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Sometimes, someone will post code asking a question and have other, unrelated errors, and people will answer and address only those errors. These errors are unrelated to the actual question topic.

I recently downvoted an answer such as this - an answer I, as a potential future viewer of the question (from google searching, or otherwise) would have not found relevant at all. Even though the answer was 100% informative to the user asking the question it still did not address the question.

Is this sort of situation a situation where a downvote is appropriate? Or are there alternative ways to respond which are better?

A practical example would be - Sub or Function not defined

That answer is technically correct and addresses other bugs in the question's code but does not answer the actual question.

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It might sometimes be appropriate to flag the answer as "not an answer" – Pëkka Sep 2 '12 at 21:33
Do you have a practical example? To me it almost sounds as if the OP asked the wrong question. Or perhaps looked for a problem in the wrong direction. In which case an apparently "unrelated" answer could be perfectly fine. – Bart Sep 2 '12 at 21:35
@Pekka - not really. The first reason for declining a flag is "flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, or an altogether wrong answer". Down-votes are the most appropriate response in this case. – ChrisF Sep 2 '12 at 21:39
@Bart I added a link to one of the recent examples. This sort of thing seemingly comes up often – enderland Sep 2 '12 at 21:39
I think this often happens because the OP asked a question because of a misunderstanding they have. Clearing up that misunderstanding is helpful even if the OP didn't ask that question. It's definitely good to answer the question (no matter how misguided) but other people asking the same question are likely to also be more inexperienced users with conceptual gaps, so a broad interpretation of what the OP asks is still helpful to people landing there. Perhaps editing the question would be better than penalising the answerers for being genuinely helpful. – AndrewC Sep 2 '12 at 21:55
..and I think it's bad form to downvote other answers for failings you didn't make in yours; allow the community to decide which answers are most appropriate. Consider upvoting answers which were helpful in a different way to your own, rather than downvoting less excellent ones. – AndrewC Sep 2 '12 at 22:09
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The suggested reason for down-voting answers is "...not useful". What that means for a given question and answer is up to you.

Personally, I take a lot of things into account, including the question, the sorts of readers I expect to encounter the question in the future, other answers, and the general shape of the author's gravatar image.

But you're free to use whatever meaning for "useful" you find... uh... useful.

And after you vote, if there's a problem with an answer that the author could correct or which might mislead future readers, you should also consider leaving corrections, constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement in a comment.

See also: Why do you cast downvotes on answers?

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Good mention of Gravatar. It's very difficult to downvote someone with a disembodied head next to their name. – animuson Sep 2 '12 at 23:26
@animuson, "'Tis but a scratch!" :) – Benjol Sep 3 '12 at 11:51

Downvote anything which isn't a good response to the question.

This is like grade school. If you answer another question on the exam other than what is being asked, you still get 0 ("downvoted") for that answer. It doesn't matter if your answer is correct, but answers the wrong question. It's still wrong in the context of the question.

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A practical example would be - Sub or Function not defined

That answer is technically correct and addresses other bugs in the question's code but does not answer the actual question.

In this particular case, I would agree with what the answerer you confronted said: the question is too poorly specified for any of the answers to be considered legitimate. It's a question that by all rights should be closed as "Not a Real Question" until it is cleared up.

In the general case, you have to use your own judgment. That's why downvotes are anonymous: so that you can excercise them or not as you choose to.

Sometimes, not answering the question is the right answer. However much someone may want to do something a certain way, that may be the wrong way. Thus, a good answer is one that explains why you shouldn't do it that way and what the more reasonable alternative is.

And sometimes it's a valid but unpopular alternative. I wouldn't necessarily downvote someone for suggesting an alternative solution to the OP's problem (unless they were ignoring the OP's request not to do so), but I would only upvote it if it were better in some objective sense and if the OP's approach were clearly bad.

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The first reason on the menu moderators use when declining a flag is

"flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, or an altogether wrong answer".

Down-votes are the most appropriate response in these cases.

"Not an answer" flags should be reserved for cases where the poster has:

  1. Posted their own question.
  2. Asked for clarification on the question or another answer.
  3. Replied to another answer (as though Stack Exchange were a forum)

for example.

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If the post “does not answer the actual question” at all, then deletion is appropriate. A custom flag would be better than “not an answer” if verifying the complete irrelevance of the answer would require subject knowledge. – Gilles Sep 2 '12 at 23:31

I can't comment on this particular case because I lack knowledge of the subject. Side advice is certainly useful sometimes, even if it doesn't address the question that was asked. If you see an answer that looks like it would help the asker even though it wouldn't solve the problem that led him to ask this question, my recommendation is to edit the answer. Add a few words to explain what the problem is. Link to other answers, perhaps. Make it clear what is the immediate cause of the problem, and what are recommendations that will avoid other problems down the line.

Your first reflex when you see something that isn't quite right, but isn't completely wrong either, should be to edit.

I'd only do that if the advice is both good and substantial. If it's less than 500 characters, it should probably be a comment instead; flag it with a custom message (“while good advice, this doesn't answer the question at all: please convert to comment”). And if the advice is dubious in the first place (“don't do this” is not always good advice, sometimes there are good reasons to do unusual things), downvote, comment, and perhaps flag.

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