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I have often wondered at the practice on Stack Overflow, Server Fault, and the other sites where someone will ask a question and an answer will come in that says Look here: http://link elsewhere. Rarely will the link have exactly the answer necessary -- often it's an entire article -- yet these answers get voted up.

Why is that, exactly? I realize this is subjective, but my own thoughts are that one should try and give the answer (even if the answer is 'no, it can't be done' or 'no, I don't think it can be done' -- very different answers) and then if you have a link that explains it, go ahead and post it within the answer.

What does the community think about this?

For more information, see "How do I write a good answer?" in the Help Center.

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There's an FAQ started on the subject of how to write good answers. –  tvanfosson Jul 22 '09 at 20:07
    
Also, there's a closely related question (I know, I wrote it) covering basically the same material at meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7652/… –  tvanfosson Jul 22 '09 at 20:09
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@Kastermester, sometimes questions are the best answers. "Can you help me climb through this window?" "Why would you want to when there's an open door right there?" "oh." –  devinb Jul 28 '09 at 12:14
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Related: Why is linking bad? –  Neil Fein Nov 22 '10 at 3:09
    
"yet these answers get voted up" -- that part still happens, still bothers me. I almost always flag (and often downvote) link-only answers when I see them (the link is usually useful, but should almost always be either just a comment or fleshed out into a full answer). –  Ben Lee Apr 19 '12 at 19:14
    
The problem occurs when a question has been answered multiple times, on SO for example and the same question has been posted again without any attempt to search the forum first. I am against duplicating material for the sake of doing so and it would be nice if it would be easier to mark a post as a possible duplicate (with linnk attached) –  Mike.Beeler Mar 11 '13 at 19:52
    
Would it be a bad answer if you post a link to the Wayback Machine and said what paragraph it is at? For example, here is a link to this page on it: web.archive.org/web/20131112160438/http://… –  AwesomeUser Mar 15 at 17:13
    
A link to a respectable resource isn't as good as some random spewing nonsense with no citations to support his "factual information". Some questions are best answered by links. It's a nice way to say, "here: let me google that for you." –  Cole9350 May 27 at 17:10

10 Answers 10

up vote 382 down vote accepted

I think that links are fantastic, but they should never be the only piece of information in your answer.

An analogy would be if you are standing at 100 Main St. and you ask where 98 Main St. is. A good answer would be

"It is the next building over". points at building

If you instead include a link, you are saying

"I'll direct you to a tourism information booth, and they will be able to provide you with your answer and much more!"

Which is great, however, you haven't answered their question at all, you've deferred the answering to somewhere else. And in this (fictitious) case the person has to take quite a detour to get to their destination.

When someone goes on Stack Overflow, the question "answer" should actually contain an answer. Not just a bunch of directions towards the answer. You should provide context to all your links, otherwise the OP will have no idea what they are clicking into.

I think of all my answers on Stack Overflow as if they are technical emails to a client. And unless the client asked "Can you resend that link?" there is no excuse for sending them an official email with only links.

It's also a way of saying "I have absolutely no value beyond a search using a common search engine." Which is completely untrue, so why sell yourself short?

Linkrot is a whole other reason why "only links" is a terrible response.

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If I see a post with no answers and I know a link which will answer the question, but I only have time to post that link (I'm heading for the train right now) then I'd still post it. "Just a useful link" is better than nothing at all. It's just not as good as link + context. Obviously in that situation I'd come back later and add context, but that may be an hour later... –  Jon Skeet Jul 23 '09 at 12:28
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@Jon fair enough, but I can't read your intentions from the 'just links' provided. I'm saying that in the hour before you add the necessary context, I would definitely not upvote your answer. –  devinb Jul 23 '09 at 12:33
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And that's fair enough - but that doesn't mean it's not helpful. If it gets the answer to the OP within a minute of him posting the question instead of an hour later, I'd say that's a win whether it gets any upvotes or not :) –  Jon Skeet Jul 23 '09 at 13:46
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@Jon et al. wouldn't it be better to post the link as a comment? This is not a rhetoric question :) –  brandizzi May 26 '11 at 14:45
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@bradizzi: No, I don't think so. It's an answer, effectively - and if you get time later, you're likely to expand that answer to include some more help text. I agree it's not an ideal answer, but it's not really just commenting on the question - it's providing the OP with an answer to their problem. –  Jon Skeet May 26 '11 at 14:50
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@brandizzi: No. Answers and comments are differentiated by content, not length. If you're answering the OP's question, then it's an answer. If you're commenting on the OP's question, then it's a comment. –  endolith Oct 26 '11 at 23:25
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A newbie question like how to do this ?? And no description within it. I mean poster of the Question do not describe what he has done. In that case a link of tutorial will be a good answer since at least there can be something from where the user can have some source of knowledge. And we are not going to code every thing for him or write a tutorial for incomplete answer –  DivineDesert Apr 5 '12 at 9:58
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I was sent here from an answer I wrote. The links I gave were the exact answer to the question asked. The articles linked to were detailed descriptions of detailed procedures from well-established sites. The definition of useless is me paraphrasing the articles and taking all original screen shots. It's the Internet and that fundamentally means links. Forgive me for this, but get over it. That boat sailed long ago. And linkrot? Give me a break. –  Tom Ligda Apr 18 '12 at 20:28
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@TomLigda Linkrot is a fact. –  Grant Thomas May 17 '12 at 11:45
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@TomLigda: If the question was properly answered by a link to the documentation, then a link to the documentation should have been provided in a comment and the question closed. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 29 '12 at 17:31
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Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime. An "answer" with solely a link is a message to the user that maybe he should've done the research first before posting the question. –  chharvey Dec 14 '12 at 3:38
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Link-only or mostly-link answers on StackOverflow should NEVER be highly upvoted. I can't tell you how many times I read an answer on SO with the most important info contained in a link... I click the link, only to get a 404 error page or a domain squatter. Even for questions only 2 years old (2010). Get it through your head: pages on the internet are not forever –  Michael Butler Mar 12 '13 at 19:51
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I'm glad you remembered linkrot. A part of me wishes the linkrot link, itself, was a dead url... –  Aaron R. Jul 31 '13 at 22:46
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Yes, links are part of the fabric of the internet. I just fail to see how this could possibly have been construed as "links will never cause any sort of trouble". Does everything now work as intended on the internet all the time and I just didn't get the memo? –  depa Sep 15 '13 at 16:30
    
Thanks, for the tip –  Okiemute Omuta Mar 21 at 7:00

While they will sometimes not have the answer necessary, in my experience they often do.

It's always nice to include a summary of the content and how it pertains to the question, but if I were asking a question which was already answered well on another site, I'd certainly rather have the link than nothing!

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I was thinking even just a 'yes, it can be done, see here' would be preferable to 'See here' sort of thing. –  romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:02
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In my experience, "link only" answers are usually about to be edited to be more helpful anyway. Maybe I'm not seeing the really bad ones though. –  Jon Skeet Jul 22 '09 at 20:11
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Well, I certainly can't debate your experience. :) Maybe I'm just looking at less-popular (less interesting?) questions.. –  romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:14
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Don't forget my experience is only in a few tags - popular ones, admittedly, but I doubt that I read more than 5% of questions. –  Jon Skeet Jul 22 '09 at 20:27
    
I've seen it both ways -- answers that get update and ones that don't. Usually it's the higher rep answers that only use the link as a placeholder. –  tvanfosson Jul 22 '09 at 20:32
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(un +1) I agree that I'd rather have the link than nothing. But if I've done any research at all, then it's possible that I've seen those links, and I'm looking for a different perspective/explanation. I go to SO when I'm looking for someone to answer a question that I couldn't find the answer to. If they're just going to do the same search I did, then they aren't actually useful to me. –  devinb Jul 22 '09 at 21:19
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That's possible - but it's also possible that you haven't done that research. A lot of people don't seem to have done. Indeed, if the obvious answer isn't useful, I think it's useful for the questioner to say that - and why. –  Jon Skeet Jul 22 '09 at 22:42
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I've seen a shocking number of cases where my provision of a link to a page in the MSDN Library is useful not only because of the link - but because they didn't know about the MSDN Library. –  John Saunders Jul 23 '09 at 10:19
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I absolutely agree with you Joh?n. Those links ARE useful. But, my point was simply that if you are providing the links and nothing else, then you have not added any useful context to the question. The fact that people may not know about MSDN doesn't make "MSDN" a useful answer to every .NET question. Or Jon just posting "C# In Depth" to every C# question. The top answerers all have strong explanatory posts that contain links, not consist of links. –  devinb Jul 23 '09 at 11:52
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Just "MSDN" isn't useful - but a link to the specific relevant topic may be useful. Still not as useful as explanation as well but possibly still useful. Put it this way - if you've posted a question and the only answer is one which only contains a link, but that link tells you exactly what you need to know, then your question is answered. In that situation, it's hard to see how that bare-link answer hasn't added anything - it's taken the questioner from not knowing the answer to knowing the answer. –  Jon Skeet Jul 23 '09 at 12:26
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Jon I think you're missing out on part of it tho. Leave the link as "canonical answer, reference and attribution" but copy over the important bits as well to save everyone some hassle ... –  jcolebrand May 11 '11 at 19:55
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@drachenstern: Don't I cover that in "include a summary of the content" though? –  Jon Skeet May 11 '11 at 20:04
    
@Jon, perhaps. I suppose that could be a matter of interpretation tho. I have found that with linkers, they come in two variety: those who are trying to go ahead and get the resource on the board before expounding on the answer, and those who absolutely don't care to help. For the latter group, I want to make sure this is clear. For the former, they are going to do that anyways, and often give a plainer explanation than the linked resource would. –  jcolebrand May 11 '11 at 20:19
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@JonSkeet I have found many links useful in many questions that have been answered. I actually prefer to read the source information to fully understand the answer to the question. The problem is that there have been many times the links no longer work! If you don't at least post something summarizing the answer, it is worthless because links become stale all the time. –  11101101b Jul 23 '12 at 14:16
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I believe there is no problem with links too. Its true sometimes links become unvaliable but we will copy all internet inside stackoverflow duplicating all information arround internet ?? Sometimes someone did a great and hard job finding something and the information is losted because someone think link is not good. I think at least question author should be allowed to see all answers, I asked about on this Link: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/146961/… –  newway Sep 13 '12 at 18:23

A link alone as an answer is a bad answer in my book. Links break and the answer becomes worthless later even if the linked material answered the question initially. At least if you include a summary, the answer can somewhat stand on its own.

See the fledgling FAQ on how to write a good answer.

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I think this is the biggest argument in favor of always including a summary with links. But that's not to say a link only answer should be overlooked. Sometimes a summary isn't doable or applicable. And even if it is, sometimes you just don't have the time to do it. Other times it's just not all that relevant to summarize every link - this depends on the whole context. –  Cawas Feb 17 '10 at 23:31
    
Late to this party, but I wanted to add that if you're going to provide just a link because you want to be quicker about your answer, fine, but you should go ahead and edit the answer and provide more follow up. Best of both worlds. –  Charlie Kilian Mar 30 '12 at 16:42
    
This depends on the link itself; sometimes they encode information in the url itself that will remain useful even if the target disappears. As a related issue, fancy formatting to hide the actual URLs can degrade answers, by removing such information - as well as attribution - sometimes present in the URL. –  Chris Stratton Jul 16 '12 at 18:54

See here.

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Nice. :P (under 15 character limit) –  romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:00
    
Of course, reading the answers (particularly the comments from the author in jjnguy's answer) you'll note that this link isn't the same thing that I'm talking about. –  romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:05
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(-1) I disagree with your answer. I feel that your "answer" should actually contain an answer, rather than an external link to an answer. –  devinb Jul 22 '09 at 21:07
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@Lance Lol I'd thought you linked the page to meta.stackexchange.com/a/8234/159916 –  Pacerier Jul 13 '12 at 2:51
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@devinb, that was the whole point.. to emphasize that just a link is not enough. –  David Ben Ari May 19 '13 at 15:15

What if the question is something like, "Where can I find the documentation on numeric format strings for C#?" Of course, in that case the entire correct answer is:



Generally, including a summary is good idea. But saying a link only is always bad isn't exactly right either, especially if that link points back to "official" documentation of some kind.

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but...how many duff links are there are over at microsoft/msdn –  redsquare Jul 22 '09 at 20:07
    
I see your point, but I'm not making a grand sweeping statement about links elsewhere. Even your links have descriptive text to them, which is more than some answers get. –  romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:07
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MSDN is the worst for bad links. –  Lance Roberts Jul 22 '09 at 20:20
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That's why I will sometimes craft a very specific "I'm Feeling Lucky" link to point there. That way it will hopefully continue to get you to where you want. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 22 '09 at 21:05
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It depends what part of MSDN. Real documentation, especially the .Net stuff, is generally stable. "Articles" are often less so. –  Joel Coehoorn Jul 22 '09 at 21:14
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I realize this answer is old, but I would say that a question for which the entire, correct answer is a link to another site is probably a bad question. –  tvanfosson Jan 11 '12 at 16:20
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Questions that merely ask for references to other resources are generally off-topic. That's what Google is for. –  Robert Harvey Jun 20 '12 at 14:45
    
But some resources are hard to search for. "Where can I find documentation on Python's % operator?" seems like a fair question to me. –  Daniel Nov 20 '13 at 4:18

When I ask a question I am very happy if someone posts a link that quickly that solves my problem! - This is much better than if they decided they did not have enough time to post a “good” answer.

However when I read an interesting question I would rather I could learn something from the answer without having to look at other websites etc.

There is nothing stopping someone else that has more time reading the linked page and writing a more complete answer – then we get the best of both worlds.

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I'd then comment to the question to post that link. –  Arjan Sep 22 '10 at 17:44
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@Arjan, a lot of users don't have the rep to comment –  Ian Ringrose Aug 17 '12 at 9:50

I believe it is not good practice (although have been guilty of it myself). What happens if the link ceases to exists? The answer becomes worthless. I would prefer to paste the main gist of the answer into the answer so if the link ever goes down for whatever reason then the answer is still valid.

A large majority of my answers involve providing demo's of code via a live pastebin, however if these external sites go down, what is the point? I have pushed for a Stack Overflow pastebin to minimise this risk, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears.

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My only comment on using copy&paste from another site is potential copyright infringement. At the very least, if you are going to copy content from another site, you should provide a link to where that content came from. –  Tracy Probst Jul 23 '09 at 12:27
    
@Tracy: Nobody said that the link shouldn't be posted too. Providing a summary or quote and the link should be optimal. –  Georg Fritzsche Sep 23 '10 at 17:10

Another situation I do not see discussed here is similar to link rot.

A lot of users on Stack Overflow work for corporations. It is possible that Stack Overflow is not blocked by the company firewall, but the site you link to is. This could be the same if sites are blocked in certain regions, etc.

Following random links on webpages might be some people's view of the Internet, but it could turn into a security nightmare.

Note: Even if Stack Overflow handles bad links (through a flag system, or preemptive discovery), system administrators would still discourage clicking user submitted links.

You can also always hover over the link to see where it points before going there, but some people use URL shorteners, so this would not help every case.

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People shouldn't be using URL shorteners here in any case. –  Al E. Apr 22 '13 at 18:26
    
@AlEverett Completely agree, but I have seen it. –  Nick Freeman Apr 22 '13 at 18:55
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No URL Shorteners? –  Al E. Apr 22 '13 at 19:00

I think that everyone on Stack Overflow are professionals. They do jobs, research, write books, and run companies. In short, they all Are DAMN BUSY persons.

And still they are on Stack Overflow to help others. Like in my case (I am an Android developer), I know a few GREAT personalities like CommonsWare and Romain Guy, and many more are there who are on Stack Overflow and share their excellent experience and knowledge on Android. Thanks to them.

So in any case, if they just give a link pointing to any of their examples, blogs, books... That is a very good answer for me, and it's not at all a BAD ANSWER.

If anyone comes and downvotes those answers, just because it's only a link, that's not at all right.

My thinking: Everyone is BUSY in their life, still helping others and solving their problems; in this case we should not judge their answer this way. The answers containing only links are NOT BAD ANSWERS.

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People can downvote without commenting. On Meta, it usually means they disagree with you. Don't take it too personally. :) –  cHao Nov 12 '11 at 7:47
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Okay :) I Understood –  MKJParekh Nov 12 '11 at 12:42
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I agree with Frankenstein.This also happened to my experience that someone downvoted me at stackoverflow and deleted my answer because I just posted a link. Come on do you think that is right?? I'm just a little upset to see that I'm trying to help other people (w/ no paymnt) yet to see all my effort(wastd time) to post been dwn voted and treated like a trash. And perhaps I thnk the link that I provided dirctly answers the question. So why not jst leave a commnt and give a reminder? He don't nid to down vote me because of that.This is not jst all about gaining points this is about helpng othrs –  bot Mar 13 '12 at 10:27
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People that are down voting must give respect to other people who spent their precious time to answer questions even though they are busy. We are not paid here to spent all our time answering questions. So they must respect others that can only leave links because of their busy time. If they don't like the way busy people are answering questions why not just leave a comment or suggestions? Why need to down vote? –  bot Mar 13 '12 at 10:43
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@bot: Yes, i do think it's right. If you don't have the time, or can't put in the effort, to post a real answer...then don't answer. A link on its own is not a real answer, and is not good enough. Period. Link rot is just one of the reasons. I'll happily leave a comment to that effect and downvote til someone puts in the effort an answer deserves. And before you go on about "effort": it takes next to no effort to just post a link. And "I'm busy" is not an excuse. Note that some of the busiest people here post the best answers. –  cHao Apr 15 '12 at 23:35
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-1: too busy to leave a comment –  Cody Gray May 17 '12 at 11:32
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An example that links to another answer on the same site (and actually summarizes: You have to let your activity handle both onClick and Gestures) is the best you could find? Also note that the team is doing a lot of work to find links that have gone bad. If a post is just a link, noticing a dead link is just too late. –  Arjan May 17 '12 at 11:46
    
-1 Your opinion isn't as good as mine? –  vipw Jan 23 '13 at 12:40
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-1: Your answer confuses "don't judge the answer's author" with "don't judge the answer". –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 23 '13 at 14:42

It depends a lot on the context. I wrote an open source VPN client and although I run a mailing list to which anyone can post, without having to subscribe, and I clearly invite people to do so if they have problems, I still occasionally do a web search and find that people have been asking questions on random web forums instead of asking me (and my other users/developers, who can also often help) about the software I wrote.

I'll often go to the trouble of signing up for these web forums just so I can post an answer to the question, which is often months old and unanswered by the time I see it — although it would have got an immediate response if asked in the right place.

And when I do, I'll try to give a simple answer if the answer is obvious and doesn't involve a debugging session with the user. But often, a person who is confused enough to post their question in the wrong place is also confused enough that they don't include enough (or indeed any) of the pertinent debugging information in their post either.

My experience is that with these random web forums, I often won't get decent notification of a reply. They often send from bogus addresses which fail sender verification, or just don't send notifications at all. So the a round-trip of me asking a question, the OP answering it, and then me eventually thinking a week or so later that perhaps I should check this web site again if I can actually remember where it was, can take a very long time.

So I will definitely always tell people asking about my software on random web forums (this one included, although it's one of the saner ones) to use the proper channels for support, if they want me to help them.

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