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Let's assume you agree with the yoda's corrective action to a link-only-answer (#12) of the Faq Post What is an acceptable answer?

[A link only] answer must be improved as described above, else it will be deleted. Downvote if link is tangential to the question. Write a new answer with details and then flag as Not an Answer. Also flag if the link is broken.

I think this is reasonable but I understand it's not strictly followed and people flag things without all the steps being followed and some mods will convert the answer to a comment.

But when I saw a case where this was being followed I thought it would be a no-brainer to flag it. I was really surprised when it was declined with

Sadly accepted answers are the one exception to the "link-only-answer" rule.

I looked on meta and couldn't find anything that mentioned this.

Why does this rule exist?

And should it also extend to self-accepted answers?

share|improve this question
18  
I certainly don't know of, don't currently adhere to, nor have any plans to ever adhere to any rule of this nature. NAA is NAA. –  casperOne Jun 13 '12 at 23:50
    
    
@gnat Why do you think that's a dupe? I was asking about why a mod wouldn't delete an accepted link only answer. Image –  Some Helpful Commenter Aug 2 at 19:42
    
@SomeHelpfulCommenter because per my reading, dupe fives quite a straightforward guidance that nowadays, it is expected of mods to delete, no matter accepted or what: "let me be clear: this sort of response is not an answer. If you see this, flag it. Moderators, if you see it flagged, delete it..." –  gnat Aug 2 at 19:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Ok, Kev asked me to chime in here, but before I get started let's have a quick sanity check:

Moderators can delete any post at any time at their own discretion. Moderators are expected to exercise discretion when doing so, but ultimately the choice and the responsibility is theirs. Your flag does not place any additional responsibility upon the responding moderator's shoulders, nor give him a mandate to do something he otherwise would not. He alone will answer for his actions, and therefore if he does not feel an action is justified he has the ability and indeed the duty to decline the flag requesting it.

When flagging, your success rate is determined by your ability to clearly communicate what action should be taken and why. Most of the time, the work is pretty much already done - a question is visibly non-constructive, an answer is obviously not an answer, and you need only pick the flag option that corresponds to this. Sometimes, more explanation is needed.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>end of sanity (check)


So let's talk about "not an answer":

This was posted as an answer, but it does not answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

For a moderator, this presents one of four action items:

  1. Convert to an edit (if posted by the OP)
  2. Convert to a comment (if intended to address some issue with another post)
  3. Delete
  4. Nothing

Which one of these is appropriate should be obvious from the context:

  • Clarifications and additions to the question should be converted to edits.
  • Useful commentary on other posts should be converted to comments. This includes answers that ask the OP for additional information, etc.
  • Follow-up questions, "I too have this problem", off-topic / non-constructive commentary directed at other posts or their authors, and random bits of noise and fluff that make no effort to answer the question should be deleted.
  • Things that are legitimately answering the question (even if incorrect) should be ignored.

not an answer

This is pretty visibly not an answer. It's also not an edit, and not a useful comment. So the remaining action is ol' #3, delete. Moderators can and do make these decisions very quickly - there are a lot of non-answers posted and flagged.

And then there are link-only answers

A link-only answer

I'm not going to re-hash all of the problems with them, from spam to broken links - we're all plenty familiar with the pain they cause. But here's the thing: sometimes, they do answer the question - because it's a bad question, or because it's just a really useful link. The problems remain, but strictly-speaking 'not an answer' no longer applies.

Of course, the best outcome for a useful link-only answer isn't deletion in any case - it's editing! If someone, particularly the author, comes back and expands that link into something that directly addresses the problem and uses the link as a reference... Now you have an answered question without the problems of bare links.

Straight-up deletion is problematic when the link is actually useful - at best, you're encouraging someone else to re-post it with more of an introduction; at worst, you're turning an answered question into an unanswered question for the sake of Purity.

And converting them to comments is really sort of an abuse of comments. Most not-an-answers make lousy, worthless comments too - spam in a comment isn't a whole lot better than spam in an answer. And for those useful link-only answers, you're just turning something that could be improved (anyone can suggest a fix for a broken link in an answer) into a disposable "Post-It note" that can't ever be fixed and will probably just end up deleted. I've seen questions, sitting around for months or years, nominally unanswered but in reality answered by comments... Congratulations, you've recreated a worse PHPBB within Stack Overflow.

I should also note that we've been improving the filter right along to block more and more link-only answers before they're even posted - this too is preferable to deletion, since the author can easily expand the answer and re-post. Of course, it does nothing for older answers. We're also working on tools to fix broken links. In answers...

So what's a mod to do?

In most cases, a link-only answer is just going to be deleted. Let's face it: the moderators on Stack Overflow really don't have time to be doing in-depth analysis on the benefits of a flagged answer that looks lazy. But to avoid the problems I outline above, I've recommended a bit of caution in the past:

as a sanity-check next time: no matter how lazy an answer is, if there isn't a better (objectively more detailed, comprehensive, or - this is key - useful to the asker) answer, deleting it / converting it doesn't really accomplish anything. Its acceptance may indeed indicate the question itself isn't very good, but if so you should focus on the question.

In the particular instance you cite, the question itself wasn't a good question; indeed, it was a shopping question. Link-only answers are common on shopping questions - unless you can preserve other, more educational answers by cleaning them up, it makes more sense to just close and/or delete the question. This has now been done. Fixating on the answer here (which was +10 and accepted, but since it was posted by the asker acceptance doesn't mean a lot) means not seeing the forest for the trees.

But even decent questions sometimes get link-only answers, and if there's only one useful answer, deleting it to achieve purity accomplishes nothing.

Remember: moderators are doing this quickly - snap decisions to delete, convert, or leave it be. There may be some complicated reason why a lone, up-voted, accepted answer should be removed, but chances are the moderator just sees a lone, up-voted, accepted answer. Which brings me to...

So what should I do?

There's a lot you can do, actually...

  • If you're familiar with the subject, you can make a quick edit: quote or paraphrase the relevant portion of the article, copy and attribute the relevant bit of code, or even just write a small introductory paragraph.

  • Leave a comment for the author, asking him to expand his answer a bit. Link to that FAQ... Maybe throw in a down-vote.

  • Vote to close and/or flag the question if a poor question is leading to poor answers.

  • Flag as "not an answer"

  • If the answer looks like it's been useful, but really just needs to go, flag with a custom reason and explain briefly why:

    "Cleaning up poor answers to borderline question so the good ones can remain"
    "Link is broken and cannot be fixed"
    "Link contained a live bobcat"
    etc.

share|improve this answer
1  
In the particular instance you cite, the question itself wasn't a good question I'm sorry I didn't make it clearer . The flag I was referring to was on May 31 '12 at 20:57. This question isn't a shopping question. It has an alternative answer that came later that wasn't just link to documentation on an object –  Some Helpful Commenter Jun 14 '12 at 16:21
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Ah... Yes, I was looking at the wrong flag then. In that case, a better answer exists, the author of the answer was advised (by the responding moderator) to improve it, and declined to do so. I've added the link to the other answer, and deleted the link-only answer. Nothing of value has been lost. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 16:30
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Nice balancing act there. The distinction between moderator actions and user actions is much appreciated. –  casperOne Jun 14 '12 at 16:35
11  
Post contained live bobcat, would not read again –  Ben Brocka Jun 14 '12 at 16:40
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turning something that could be improved... into a disposable "Post-It note" that can't ever be fixed... how's that? Anyone can add a new answer extending the link provided in comments - if that's not a fix then I don't know what is –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 16:56
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@gnat: that's not really "fixing" the comment, that's using it as a reference when posting an answer. You can't fix a broken link. You can't even see the link if someone flags the comment and it's deleted. There's no revision history on comments. The message here for years now has been, don't use comments for information you want to stick around. Converting answers into comments when they aren't actual commentary violates this - and also sends the wrong message to the author / other readers: that comments are a place for short answers. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 17:00
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@Shog9 I see; your reasoning makes pretty good sense for short answers. However, I doubt that link-only answers qualify as such - first of all because these openly violate How to Answer instructions requiring: "...Always quote the most relevant part of an important link..." (section Provide context for links) –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 17:41
    
@gnat: then the question becomes, are you converting answers into comments because they should be comments, or are you doing it to "punish" the author somehow? Note that the system automatically converts very short answers to comments as a form of immediate feedback to the author... Does this "teaching" conversion still work if it happens a day later? How about a year? I'm skeptical. For new answers, the bar is much higher already - you can't post it at all unless you have at least 50 non-link characters. Making this higher, providing immediate feedback, is probably far more productive. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 17:48
    
@Shog9 immediate feedback hm interesting. What if answerer simply ignores my downvote and comment? Low quality content would then stay, making whole effort kind of futile wouldn't it. As for "punishment", it seems impossible-by-design since author has an option to edit and undelete their answer, right? –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 19:51
    
@gnat: no, authors cannot undelete their own posts if a moderator has deleted them (self-deleted and community-deleted posts can be undeleted). And unless a comment is left, they may not even realize the deletion/conversion has occurred. It's not entirely uncommon for users to end up answer-banned before they realize what they're doing wrong. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 19:55
    
@Shog9 I know about mod-deleted restriction; here, I meant undeletion by flagging improved answer for moderator attention. In case if they don't even notice deletion/conversion, my point about no-punishment stays, too - simply because it's not a punishment when "target person" is not even aware of it –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 19:59
    
If they aren't aware of it, @gnat, and the answer isn't a comment - then it accomplishes nothing. Apart from confusing the appropriate uses of answers and comments, and turning an editable answer into a static, disposable comment. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 20:12
    
@Shog9 hm at least, this would bump the question, giving it more eyeballs and a new chance to get better answers, including (but not limited to) answers built on link that has been converted to comment. But OK let's pretend this is nothing - what else would you suggest for link-only answers? Downvote with comment would be great if answerer pays attention but what if they simply ignore this? –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 22:39
1  
@gnat: I list five suggestions in this answer, starting with Edit and ending with Custom Flag. At some point, someone has to make a call as to whether an unimproved answer is so worthless that the question is better off without it - if you can't make that call (or can't write a good rationale for it to sway a moderator), then leave it for someone who can. I'm not against deleting these - I'm against blindly deleting them. We could easily write a script to destroy all link-only answers on the site - assuming there's value in having humans make that call, it's in their nuanced judgement. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 22:41

They're not, they can be deleted like anything else. That's a custom message a mod must have replied with.

There might be more reluctance to delete an accepted answer because we can't re-accept an answer, but there's no reason you shouldn't flag non-answers as Not an Answer; checkmark included. At best such an answer is a helpful comment (that is if it really isn't an answer, of course).

As Gilles says, do try and edit/answer if possible (unless other answers are already sufficient), ideally a question should be left with whatever helpful information was at the end of that link in a succinct answer somewhere.

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2  
No reason except the fear that a moderator is going to decline a perfectly valid flag. –  animuson Jun 13 '12 at 23:28
    
If you fear the moderators, or if they decline a perfectly good flag, drag it to Meta Stack Exchange and post the link here. –  jcolebrand Jun 13 '12 at 23:29
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@animuson declining a flag is pretty minor, and they can be dismissed as Helpful as well (which is really the default action). –  Ben Brocka Jun 13 '12 at 23:32
    
I'm pretty sure re-accepting the answer is as simple as undeleting it again. Deleted accepted answers retain their checkmark, although it's not always visible, which is a bug. –  lunboks Jun 14 '12 at 0:03
    
@lunboks or accepting a different answer, which still works (at least I'm not aware of it not working) –  Ben Brocka Jun 14 '12 at 0:10

I don't see why the fact that an answer is accepted would change anything. I've never heard of such a rule either. If anything, seeing a link-only answer accepted makes me more prone to converting it to a comment¹ (or deleting it if it's redundant). An accepted answer makes the question less likely to draw attention, and is more of a loss the day the link break.

As usual, the best course of action is you see a link-only answer is to provide real content, either by editing the answer or by writing your own answer. If the answer is recent, leave a comment asking the poster to provide more information; link to how to answer. If this is not possible (because the link is already dead and you don't know what was behind it, or because there's no one available with enough subject knowledge to provide content), or if another answer makes the link-only answer redundant, go ahead and convert/delete/flag.

¹ Since this is a moderator-only action, flag as not an answer unless you're a moderator.

share|improve this answer
    
to flag as not an answer is a risky advice: moderator dealing with your flag may disagree that link-only is eligible. I once had 6 flags in the row declined that way. Much safer option would be to use "Other" flag with the appropriate explanation: it leaves less room for moderator to misinterpret your intent –  gnat Aug 19 '12 at 12:23

Link only answers should indeed be flagged. However when it's the accepted answer things are more tricky. If the accepted answer is "link only" and we opt to delete then:

  • we are going against the wishes of the OP who clearly found whatever was at the other end of that link useful, so much so he/she accepted it

  • we now have a question that doesn't have an accepted answer

We do of course delete link-only accepted answers:

  • if the link is broken

  • it's a link to another Stack Overflow question, in which case we'd close the question as a dupe

I'm hoping Shog will chip in here because there was some discussion amongst the mods and the community team about this particular scenario.

share|improve this answer
    
How about self answers? –  Some Helpful Commenter Jun 14 '12 at 0:04
3  
If the answer is the only answer, it doesn't have an answer, but if there are other, valid answers, then technically it does have an answer. I believe you meant it doesn't have an accepted answer, which, frankly, is something that while encouraged, is not necessary and primarily used for the gamification of the site and not really to help others. After all, it indicates what worked for the person who asked the question, YMMV. –  casperOne Jun 14 '12 at 2:09
    
@casperOne just because a link only answer is the only answer, that doesn't make the question "not have an answer". It just means the link-only answer is a poor answer. –  jcolebrand Jun 14 '12 at 16:32
    
@jcolebrand What I meant was, if the answer is the only answer, and it's deleted/converted, then the question won't have an answer. –  casperOne Jun 14 '12 at 16:33
    
I see. Then in that case I stand by my original answer: "edit it so it's not invalid anymore" –  jcolebrand Jun 14 '12 at 16:37
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@jcolebrand On a site with the traffic of SO, that's simply outside the responsibilities of the moderator. As users, yes, that's what moderators should do, but SO mods rarely have the bandwidth to perform operations like this nor are they expected to. –  casperOne Jun 14 '12 at 17:36
    
Hence: It's not the responsibility of the moderator to make those changes, but the person flagging it. If you're going to flag it, you should first be editing it if possible. –  jcolebrand Jun 14 '12 at 18:04

Flagging link-only answers as "Other" with appropriate "canned" explanation turned out just safer for me.

Works like a charm - eg yesterday, when I successfully flagged an accepted answer having two upvotes.

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

I also think that for blatant link-only answers moderators should dismiss Not an answer flags as helpful, but for the reasons other than flag being technically correct.

share|improve this answer
    
Declining isn't always a "bad" thing, it's often done in order to give across a message; if a post kinda sucks but it isn't actionable, a declined message is a (unfortunately extremely subtle) way to explain why X isn't actionable. Don't be afraid of declined flags, they're pretty uncommon –  Ben Brocka Jun 14 '12 at 3:57
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@BenBrocka I don't know, guidance on declining flags in SE Mod Newsletter looks pretty straightforward to me: "...Users are asked to flag posts to help keep the city street clean. Even if you feel the flag was not technically correct, you don’t want to continually send the message that their help is no longer wanted. That is not what the feature is about..." –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 4:17
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Also note it could just be you got a moderator like casperOne whom agrees with the flag. It could have turned out differently if you had gotten one that would have declined. –  animuson Jun 14 '12 at 6:09
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@animuson yup, the whole bunch of MSO questions tagged not-an-answer makes me feel like using it for link-only answers is like russian roulette. It gets OK or breaks pretty randomly –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 6:17
    
@gnat "don't continually send the message" is not the same as "never ever decline a single flag in your life", which is why declined flags are sort of uncommon, but when we decline one the reason usually is important. –  Ben Brocka Jun 14 '12 at 13:22
    
@BenBrocka sure, when flag is declined by an important reason, or even by isolated one-off mistake, I have no problems with that. The very Mod newsletter I referred, clearly instructs to decline "unhelpful or noise" flags –  gnat Jun 14 '12 at 13:35
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Hm, at some point I should probably start reading the SE Mod Newsletter... –  Yannis Jun 14 '12 at 19:51

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