Forcing titles into questions, either when it's asked, or at some point later, doesn't magically make people write better question bodies. It's only affect is to damage the site's usability, and the time would be better spent on fixing the question's body, asking for clarifications or closing it if there isn't enough information to answer it. – Brad Mace Aug 4 '12 at 18:51
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    @bemace But many times, editing the title to a real question ends up summarizing the asker's true question more succinctly. Plus, for a new user coming to the site, a page of real questions looks more professional. But that is just my opinion. – Aarthi Aug 8 '12 at 19:52
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I prefer the question. I have a specific problem that I need solved. For example, I have a ceiling that needs painted. I ask the question: "How can I paint a ceiling?"

The nature of the site is that a question is asked, and the best answer should rise to the top.

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I think the "How do I..." approach is better - it makes it personal and situation-specific - it encourages people to give details I think. For instance a question like "How to paint a ceiling" could stay very generic and would have lots of factors and possible solutions, whereas "How should I paint my ceiling?" would encourage more detail in the answer about their situation.

Think that makes sense...

  • I think what you're pointing out is a correlation between people who write good titles and people who write good questions--one doesn't cause the other. – Brad Mace Jul 30 '12 at 16:02
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First check out How do I write a good title? on the global meta site. It includes:

  • Keep it short
  • Lead with the most important words
  • Don't start with "How do I"

What titles shouldn't be

I would go with "neither". While it may initially sound like a good idea to make everything a question, it's ultimately misguided and counterproductive. Forcing titles to be questions forces the inclusion of boilerplate text. We want to avoid boilerplate for the same reasons that the word "question" isn't allowed in titles and "For issues relating to" isn't allowed in wiki excerpts, and why salutations are stripped. The title is essentially the elevator pitch for the question. When skimming titles, especially in the "Linked" or "Related" sidebars, people want to easily tell what differentiates those questions so they know whether it really is related to their own problem. If they all start with "How can I", "How should I", "How do I", then that makes it harder to tell them apart, not easier.

What titles should be

A question's title needs to be detailed, but succinct. Consider the titles of news articles or research papers. They need to convey the main thrust while fitting in a limited space. I wouldn't go so far as to change all titles that are questions to not be questions, but the added boiler plate is a hindrance to the goal of the title: to distinguish one question from others on similar subjects.

To borrow from my answer in The Great Debate:

What we really want is for the title to be the well-described subject (in the grammatical sense) of that question which starts with "I need help to ...".

For the example given, without more detail, I'd call it "Painting a ceiling". Though I'd much prefer something like "Applying oil-based paint to a textured drywall ceiling". Any words that can be omitted from the title without obscuring what the question is about, should be.

Effects on searching

Regarding search optimization, if all questions start with some variation of "how do I" then those words become useless as search keywords. Other Stack Exchange sites have already run into this problem and requested that these words be ignored by the site search. Google will also have figured this out, as they do everything they can to ensure that pages' ranks are determined by their usefulness rather than SEO games. Also, as Jeff Atwood points out: "Google only supports a fixed # of words in the title of a page? Do you really want those eaten up by boilerplate?"

Examples

Compare these titles, written as questions, then as summaries. The question form takes much longer to scan through, without improving your understanding of what you'll find when you click the link at all. If you're wondering about replacing a shower door, which style allows you to determine which related questions are relevant more quickly?

As questions

As Summaries

  • That's kind of a strange argument to make, that searching without those words is somehow helped by the presence of those words. Google is very good at what they do, and they've put a lot of effort into judging the quality of the content and not being fooled by a few words in titles. Stack Overflow and Server Fault definitely don't try to enforce this rule, and their questions regularly turn up on the first page of search results. If we make high quality content, Google will find it. – Brad Mace Jul 30 '12 at 19:39
  • I don't know what I'm talking about today, my brain is fried. I'll try to figure out what the heck I was trying to say, and get back to you. – Tester101 Jul 30 '12 at 20:08
  • Comparing question titles to news article and/or research paper titles is a bit odd, since news articles are not questions they are statements. "I've done research and this is what I've found.", opposed to "Can you help me solve this problem?". In my opinion, the title is not really a title, but actually a question. The body of the question is just there to add a bit more detail. In most cases, you should be able to answer the question, without ever reading the body section. – Tester101 Aug 1 '12 at 12:25
  • The goal of Stack Exchange sites though is to become a reference. That's because people come looking for answers (reference material), rather than questions. Ultimately the target audience of these sites are the masses of people that will come along later and find useful information, not the single person that originally asked the question. – Brad Mace Aug 4 '12 at 19:15
  • Maybe that is the goal of Stack Exchange the company, whose goal is to get as many eyes on the sites as possible so they can pay their employees. From what I've seen so far, the goal of the Stack Exchange community is to help people. We answer questions to help one person, if that answer helps people in the future that's great. But ultimately, most of the folks around here focus on making sure the asker gets the information they need. – Tester101 Aug 5 '12 at 11:45
  • Another great thing about the Stack Exchange universe is that while all the sites start out the same, each one becomes defined by it's own community. So what's right on one site, may not be right for every site. There is information available on every meta site that can be used as a guide for other sites, but that guide is not set in stone, nor is it ultimate law. That's what's awesome about Stack Exchange, they allow their communities to define themselves. – Tester101 Aug 5 '12 at 11:53
  • @bemace FWIW, I don't have a strong opinion on whether they should be questions, but SE employees have asked that they be phrased that way because they improve search engine hits. – BMitch Aug 8 '12 at 19:17
  • @BMitch if that's the case, they should make a public announcement. The last time it was discussed, Jeff Atwood was strongly opposed to this requirement. – Brad Mace Aug 8 '12 at 19:28
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    @bemace Jeff was strongly opposed (and has rolled back edits I've made on his posts). The trick is balance -- the title must always reflect the true nature of the body. Sometimes that's best done with a true-sentence question, sometimes "How to replace lawnmower blades" is enough. Ultimately, I prefer true questions; I think they make the front page look better when we have new visitors on the site. But my opinion shouldn't carry more weight than anyone else's -- this is something the DIY community must decide upon. – Aarthi Aug 8 '12 at 19:35
  • @bemace This is where all the CHAOS started: meta.diy.stackexchange.com/q/345/2196 If the community wants to go the other way, I'm fine with that, but it's nice for the main page to look consistent. – BMitch Aug 8 '12 at 19:40

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