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There has been a "movement" of sorts on Stack Overflow. Users are flagging questions that are just a link or little more than a link, like:

Not only that, they have been flagging answers that have been accepted, SO's ultimate helpfulness indicator:

A moderator deleted many of these, but I have reverted the deletions, at least for the time being. Questions:

  1. How should these answers be dealt with, in general?
  2. Should the accepted status of an answer affect its "deletability"?
  3. What if a link is all that's needed to answer a question, like this?
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marked as duplicate by Peter Mortensen, Toon Krijthe, Martijn Pieters, hims056, ЯegDwight Feb 17 '13 at 13:15

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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Haven't we covered this enough yet ? –  Michael Mrozek Dec 17 '11 at 6:23
    
@Fezziwig I think we've established that they aren't good answers. But there is some disagreement over how mods should handle this, I mean, I am not going to chase after people to see if they'll let me copy and paste content to SO. –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 17 '11 at 6:25
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@Fezziwig At the same time I don't feel like deleting helpful answers. Hence, this post. And there's also the question of handling the flags. There is some inconsistency in the handling of "link only" flags, which can be frustrating for users. –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 17 '11 at 6:27
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I just wish more mods like you would at least give a comment on the post before the delete. –  Some Helpful Commenter Dec 17 '11 at 6:47
    
I try to leave a comment when I flag such posts, too. If posts have even the barest amount of content, I tend to be slower to flag. Also, if it says anything at all, plus has been accepted as the answer, I'm slower to flag. But I would have flagged all of those, I think, that have been linked. –  Andrew's a Unitato Dec 17 '11 at 23:45
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8 Answers 8

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Link-only answers can be actively harmful if links break. And they do break, even on sites that are seemingly going to be around forever.

I tend to convert such answers to comments unless they've been accepted by the asker. If the poster comes back later to improve the answer, they can edit the post and flag it for undeletion. I usually also leave the following comment:

Please see "How could I write my answer that links to an external resource properly?". You can edit this answer to follow those guidelines and then use the "flag" link to notify us that the answer is ready to be reviewed and restored.

Finally, what if a link is all that's needed to answer a question? In the example you gave, the link actually isn't necessary to answer the question. The answer is "Call MessageBox.Show.". That is the complete, fully self-contained answer. The link is really there as supporting information, which is pretty much how it should be.

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"Link-only answers can be actively harmful if links break." - So true! –  chown Dec 17 '11 at 23:46
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Answers that are just links are very poor form, and whenever possible someone should come along and edit them, as I suggested here.

As I encountered today, a 'link only' blog post or answer hurts much more than it helps (due to link rot).

The answers should be edited to include the actual answer, with appropriate citation.

Answers that point to other Stack Overflow answers mostly indicate that the questions are very close to duplicating the same territory, and if possible, one should be made more generic and have the answers merged.

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How should these answers be dealt with, in general?

I think possible candidates for deletion are ones that do not meet any of these guidelines, most notably: "someone could benefit from the answer without reading the linked item at all". This is helpful as then the answer does not need to be completely removed if the link ever dies.

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I tend to follow that idea myself; would this be an answer if the link was dead? Even a fairly weak answer... If so, I don't flag. –  Andrew's a Unitato Dec 17 '11 at 23:47
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The problem isn't just link rot, although that is the main problem. The problem is when you search for something on Google, and poke through the first 10 results, only to find that the first result didn't solve your problem, and the next 9 just linked to the first one or cloned it. That happens to me all the time and it drives me crazy. We're not improving the web if we just link to another answer -- it's already there to be found, it doesn't need 50 other sites to say "yeah, that guy is right"

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No, it just needs 50 upvotes on SO. –  Levi Morrison Aug 22 '12 at 22:38
    
While I don't totally disagree with you, the fact is that, on the web at large, linking to something useful is the equivalent, albeit informal, means of "upvoting". That's why it is the core of the original Google algorithm and what made upstart Google so useful and overwhelmingly popular in the early days of the web (remember Alta Vista?). It's precisely because many people link to the most useful information that it floats to the top of Google results. As for other sites that simply say "yeah that guy is right" - yeah, I agree - I wish Google were better at not giving them a high ranking. –  yosh m Feb 13 '13 at 9:06
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After some trial and error, I have come to flagging link-only answers as Other with a comment like:

"this answer looks more like a comment to me because it does not offer much besides a link to external resource."

  • I flag link-only answers always - no matter accepted or not, no matter how many upvotes it got and no matter how high the rep of the author.

http://i.stack.imgur.com/jIt1i.jpg

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I probably flagged several of these (and I think you handled a bunch of my flags last night, too). I nearly asked this question here on meta myself after having a few flags declined, but decided instead to have a few drinks and take a break.

I read through the meta questions that Michael mentioned in his comment, and started going through the low-quality answer review tab. I figured that, after reading four or so questions on meta essentially agreeing that link-only (or borderline link-only) questions should be deleted with extreme prejudice, that I would be helping out by flagging these.

I do see that there's a distinction drawn (particularly in SLacks' case), where a correct short answer with an additional external link does suffice. I wholeheartedly admit that flag was wrong, and I should've paid closer attention to that answer. Sorry about that.

Now, reading this question, I feel like this is far more of a gray area than I previously thought. I don't want to ask a question in my answer (or rather, my explanation) here, but I feel like the inconsistency in this application leaves reviewers without clear guidelines. I understand and respect that the mods do not (and should not) act as a singular unit.

If I should do the legwork myself, look up some source information on the link, and edit that information into the answer with a note about the reason for the edit, I'm happy to do that.

If I should leave a comment (which I do for answers that aren't as old -- and I'll fully admit I may have accidentally flagged more recent answers over the past few days) and ask the authors to do this themselves, I'm also happy to do that.

Finally, I will say that sometimes it's irritating and difficult to be a somewhat low-reputation user who's trying to help out without answering questions. I really feel like the flagging interface doesn't leave much room for discussion or understanding...and, in fact, I feel like rejected edits and closed questions here do that, too.

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People should never leave an answer that looks like this:

"Please look at this... something.com"

You should give a brief summary of the information located on the website, then post the link from where you got the information just in case the asker needs to know about more on the subject...

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  1. Answers should not consist of just a link, this has been amply covered already.
  2. If a link-only answer is accepted, it is especially important to delete it (converting to a comment if the link isn't broken yet), and it has to be done by a moderator because the community cannot delete accepted answers. When a question has an accepted answer, it looks like it has a definitive answer, and there is not much point in looking for a better one. People who are looking to improve the site by providing better answers tend to consider questions with accepted answers as very low-priority. If a question has an accepted answer which consists solely of a link, this sends the wrong message, especially after the link breaks. Sure, the accepted answer might have helped the asker, but it's not going to help future visitors, and the community should not be penalized for that answerer or asker's failing.
  3. This is an example where the answer isn't just a link. In fact, the main point of the answer is the name of the function to use, and the link to the documentation of the function is provided as support. This is exactly what a link in an answer should be used for.

(Of course, if you can edit the answer to make it useful, it's preferable to deleting the answer. Editing the answer is a community job, not a moderator job, and if you don't have the time, skill or willingness to edit the answer, deleting it is the right thing.)

To reiterate my main point here: if an answer consists of just a link, then its being accepted reinforces the need for deletion by a moderator.

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