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Or, to put it another way: is it a problem that people keep asking question that have multiple, obvious duplicates?

I do not intend to address the problem of hard to search for questions, nor of finely distinguished, subtly different problems; just simple questions with a few typical phrasings and fairly clear answers.

Taking an example from SO today:

At this point, Stack Overflow has been operating for more than 11 months and has been open to the public for most of that time. There are more than 200,000 questions and 1.1 million entities in the database.

A moment's thought might have suggested that the question could already have been asked, and searching for c++ compiler for windows (link) returns half-usable questions on the first page including C,C++ compiler for Vista. Presumable these came up when the OP went to ask, too.

I find this kind of thing a little annoying. It is noise, and in small amounts easily ignored. But there seems to be a lot of it.

The system already tries to preempt the worst of this by offering duplicates when composing a question, but (as noted in Should you gain rep for asking a duplicate question?) the incentive from the rep system is to post anyway.

Note also that, by design, the existence of an answer on Wikipedia or some other site that Google knows of, shouldn't necessarily prevent a question-and-answer here.

So, does this "problem" need addressing? Is it a strength of the system? Irrelevant? If it is a problem, what can actually be done? Remove the rep incentive by canceling gains for posts closed as duplicates? Something else?

Suggestions so far:

  • Improve the search — Use Google if necessary.
  • Make a habit of showing the posters of duplicates how easily they could have found the existing instance. That is leaving a comment on the lines of "Searching for "[windows] c++ compiler" turned up several results which might be useful to you." so that the user can be better prepared in the future.
  • Make the suggestions on the "Ask a question" page more interactive (pop-up previews or similar)
  • Collect authoritative answers to the most frequent questions by subject matter.

  • Adjust the rep system:

I am personally reluctant to go with adjustments to the rep system as the first remedy — that shouldn't be the first tool we reach for, even if it is the most powerful.


and rather obliquely

Hey! I found an existing instance (or close to it) for this question. ::sigh::

Edit: Diddled the title because TheTXI answered the question as written, and showed me that I wrote it wrong. Thanks.

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10 Answers 10

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This has come up before, in fact this question may be a duplicate!

I'll suggest someone search if I first search and find the duplicates easily. I'll then post the search I did so that anyone who actually did search can compare my search to theirs to learn why theirs didn't find the duplicates and mine did.

I don't want to suggest people search for more than two minutes before posting. Five sounded reasonable to me, but then I'm an old guy - these young people, brought up with the Internet, have no patience, so we shouldn't expect it of them.

What we need is for the search box to get fixed so that it's practical for them to search. We also need more interaction in the title box when entering a new question. Right now, you have to control-click on one of the links to get it to pop up in a separate tab, go read it, then come back. I'd like to have at least a preview right there.

Finally, I think we need to get the most frequent duplicates into a language and subject-area FAQ. In fact, we should be looking not only for the most obvious duplicates, but also for the underlying question. The answers to these should become FAQs.

Then, both the Search box and the Question box will find the FAQs first.

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"this question may be a duplicate!" Wouldn't surprise me, but I did look first. Turned up the various related links that way. – dmckee Jul 20 '09 at 18:01
I like the strategy of posting successful searches. That will help, and I have done it myself on occasion, but I never thought to make a habit of it. – dmckee Jul 20 '09 at 18:02
I mean real successful searches, not lmgify. – John Saunders Jul 20 '09 at 18:18
I read you to mean a comment like "Searching with '[c++] windows compiler' turned up N result which may useful to you.", No? LMGTFY is rude and rarely warranted. – dmckee Jul 20 '09 at 18:24
Actually, I usually go further, and post the URL resulting from the search, for instance[sql]+merge. – John Saunders Jul 20 '09 at 19:02

We have considered adding an interstitial page, for < 100 rep users, that they will see after clicking the "Ask Your Question" button on the /ask page.

This post-ask interstitial page would contain a more comprehensive search for duplicate questions based on the title, body, and tags. The new user would have to scroll down and click "yes, I still want to ask this question".

(I do wonder if users might perversely want to click through regardless of duplicate status, as at that point, they've invested all the effort in writing their question and tagging it..)

Right now the ask page only searches on title, which some people seem to think is the greatest and most miraculous thing since sliced bread.. but I find it lacking.

edit: this is now deployed, and enabled on Stack Overflow only. All new users (rep <= 10) get this mandatory advice page ...

... when they attempt to ask a question via questions/ask. At the top of it:

Do your homework

Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn't meet your needs. This demonstrates that you've taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and most of all it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

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Crazy idea: what if there was a giant search bar above the other fields in the "ask a question" page? that way they would hit it before they type out their question. – Kyle Cronin Jul 26 '09 at 16:29
Similarly, these same users need help with tags. Don't let them fill in tags manually, but instead take them to an interstitial tag help page. Perhaps it could suggest tags based on the tags used on the "similar" questions. You could show both the tag and the description of the tag (once you allow tag descriptions). – John Saunders Oct 1 '09 at 21:54
@Jeff: wouldn't it make more sense to show this advice page the very first time a user asks a question? Any user could sign up, answer a question, receive a single upvote and then they wouldn't be bothered by the page when they proceed to ask their question. – Andy E Sep 29 '10 at 12:25
@andy trust me, the types of users this is addressed to are not the ones answering questions. And the first answer upvote would not be enough, you need > 10 rep for it not to show. – Jeff Atwood Sep 29 '10 at 18:31
+1. But since there is the "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind" checkbox, you could display this message regardless of rep. Maybe make that checkbox only available when the user has already asked at least one upvoted question? That would solve @Andy's mentioned issue. Of course the checkbox-status should float to all associated accounts -- although a reminder every few months for low-activity users might be (considered annoying) useful. – Tobias Kienzler Sep 30 '10 at 8:47

I got hammered for asking a duplicate question: an introduction to the less pleasant side of SO.

But it never even occurred to me to perform a search first. I wonder if it's a design issue? Looking at the site now (through Chrome) the search box is virtually invisible. You have all of these nice, big, attention-grabbing buttons and tucked away in the corner is a little box of which two of the borders aren't even visible.

How about grouping Search and Ask Question together, separated from the rest by clear space, giving the Search word the same style and prominence as Ask Question, in such a way that you're led to do Search first, then Ask a Question?

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the onblur search of title of the /ask page did nothing for you? Some people think it's better than the search function. – Jeff Atwood Jul 26 '09 at 12:54
This also suggest a cultural issue surrounding how we close: in an ideal world, closes would happen quickly but politely, and would include pointers to the existing versions, but not a lot of abuse or downvotes. The pointer bit is built in now, and many people include one in a comment on the first vote to close. – dmckee Jul 26 '09 at 14:16
I don't understand the term 'onblur' - do you mean the thing that suggests similar questions? If so, in my case, it didn't find any similar questions. Once prompted, a manual search revealed lots, suggesting that the prompter isn't very accurate. – serialhobbyist Jul 26 '09 at 17:54

A different thought-experiment: merge 'ask a question' and 'search' into ONE page with a single textbar. Invite visitors to "ask a question or search for a topic" there, and run the string they enter through a site-wide search.

If search matches are sufficiently good (by your favorite heuristic):

  • show those matches rather than a textbox for entering a question body
  • ask if the user found what he was looking for. if so, let the user indicate which answer[s] matched the originally entered question [to improve search over time]
  • include an option to "submit a new question" if the matches don't have the information desired

If search matches aren't good enough:

  • show a question-entry page, similar to the current 'ask a question' page, autofilling the title with the original string entered
  • show a list of the best matches on the side / in some more subdued way. The user should be encouraged to use those matches as 'related links', or to borrow tags from them.
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+1 you just blew my mind. With, like, a box fan. Something with a Beaufort number of at least 5. – Pops Jul 16 '10 at 20:03
Having search on its own separate page would help. – Raedwald Oct 21 '11 at 0:18

I've had several instances where I did look through the suggested questions when asking and did not find a duplicate. Now I do a Google search using, if I remember, before asking a question. I've had better luck finding existing questions this way.

I went to SO and typed in your example question "C++ Compiler for Windows" and got this response:

That's not a very good title. Can you add some more unique words to it?

Using Google, it was the first (non-sponsored) result and there were 9 more pages of potential matches.

Based on this, my suggestion would be to improve search. If you can't do better than Google, then use Google instead.

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To be sure, it is easy to fail when searching for previous instances. – dmckee Jul 20 '09 at 17:59
have you tried this recently? maybe you should. – Jeff Atwood Apr 10 '11 at 8:22

The search engine seems powerful. With tagging, you can probably find what you're looking for faster than using Google if you use tags correctly.

Consider this though.

google search pure text

so search is a lot more vibrant and colorful.

The search results page may something of an issue. It feels a little tight, and usually makes for a lot of scrolling.

It contains information that isn't necessarily relevant to your search: namely people's avatars and voting results.

It looks great, but it might be a bit harder to use because it looks too good and might be slightly more jarring to browse through than a google search results page.

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we are now FORCING search terms to tags, if the search term maps to a top 40 tag. This may help. – Jeff Atwood Jul 26 '09 at 11:09

The "suggester" after you enter the subject seems a bit lacking.

For example, this question, does not come up at all as a suggestion if you type in "How do you open a file in C++?" as your question. This is odd since that is the title of that question. (It also tells you it's a subjective question and will be closed, but that's a different issue.)

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The "subjective detector" is presumably a Bayesian filter of some kind. Not sure why it wouldn't like that, but they can be unpredictable. – dmckee Jul 21 '09 at 4:20
Oh, actually I figured that out. Jeff posted that it's just a regexp, and there is a trigger on any question that includes "you" or "your". – smackfu Jul 21 '09 at 15:48

Why not split the ask question for "low" rep users into two pages?

The first page is the where they enter the title. This then does the "related questions" search and presents them with a list of possible existing questions.

There would then be a "my question is different to all these and I want to proceed" button which takes them to the page where they can enter the body of their question.

Not sure how to ensure that they've actually read at least one of the suggested questions though.

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I don't know how much more you can do to have people search for an answer first. I mean we already do a search as they type in the title of their question to see what matches pop up. Outside of forcing them to go through another search process before they even get to the Ask Question page, there isn't much you could do. And even if you did that, I don't see why you would be likely to find results any bit better there than elsewhere.

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Agreed as far as this goes. But is they anything that can be done to encourage them to take the results of the automatic search seriously. I am convinced---without evidence---that many people don't even read the titles presented to them by the automatic search, or disregard them. Perhaps because the incentive is to ask and garner a bit more rep. – dmckee Jul 20 '09 at 17:32
dmckee: Unless you take away rep from asking questions, that is unlikely to happen. Or you could take away rep for items closed for various reasons, which has been requested in the past. – TheTXI Jul 20 '09 at 17:51
see my response – Jeff Atwood Jul 26 '09 at 11:10

Are separate "Ask a Question" and "Search" widgets necessary? Chrome shows us that separate search and location bars are unnecessary (the old-school-ness of Firefox now annoys me...), so cannot SE use the same?

In any case, I hate their location. I seldom use maximized windows, so "Search" is barely visible, and "Ask Question" is off the screen. Search, which I think should be a core, integral primary feature, is marginalized as something that comes after the "About" and "FAQ" sections! I'd like to see them (preferably combined) Prominently Displayed directly underneath the community logo. (Excuse the quick mockup)

alt text

Besides, with regards to the question suggestions when posting a question, it's amazing what people will do to ignore something that they don't expect and don't perceive to need. (Even when we devs spent countless hours brainstorming, designing and implementing an elegant and helpful suggestion... Grrrrr...) "Why is this coming up? I'm just trying to type my question! [ignore + scroll]..."

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SE sites aren't directly analogous to Chrome. Chrome can do "if it's a location, go there; else Google it" but we can't create a new question with just the title, on our sites. – Pops Sep 29 '10 at 13:34
Yes, I can see that I may have skipped a couple of mental steps. While I know that the SE and Chrome aren't directly analogous, in my mind (at least), it makes sense that if the related questions field is going to show up anyway, why not combine the experience? – gWaldo Sep 29 '10 at 16:36

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