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First: DO NOT LYNCH THIS USER. Please. Calmly read what I'm about to write before doing anything. This post is not meant to be an incentive to attack a user, but a discussion about the issues.

Consider a user whose posts all roughly look like this:

Not open source but may be worth a try {link}. Disclaimer, I'm the author of this component.

Try {product name}, the most interactive JavaScript-based {thingadongdong} component: {product link} Disclaimer, I'm the author of this component.

Try the {product name}, it works well with {technology}. On the example page you will find a complete {technology} integration demo too. Disclaimer, I'm the author of this component.

See my answer here: {link to product support forum}

{other product} could be a viable option, then you could use a {thingadongdong} that I have created. This demo could be pretty close to what you need: {product demo page} (try it in FireFox or Chrome for best experience). Integrates easily with {technology} too. Other options would be {other product1}, {other product 2}

I believe these users run afoul of this particular sentence in the promotion section of the /faq

May I promote products or websites I am affiliated with here?

Be careful, because the community frowns on overt self-promotion and tends to vote it down and flag it as spam. Post good, relevant answers, and if they happen to be about your product or website, so be it. However, you must disclose your affiliation in your answers. Also, if a huge percentage of your posts include a mention of your product or website, you're probably here for the wrong reasons. Our advertising rates are quite reasonable; contact our ad sales team for details. We also offer free vote-based advertising for open source projects.

In other words, they're not organically answering questions to help others, they are cherry-picking questions and specifically answering so they can link to their product. Over and over and over.

I suppose there is some variant of this that could be .. helpful .. somehow, with full disclosure and "good" intentions. Even done correctly, I think it is harmful to our site and I am inclined to remove these users.

Agree? Disagree? Do you have counter-examples?

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You seem to be in a clean-up mood today, Jeff. –  Michael Petrotta Apr 9 '11 at 7:40
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I agree, you deserve the 'right' to promote your product on relevant questions by answering on others that are not. Failing to do so makes you nothing more than a spammer. The only exception perhaps would be when the question is about your product, in which case I think it would be great to have the devs answer questions. –  Ivo Flipse Apr 9 '11 at 8:29
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'Cherry Picking' was exactly the term I was looking for to describe this. I'm inclined to agree. If a user is offering answers (perhaps helpful, perhaps not) only on questions where they can promote their product, they should be contacting SE to get advertising rates to gain better exposure in those tags. As SE does not offer 'featured' answers, overtly self promotional 'help' should probably be removed no matter what. –  Tim Post Apr 9 '11 at 12:01
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10 Answers

First let me say I'm sorry for causing all this trouble.

I've re-read my 20 or so answers I've given. Some of them are definitely out of line, and I've deleted those now and tried to clean up the others. It's an interesting gray zone, but if you read the questions, people are actually asking for products. And if you have knowledge about the Gantt chart/scheduler industry, those things are rarely free.

I'm not denying the fact that I wanted to shine some light on my products, but I only did so in cases/ST-questions where I thought the person asking the question would be interested.

Sorry again for the spamming, won't repeat!

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no need to take it personal, it happens on almost every site. We would just appreciate it if your also tried answering other questions. If you're able to make a product that's worth recommending (over several others!) surely you're more than capable of answering other questions as well ;-) –  Ivo Flipse Apr 9 '11 at 10:47
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thanks for answering here -- that counts for a lot in my book. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 21:56
    
Can you please edit your profile to include a disclosure of your affiliations? There's a big ol' grey box where you can put all kinds of information about yourself. –  Won't Apr 11 '11 at 14:01
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Sure, profile updated! –  mats Apr 11 '11 at 19:05
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The user does, at least in the example shown at least do the following:

  1. State that they're the author of the product being promoted.
  2. State that they're the author of the product being promoted, again.
  3. Suggest an alternative to the product being promoted.

It's point 3 that settles it for me as the usual behaviour is to, not necessarily on stackoverflow but I've seen it in forums, rubbish any other product either quite subtly or blatantly.

The ultimate test of whether the answer is acceptable would be whether it's genuinely suitable as a solution to the question. After all, isn't the purpose of the site to get people great answers to questions? Wouldn't it be slightly counter to that to remove an appropriate answer just because the author of said answer stood to make a bit of money from it?

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"whether it's genuinely suitable as a solution to the question" didn't seem to be in most cases, to me. At least it was quite a stretch a lot of the time. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 8:30
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@Jeff, Ahh, the "feeling" I got from the redacted example you gave was that, in this example, the answer was well written, appropriate to the question and balanced (by suggesting alternatives). If those points aren't met in this instance then the ban-hammer should perhaps come a-swinging. In the general case though, if an answer fits the criteria I've suggested then I feel it should be allowed to remain. –  Rob Apr 9 '11 at 8:39
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The amount of self-promotion allowed at SE has always baffled me. Rather than weighing the sliminess of such an answer, I think they just don't pass the ultimate muster: they are lousy answers. The "answer" equivalent to a shopping question, declared off-topic at SE.

The only thing that ever counts for me when considering a tool or library is the amount of time I have to invest. Not just in learning it but the amount of time I'll need to spend working around bugs and limitations. Which can be quite substantial. That's the real cost of the tool/library, no matter if it's open source, my time isn't free.

These answers never disclose this information. Which makes them useless answers. So, yeah, if an SE user only ever posts useless answers then blocking them is likely to make SE a better place with more real answers and less noise. And I'll never accidentally read an Ira Baxter or Evan Mulawski post again, yay.

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If the user is legitimately answering questions where his product is a reasonable solution, I would say that the posts are fine so long as he discloses that he is the author and it doesn't read like ad copy.

Consider the case of John Resig. He has answered 10 questions with excellent answers, clearly making him an outstanding user. So imagine a hypothetical world...

  • If he only answered questions about jQuery (his product), that would be fine, right?

  • But what if he only answered questions of the form "I'm looking for a JS library to help me do X", where X was something that jQuery can do, and he gave answers like "My product, jQuery can do this, and you can download it here"? That would still be fine, right?

  • What if the jQuery page he linked to had ads on it? Would that still be OK?

  • What if jQuery actually cost money to license? Would it matter how much?

If that's all fine, what's the difference between John Resig and this other guy? Is it that John Resig and jQuery are popular and this other guy isn't?

If not, then at what point do you remove John Resig's account for linking to jQuery?

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the difference is that jQuery is gratis, so there's no "I am trying to make you a paying customer" motive there. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 8:16
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@Jeff: So if jQuery wasn't free, you would kick out John Resig for posting links to jQuery? –  Gabe Apr 9 '11 at 8:17
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@gabe the other difference, which is really obvious to me, is that jQuery is of general interest to the greater internet programming community. In other words, programmers would ORGANICALLY ask questions about it. Whereas questions about "Joe Schmoe Inc's Flexi-Grid-Widget".. not so much. It's an important distinction, whether something is coming from the community naturally or being pushed by outside commercial interests. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 8:20
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@Jeff, some of the most annoying posters are flogging gratis software. Ex: http://stackoverflow.com/users/129732/vtd-xml-author –  Michael Petrotta Apr 9 '11 at 8:24
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@Jeff: So you can flog your product all you want so long as it's popular? –  Gabe Apr 9 '11 at 8:25
    
@michael there's no organic push for that one, as I said. The acid test is, if you started a brand new Q&A site, would programmers naturally ask about this product? Can you imagine a programming Q&A site without a single jQuery question? I can't. Can you imagine one without a single vtd-xml question? I can. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 8:31
    
@Jeff: Yeah, I was addressing your original comment. WRT your acid test, seems like a good start: I'm not a web developer, but I've heard of jQuery, and so have most other well-read devs. –  Michael Petrotta Apr 9 '11 at 8:34
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@Jeff: It sounds like you're saying that you can promote your product only if people are likely to ask questions about it. –  Gabe Apr 9 '11 at 8:38
    
@Gabe the difference is that its no longer self-promotion. Which means you get to help an existing customer and depending on the quality of your answer might even attract new ones ;-) –  Ivo Flipse Apr 10 '11 at 8:56
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@Ivo: If somebody asks "How do I clone a JS object?" and John Resig answers "Use my library, jQuery", how is that not self-promotion? –  Gabe Apr 10 '11 at 11:45
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If he also explains how to do it with jQuery (and like Jeff mentioned its gratis), I don't see what's wrong with it @Gabe. But I was aiming at John Resig answering questions about jQuery itself, rather answering jQuery as the solution to a general JavaScript question –  Ivo Flipse Apr 10 '11 at 12:11
    
@Ivo: I see what you're saying, but I'm asking about situations where jQuery is the answer, not the question. Also, Jeff later said that being free doesn't matter. –  Gabe Apr 10 '11 at 12:18
    
It's not really fair to compare largely accepted open source pieces of software with some small product @Gabe, so yes you have a point, but it's not a good one. –  Ivo Flipse Apr 10 '11 at 13:29
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@Ivo: Jeff's asking for help defining the limits of self-promotion. I'm just helping him by gradually changing things. It sounds like you're saying that "largely accepted open source" products are fine to self-promote but "small" products aren't. That still leaves a lot of grey area, though. –  Gabe Apr 10 '11 at 13:49
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Well, this seems to fly in the teeth of the principle of 'evaluate the content, not the person posting it.' Maybe it has to. If every single one of these responses reads as a reasonable response to the question, I don't see the need to start collecting fuel for an auto da fe. Yes, it would be nice if there were other contributions to the site, but if a reference to the commercial product scratches the original question's itch, then it's doing a good thing.

There are questions that explicitly invite pointers to non-free products. If these are those, then there's no problem here.

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This is an interesting question. I have actually written a piece of software to detect users who are spamming. It's not free, but it is reasonably priced and may suit your interests. You can find it here. (Disclaimer: I am the author of this software.)

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Hmm. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 9 '11 at 21:55
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I've given my opinion on this before, and though it isn't terribly popular, it boils down to this:

If you're promoting a product and aren't actually answering the question that was asked by doing so, then you're spamming. Full disclosure isn't a pass, and even combining a reasonable answer with your promotion shouldn't give you free rein to include tangentially-related links to your own products or services. And generic, "my product might help you, read some of the examples on my site" are the worst, combining spam with a link-only answer.

Do you have counter-examples

The only situation where I can see these being valid answers are as responses to questions specifically asking for a product recommendation. Even then... Ugh.

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I've been rather turned off by this too. I'd like to see them answer more (or other kinds of) questions to show that they actually know programming in general and not just know about their product. After all (and this is just what I feel), Stack Overflow is a place for general coding questions as much as, if not more than, product-specific stuff.

Of course, I guess we can't really force a user to do so if they can't be bothered. But still, I agree it'd be nice if they didn't come here just to set up shop, and that something should be done. As to what, I can't think of anything reasonable off the top of my head.

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Consider a user whose posts all roughly look like this:

If the majority of posts are relatively promotional like that, then yes, I'd be inclined to agree that even though the product might be helpful, it's kinda too spammy and that user shouldn't be here.

It happens I stumbled across a user doing similar promotion, as relevant answers to specific questions. It was kinda slimy, so I hit the spam report button on the one I saw first and dove into his history. He'd posted many answers, but only a handful of them promoted his own products/services. I went through a few and reported them as spam. But those were in the minority of his answers, which seemed mostly to be good quality otherwise. Given that the user is obviously participating in the site in good faith, I wouldn't call for a ban under that circumstance.

And therefore, we end up back here at "Well, it depends..."

Obvious spammer, even when posting in otherwise relevant questions? Yeah, kick'em out.

Occasional spammer that is otherwise participating as a good citizen? Tell'em to knock it off and carry on otherwise.

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These kinds of answers feel... slimy. Not so bad that they always accumulate downvotes, but they definitely feel robotic and unresponsive. I would support a ban of the user you're using as an example - I had to search for a bit to find an answer that wasn't a flog for his product.

In general, though, many of these folks do try to contribute. How about a warning or suspension prior? "Contribute before we kick you out".

On a related note, why are users with more than a few spam-flag-deleted posts not auto-banned? (or maybe they are and I'm just not aware)

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