Is it fine to change the meaning of a title because the OP didn't know what he/she was looking for?

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    I am super tempted to edit the title of this question. – mattdm Aug 2 '11 at 22:36
  • @mattdm: hehe, go ahead :-) – Stéphane Gimenez Aug 2 '11 at 22:41

This is debated (Meta Stack Overflow is where you'll find all these debates for the Stack Exchange network in general).

My take on the matter is that questions should be optimized to be found by people who have a similar question and are coming from a similar background. So the title should

  1. be clear and to the point;
  2. reflect the main issue, even if it wasn't apparent to the asker at first.

To clarify point 1: there's an endless debate on whether titles should be grammatical questions. (Joel is adamantly for, Jeff is rather against making it systematic.) My take on this issue is that titles are titles for the whole page, and every word counts in a title.

To clarify point 2: the title should reflect what users might search for when they are confronted with a similar problem. The connection with the question must be obvious even to someone who doesn't know the answer. However, it's better to remove information from the title if it turns out to be irrelevant to the answer (e.g. removing the Linux distribution if it's clear to an experienced user that the answers would be basically identical for any distribution). Conversely, it's better to add information that's absolutely critical, even if the asker didn't identify it as such.

Here are a few of my recent title edits and the reason why I made them:

  • how to make a process invisible to TOP Linux other users
    Hiding from top is the same as hiding from ps and any other tool. Linux is definitely relevant here, but it's the default option on this site, so I don't consider it critical to mention it in the title. “other users” clarifies the question in a way that may or may not have been intended by the asker; he might have been intending to hide the process from its user or root. I deliberately steered the question away from rootkits.
  • What is signal 0 in a trap command?
    In a trap command in the shell, as opposed to kill(pid, 0) (which would be another possible interpretation of the original title).
  • Can I make kwallet manage my ssh passwords on the command line?
    Here I just removed some words that weren't a critical part of the question.
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    For whatever it's worth, I'm very much on the "make titles be actual questions" side. It helps browsing and it helps focus the question. – mattdm Aug 2 '11 at 21:26
  • Those are significant and reasonable changes. I was looking for examples where the question is not really interesting but the answer is (and might interest people at a broader scale). – Stéphane Gimenez Aug 2 '11 at 21:35
  • @mattdm: I find that the leading "What is" and "How can I" are often bit superfluous. It's a lot easier to find something in a list when the first words of titles are meaningful. – Stéphane Gimenez Aug 2 '11 at 21:43
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    I think the repetition is worth it, because it reinforces the Q&A nature of the site. – mattdm Aug 2 '11 at 22:14
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    @StéphaneGimenez For an example of when not to do it: “creating simple command for sudo apt-get install?” It would be a bad idea to replace “command” by “alias” in the title, because someone who already thinks of the word “alias” is likely to find the concept in a shell manual. Someone who's thinking of a “simple command” would get lost in the manual, and that's where the question is helpful. (Adding the alias tag is a different matter: it doesn't cause something else to be less apparent.) – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 2 '11 at 22:47

It's okay to edit the title for clarity, but you should aim to phrase it in a way that someone else in the future who doesn't know what they are looking for will find it.

If, for example, I ask "Montir blue wahts wrong", and you make that "How do I set the white point of my display?" that's not so helpful, because if I didn't know what a white point was, I'd probably never find that question in the first place. Better to go with something like "Why does everything on my monitor have a bluish tint, and how can I fix it?" or whatever.

  • 1
    Ok, right. That's a good example where the meaning should not be changed too much. Are there good examples where the meaning can be changed? – Stéphane Gimenez Aug 2 '11 at 21:20
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    @Stéphane — I think I'm basically going to go with "what Gilles said" on that. :) – mattdm Aug 2 '11 at 21:27
  • in general you want relevant terms in the title and the body so variants will be found. Not all of them necessarily, but the ones you'd expect to find. The title doesn't have to be keyword stuffed, just clear, and the body can carry the rest of the synonyms, etc. – Jeff Atwood Aug 4 '11 at 1:40

I would say - yes - in cases where the title does not match the question content. I did not find any example of this for the time being, though. I just did a major change of a title once - but that change did just clarify the question, without changing the meaning of the question.

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