There's been a discussion in the past about URL shorteners, and I've argued that they're actually not that evil, given that sometimes they're the only way to link to the more obscure URI schemas (mumble, steam, mms, magnet, etc.)

There are, however, even eviler places in the internet that allow you to "make money" (somehow) by "brokering" links.

Image courtesy of Pekka's Reputation Bordello. ohhhh baby!

Now, if I make a .zip file with my super awesome thingadongdong calculating spreadsheet (updated to version 5.9f21 of Thingadongdongingfierfest SE+) and put a paywall in front of it so that I can get some money back from it... it's my choice. It wouldn't be right for us to skip this paywall and offer the direct link straight away. So we can't outright ban such services - adfly is e.g. commonly used by the Minecraft modding community as a legitimate paper-thin paywall.

However, what we actually got today is just a good ole referral program where people are encouraged to spam about a service and get a split (or whatever else) out of every purchase going through their link; all of this wrapped into some clickbank spamming operation thingadongdong. I replaced the affiliate link with its actual destination with extreme prejudice.

How do we balance the goods and evils of this?

  • +1 because it's a good question. I'm all for replacing such services with real links (who knew?), still a good question. Of course people should be allowed to make money of their stuff through advertisement, but this negatively effects usability and if the company goes out of business, we have a problem. Feb 17, 2012 at 12:17
  • +1 for omg click for patch!
    – Pekka
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:21
  • Did you have some examples of these on SO in the wild?
    – Flexo
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:26
  • 7
    I designed an Infographic to illustrate the issue. Feel free to use it i.stack.imgur.com/FB2iQ.png
    – Pekka
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:29
  • 3
    Related question: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/105208/…
    – Shawn Chin
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


I'm somewhat uncomfortable with this - it seems to go against the ethos of "great answers to great questions" and marks a shift towards rent-a-coder.

There are a lot of scenarios where this seems wrong:

  • If the answer can't stand without the link then it's NAA, or spam depending on how the affiliation was presented.

  • If the thin paywall was put up by someone other than the owner of the content itself (as I believe some of these thin paywalls make easy) then it's definitely spam, of the worst kind.

  • If the paywall link was edited in by someone other than the poster then it's definitely spam, but not appropriate for a spam flag since that penalises the poster rather than the editor.

  • If the link isn't obviously marked as "I stand to benefit from this" then it's probably spam, even if the answer works without the link - in that case removing the link completely seems like the sensible solution.

  • Even if the all of the above are satisfied but all/most of the posts from the user do this then I think it's probably spam also.

So in conclusion then it might be OK, if it's up front and honest, a rare occurrence and the answer has significant value without the referral link. Otherwise I'd remove without circumventing or treat as spam depending on the answer.

(I'm fine with SE re-writing links to add referrals like they currently do with Amazon links though - that seems like a sensible and fair way to monetise the network, which needs to happen for it to last long term)

  • Yes, definitely the legitimately of the paywall must come with the required disclosure that makes a promotional answer not spam in the first place.
    – badp
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:45

It wouldn't be right for us to skip this paywall and offer the direct link straight away.

You write this as if it was a fact, but I don't understand the reasoning. Everything you post on SO is no longer your content since you've licensed it away, why do you think that other users shouldn't edit the link in a way that they think improves it, and as far as I understand, the consensus is that URL shorteners should not be used, at least for http links, so replacing with the real link would be an improvement.

From a practical point of view though, the few times I've spotted one of the ad sponsored shorteners it's been fairly obvious spam answers without any kind of disclosure so I just flagged as spam.

  • But it doesn't have to be the linked ZIP archive's owner who is posting the link. If somebody creating a piece of software chooses to distribute it through such a paywall, that is legitimate - like newspapers are making their money from publishing stories for free, but showing ads to go with them, or download services like CNET plastering you with ads before downloading a piece of software. It's a difficult question IMO.
    – Pekka
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:23
  • 7
    Even sourceforge is a bit of a paywall these days. Well, perhaps not paywall, but you're GOING To see ads if you follow and share the download links on the site. I think 'injecting' any more nonsense than is absolutely necessary in order to link to a valid and helpful resource should be discouraged (and fixed on sight).
    – user50049
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:27
  • No, if I link to something it's the link that's released under our license, not the content I link to. I can't just link to microsoft.com and claim that because of this everything in that website is now licensed to Stack Exchange Inc. and to us under CC-BY-SA
    – badp
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:29
  • @TimPost Yes, but even in that case it's the authors that upload new builds of the software to SourceForge. Moreover - if you hotlink to the download, you'll end up hotlinking to a specific version of the software. If you link to the download page people can get the latest version.
    – badp
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:37
  • @badp Yeah, that's what I meant. We should tolerate only the noise that is absolutely necessary to get to the resource. If the OP used a link shortener that displayed ads prior to going to SF, the link should just be made directly to SF.
    – user50049
    Feb 17, 2012 at 13:41
  • @badp: Sorry, maybe I wasn't clear enough. I did not mean that the content of the link belongs to SO, just that the link itself would belong to SO, and so it could be changed to link to the same location in a different way.
    – ho1
    Feb 17, 2012 at 14:37
  • @Pekka: Not sure if I understand, I didn't suggest that there can be no links to pages with ads or sites that show ads before giving you the content, just that the poster shouldn't add layers to reach the content. It's obviously up to anyone who edits the post to make sure that they're not infringing anyone's rights but I'm not sure that posting a direct link to something that's on the public internet would infringe on the creators rights just because he'd prefer that you'd access the files in a different way?
    – ho1
    Feb 17, 2012 at 15:35
  • 2
    @ho1 ... just that the poster shouldn't add layers to reach the content. we totally agree on that. That is behaviour that needs to be fought with extreme prejudice.
    – Pekka
    Feb 17, 2012 at 16:02

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