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I think we can all agree, this sucks:

i think you should take The tutorial HERE! This will help you a lot

If you've been around a little while, you've probably encountered hundreds of answers like this in various forums, some of them even marked as "The Answer" by well-meaning1 forum admins looking to close a thread. We could try to enumerate the commonly-observed problems with it...

  1. Link is probably broken
  2. If link isn't broken, it's spam
  3. If link isn't spam, it's to some broadly-related resource that the answerer found by pressing "I'm feeling lucky" when googling the question's title.

...but the real issue here is that we don't know! Even if the link was originally pointing directly to the most awesomeest answer ever for exactly the question being asked, there's nothing in the answer itself to even hint at what direction we're being pointed in. Strip the markup, and this is what you're left with:

i think you should take The tutorial HERE! This will help you a lot

Is there even one tiny speck of information there? No. Even the title of the page being linked to would have provided something to go on, but that was entirely too much work.

So 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. There's really only one valid exception to this rule, and that's when the question is:

Suggest me some tutorials where i can learn quick.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a bad answer - but when the question is kinda asking for bad answers this is to be expected. Close or flag the question and move on - this is much more efficient than hanging around to babysit it by deleting every crap answer that inevitably shows up.

If you're still reading, you're probably getting really bored by now. "Gee, Shog - answers that contain ZERO information are terrible, horrible, very-bad things? What shocking revelations will you share next?"

Yeah. It's really simple... Except, folks keep getting it wrong and then arguing about it. See, the problem is that once you step away from black-and-white "answers / doesn't answer" decision-making, things get... Interesting.

And all those other answers with links in them

See, this is an answer:

You probably want a FileOutputStream

And so is this:

look at the manual for preg_split, third argument

Yes, they're both very short, and yes, they contain links. But strip the markup, and you still get at least a little bit of useful information. Does that mean these answers should forever hang around the site? No, not necessarily - if it turns out they're just not that useful, they should probably still be removed - or at very least, down-voted so that they rank below other answers.

Just remember: if the text of the post contains an honest attempt at answering the question, then it is an answer - so don't flag it otherwise, and if you do, don't complain if your flag gets declined.

Answers & Apples

If you're still confused, forget about answers. Think about apples instead:

A, NAA, A, NAA, VLQ

Answers are just like that, but less tasty in pies.


1 By which I mean to say, "criminally lazy"

share|improve this question
6  
So basically the take-away is a crappy answer is only link-only if it couldn't even be understood without the link, and to flag those as VLQ? And if it doesn't meet that criteria, just downvote it? Makes sense. –  hichris123 Mar 14 at 3:25
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Ah, I see you've removed the "apple" that looked more like a nectarine. –  animuson Mar 14 at 3:28
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Technically, Red Delicious is a type of apple, even though it tastes like wet sawdust. But, enough about apples. –  Shog9 Mar 14 at 3:51
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What would applesauce be? Flack Overstow? –  Blue Ice Mar 14 at 5:17
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IMHO the "See, this is an answer" examples would fit much better as comments though... –  ThiefMaster Mar 14 at 7:16
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I so agree. It's so annoying that many of my flags to link-only answers as 'not an answer' are batch rejected before they have a chance to be queued and community-moderated. Than I'm warned I have bag flag history... –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Mar 14 at 7:46
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"the title of the page being linked to would have provided something" -- consider covering the case when title or content of the linked page is provided to readers in tooltip –  gnat Mar 14 at 8:15
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This seems like a slightly more appropriate title: Your answer is in another orchard: when is an answer not an answer? (i.e. castle -> orchard); this fits better with the not-an-apple answer –  Mike Pennington Mar 14 at 9:23
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Isn't that citrus more like a wrong answer? (Or: how metaphors can kick infinite discussions based on different interpretations.) Possible duplicate of Are answers that just contain links elsewhere really “good answers”?, really — but I'm glad to finally have it officially declared that “answers” that only say “look at this different place” are “not an answer” and thus to be deleted. –  Gilles Mar 14 at 10:10
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@Shog9 So this is fine: "Use the SUM function" but this isn't: "Use this function" –  Kermit Mar 14 at 15:49
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Well, both of those are too short, @Fresh. But yes - when MS breaks that link, the former at least gives me something to go on. –  Shog9 Mar 14 at 16:12
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Red Delicious is the Big Lie in action. This clarification on NAA is good. Like Honeycrisp good. –  Kate Gregory Mar 20 at 12:56
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Great rules of thumb, thanks for posting this. Although, that sign is a completely valid answer to "where are the apples?". –  Jason C Mar 21 at 0:22
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Yeah, there are always edge-cases @Jason. Can't turn off your brain for a minute around here! –  Shog9 Mar 21 at 0:23
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Although it does sort of reek of a Wile E Coyote trick. –  Jason C Mar 21 at 0:26

3 Answers 3

Strip the markup

We could experiment with disabling link markup and hiding clickable URLs in new answers during the 5-minute grace period, then enabling them again after the grace period (to prevent ninja edits and whatnot from circumventing that).

If in the first 5 minutes you cannot tell the gist of an answer because there are no functioning links or clickable URLs, then it's most probably not an answer. If it still won't get edited past the 5-minute grace period, there's no reason to let it stay.

It sounds like a strange idea on paper which might translate into horrible UX for the answerer, but I think misidentification of link-only answers and non-answers is the least of our moderation problems... in any case, I'm just thinking aloud here.

Meanwhile, I'm going to continue using "I refuse to click your link" as an excuse when commenting on link-only answers.

share|improve this answer
1  
It's not a bad idea, but frankly I don't have much sympathy for folks who can't be bothered to type out even one relevant symbol when they're padding out their links. In fact, I was going to write up a proposal for increasing the minimum answer length, until I got sucked into another stupid link-only-er-mostly-er-well-a-link-was-present discussion. –  Shog9 Mar 14 at 3:43
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@Shog9 That also brings up an idea for better heuristics, detecting some of these very poor quality answers, and possibly even for NAA's. –  hichris123 Mar 14 at 3:47
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I don't like this idea. I usually use the grace period to confirm all the links in my post work correctly and point to where I expected them to point (given that I tend to rearrange stuff when drafting an answer). –  Troyen Mar 14 at 5:51
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it would be better to disable link markup when displaying flagged answers for moderator / 10K review –  gnat Mar 14 at 8:31
    
that already happens, @gnat. –  Shog9 Mar 14 at 14:50
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How about we also enable revisions in the first 5 minutes (remove the 5 minute grace period). –  Kermit Mar 14 at 15:12

I don't totally agree on your statement that a single sentence with a link to another resource is an answer in most cases. When the questions are lacking any effort I agree this could be a decent answer, but probably it is better to close the question anyway.

In my opinion an answer must qualify to the same rule as questions do:

Answers need to have sufficient information to understand the answer. The answer should be described in a reasonable level of detail and / or include a minimal example of the answer.

To explain myself a little further.

When an answer says:

You probably want a FileOutputStream [LINK]

I don't think that is an answer. It still needs to make clear HOW the FileOutputStream could be applied in the solution.

share|improve this answer
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It's clearer, thanks. It still isn't entirely helpful; because how much information is considered enough to understand the answer? Is that skill level dependent? I may understand an answer that says, "Use a group by" and you may not. Does that mean the answer is 'not an answer'? What's a "reasonable level of detail" For an answer? For a question, it's when we can use the code to reproduce the problem. What is it for an answer? I'm not trying to come down hard on you, just trying to pre-empt the many questions and finanglings we'd get if this were policy. –  George Stocker Mar 20 at 12:24
    
@GeorgeStocker: I understand your point. As MSO newbie I am having trouble sometimes formulating it in a way it can be converted to policy. I will update the answer to make myself clear. –  Patrick Hofman Mar 20 at 12:27
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It's an answer, but it isn't a very good one. It's not "thanks that worked" or "I have this problem" or "buy Gucci purses here" - it's an answer. You can downvote it or leave a comment suggesting that the poster expand it a little (This would be a better answer if you explained how the FileOutputStream could be applied) or even edit it yourself if you have 2K and know how the FileOutputStream could be applied. None of which you can do to things that aren't answers. –  Kate Gregory Mar 20 at 12:53
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@KateGregory: but is a link without any explanation an answer? In my opinion not. –  Patrick Hofman Mar 20 at 13:08
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Forget links, @patrick. They're a red herring in all these discussions. A post that does not contain any information is not an answer. –  Shog9 Mar 20 at 13:22
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Without any information - "try this", "click here", "tutorial" - it's not an answer. With a class name or function name etc it's a poor answer, but an answer. Ignoring what the link is to and just reading the text. Explanations turn bad answers into better answers. –  Kate Gregory Mar 20 at 13:23
    
@KateGregory: but should they be comments then? –  Patrick Hofman Mar 20 at 13:27
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There are times I'm too busy for an answer and will comment "look into LongComplexAPIName I think it might work for you" but I would be wary of saying a particular style of answer must be flagged, converted to a comment deleted etc. We have downvoting for a reason. –  Kate Gregory Mar 20 at 13:30
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@PatrickHofman No, it shouldn't be converted to a comment because it's an answer to the question. It's a low quality answer, but still an answer. I can have this problem, read that answer, not click the link, and still learn enough to understand how to solve my problem. That makes it an answer. Now you feel that it is lacking in detail, and doesn't go into enough depth. That's fine. It's entirely okay to feel that way. Downvote it if you think that, that's fine. But don't say that it's not an an answer just because it's a low quality answer. It's still an answer. –  Servy Mar 26 at 14:29

The answer to your question is Yes and No.

The examples you supplied, are clearly not an appropriate or complete answer (noting the one that got up-voted as well).

Generally, links are for reference, and Answers are for Solutions. If an Answer only contains a reference, then I would not consider that as a Solution except in certain cases (example Q/A below, which would be valid in my opinion)

Some cases do not require a lot of explanation, and a link would suffice provided that link is RELIABLE. However your points about spam and malicious links are valid. Additionally, links expire, sites go down, pages get moved, and so forth which all affect the quality of the response.

A good example of a valid link with a short response to a question may be something like :

Q: Where do I go to sign up for an S3 API account on Amazon ?

A: To sign up for an S3 API account on Amazon, go [link here]

To help minimize this issue from the posting side, try and phrase your questions so they don't encourage responses with links only, or state in the question that you wish for the complete solution to be self-contained in the Answer post, and that answers that are not in this form will not be accepted.

My suggestion to help minimize this issue would be as follows (from SO admin side) :

  1. Disallow links in WYSIWYG unless they are properly referenced using the UI.
  2. When adding a link with the UI, force additional information to be added with it (Title, Long description + Code, etc)
  3. On save, SO should check the link against Short URL services, and then against a malicious site filter (similar to AdBlock), and if something found, flag the user for spam, and hide their answer for moderation.
  4. Before database insert, check if link is alive, and download a page preview (like Facebook, and other services do), and attach that with the URL.
  5. Lastly, for inactive threads, on first browse after so much time has elapsed, run the links through those checks again (#3, and #4)

I have implemented this mechanism on several clients WordPress sites and it works like a charm. No more spam, but open threads. Link posts show the user what the link is going to, and posts are automatically kept hidden and flagged for admin if a someone goes through those steps with a spam/viral/malicious link.

Having this implemented is really not that complex (code-wise), however I think there are a lot of politics involved for something like that to be implemented on SO. (like, this post would probably require at least a million upvotes)

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I don't think that's a good example because I don't believe that's an appropriate question for Stack Overflow. I think each of your suggestions should be separate questions, although I remember requests very similar to #3 and #5, and I'm really not sure what #4 is meant to entail (you should perhaps add some screenshots of how you plan for this to work), and isn't #4 pretty much the opposite of disallowing new users from posting images (which we already do), or will conversion be disabled for posts by new users? –  Dukeling Apr 2 at 16:14
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I came up with that example off the top of my head --- more accurately for SO would be where can i find the documentation for S3 API ... or Which API on Amazon should I use for storage. Those are both technical questions and cover development issues which may have a simple answer. The point is that there are some questions that require very little legitimately in the response, even if the ones I am providing may not be the best example of this. –  Dan Apr 2 at 16:56
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For every single occurrence of where an answer containing just a link is a sufficient answer I remember having seen, the corresponding question is off topic (mostly falling under "asking us to recommend or find a tool, library or favorite off-site resource") (with the exception of API calls, which are often just URLs). –  Dukeling Apr 2 at 18:13
    
Most answers to questions are wrong now anyway. I will no longer be contributing due to this, and all the drama associated with sourcing a solution to a problem. Wrong answers, the name-calling, the down-voting lurkers, and so forth. It's too much. This site really needs a rollback to before all this, and nuke accounts with hardened requirement to provide legitimate photo ID on account creation. Too many bots! –  Dan Apr 2 at 18:26
    
I do think Stack Overflow is on a slippery slope, but I think name-calling, downvoting or bots are not part of the problem. I think the real problem is a discrepancy between what people think Stack Overflow is / should be, whether this be related to specific guidelines, or just in general. This is a perfectly good example - some think link-only answers are appropriate (and post / upvote them), some think they're not useful / don't belong here and downvote / flag them for deletion. Was there ever a "before all this"? –  Dukeling Apr 2 at 18:51
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A general problem with the internet is that you can't really prove that someone is who they say they are (what prevents me from just downloading a "legitimate photo ID" of someone else?), and Stack Overflow tends to go for the quick account creation - this allows new users to post content without much effort to maximize the possibility of increasing the knowledge base, but these users also don't really know what's appropriate for the site, so it also increases the low-quality / inappropriate content. –  Dukeling Apr 2 at 18:58

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