Ben e-mailed me a slew of questions regarding page titles on news article pages. (Page titles are the words displayed in the browser window's titlebar and in most search results). I'll attempt to tackle Ben's questions here and try to figure out a "best practice" for news sites to follow. Of course, feel free to chip in by posting a comment below.
First, here's my philosophy on exactly what titles on news sites should accomplish: A good news article page title succinctly explains the page's content -- and how that content fits into the big picture of the site.
So how can we accomplish this? First, let's look at what sites are already doing. Here are a number of different approaches, with a few example titles:
Rifle taken from car linked to 11 sniper shootings
Prosecutors to Discuss Charges as Rifle Is Tied to Sniper Killings
Three states argue over prosecuting sniper case
Deadly duo: Arrests bring end to sniper slayings
Ala. wants to seek death penalty in sniper case
Sniper charges pondered
Site name, headline
ABCNEWS.com : Army Base Known For Sniper Training
Chicago Tribune | Prosecutors confer on sniper charges
NPR : Beyond the Bake Sale
USATODAY.com - Prosecutors confer on sniper charges
Site name, section, headline
Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region / 5 candidates spar over gun control, taxes, housing
Boston.com / Latest News / Nation
The Village Voice: Nation: Mondo Washington: Uncle Sam's Crude Solution by James Ridgeway
ajc.com | News | Sniper suspects arrested
Guardian Unlimited | World Latest | Prosecutors Confer on Sniper Charges
BBC NEWS | Americas | Prosecutors prepare sniper charges
Headline, site name
Three Key Calls and a Fingerprint (washingtonpost.com)
Site name, headline, date
CNN.com - Alabama police to seek death penalty for sniper suspects - Oct. 25, 2002
Site name, date, headline
- miami.com and other RealCities sites
The Miami Herald | 10/25/2002 | Sniper murders solved, police say
Print publication name, site name, headline
The Sacramento Bee -- sacbee.com -- Prosecutors prepare case against sniper suspects; Alabama seeks death penalty
Whew. Not too much consistency throughout the industry. So which approach is best? Let's tackle the pieces of information one at a time:
Think about this from a user's perspective.
Say you bookmark a few New York Times articles about the sniper shootings. Then you bookmark a few articles on the same topic from the Washington Post, and a few others from USA Today and the BBC.
Now let's say it's a day later, and you'd like to go back to a particular one of those stories. Will it be easier to remember the story by its headline, or by its publication name? (Keep in mind these are all articles on the same topic, so it's likely they'll have similar headlines.)
I'm betting you'll remember the story by publication. A headline alone most likely wouldn't be enough to remind you which bookmark link to click.
Same goes for search results from an external search engine; a site name in the title gives extra context to a search result. It's not only good branding; it also helps give weight and credibility to a particular search result by disclosing the publication's name upfront.
Verdict: Yes, include it.
It may make sense from a navigational standpoint, but I think sections are better left out. If a headline is descriptive enough, the section is redundant.
Verdict: No, don't include it.
Because the date (e.g., timeliness) is such an important part of a news story, I venture to say yes. But page titles can only be so long before they get unwieldy. For that reason, I'd advise to leave dates out.
An exception: Dates that are fundamentally tied to content. For example, something like a "Quote of the day" page. It wouldn't make sense to put the quote itself in the page title; rather, the date would work well.
Verdict: No, don't include it -- unless absolutely necessary.
Name of print publication
As I mention above, sacbee.com does this. I think it's redundant and a waste of precious title space. If a page's title already includes the site's name, there's absolutely no logical reason to include the print publication's name as well.
Verdict: No, no, no! Avoid this, as long as the page title already includes the site name.
So, how does this fit together? I've determined all that really needs to be included in a news site's title page is the site name and headline. But which is more important?
For the answer to this question, look no further than Jakob Nielsen's "Marginalia of Web Design" and "Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines." A snippet from the latter:
Make the first word an important, information-carrying one. Results in better position in alphabetized lists and facilitates scanning. For example, start with the name of the company, person, or concept discussed in an article.
Do not make all page titles start with the same word: they will be hard to differentiate when scanning a list. Move common markers toward the end of the line. For example, the title of this page is Microcontent: Headlines and Subject Lines (Alertbox Sept. 1998).
With that in mind, it appears the best solution is "headline, site name" -- the technique used by washingtonpost.com. That lets users scan a list of titles easily while retaining the site's name for purposes of branding and familiarity.
Before I finish, a few more points...
Internal search engines
One of Ben's questions was whether to optimize page titles for internal or external search engines. My answer: Do both. Optimize titles for external search engines, such as Google, but display just the headline for an internal search engine. After all, a decent configurable internal search engine should be able to display whatever you want.
An example of this technique is this very site. Results from my own search engine display blog entry headlines, while page titles are preceded with "holovaty.com." (Note that I'll be changing my site's title scheme shortly, in the spirit of following my own guidelines.)
It's important to differentiate page titles when an article is spread over more than one page. For an example of what not to do, check out this article:
Each part of the article has the same page title. It'd be better if the page number was included in the title.
Punctuation / character separators
Ben asks: "Is it bad to use hyphens or colons as separators since those often get used in story titles or archive pages?"
Excellent question. Here's a particularly exaggerated example of colon misuse:
I made that site's CMS, so, naturally, I'm super-qualified to pick on it. The site inserts "Maneater:" at the start of every article's title. For columns, it also inserts the columnist's name, along with another colon. Thus, when there's a colon in the headline, too, the amount of colons gets just plain silly. It becomes difficult to scan and hard to tell where the real headline begins. In hindsight, a better organization for this particular headline would be:
MU halftime: a grand tradition [Maneater]
I opted to use brackets instead of parentheses because parentheses tend to imply a relationship, while brackets are a bit more distant. Let's say I write an article about my favorite Web site, google.com, and it appears on cnn.com with the headline "My favorite Web site." With parentheses, following my guideline above would yield:
My favorite Web site (cnn.com)
The parentheses and word placement might lead a casual browser to believe my favorite Web site is cnn.com, when, in actuality, the article is about Google and happens to be published on cnn.com. See the distinction? Brackets imply less of a relationship:
My favorite Web site [cnn.com]
A pipe ( | ) could also be used. I'd like to hear some opinions on which character(s) is/are best.
All my comments here apply only to story pages. Other pages, like news sites' home pages, are a whole different story. I'll tackle that issue in the future.