I was under the impression that SO was for those that have already tried Google and have not found a suitable answer. However, about 90% of the time, I just get people giving me links from Google searches I've already done, to articles I've already read.

What are we to do about this? I'd like SO to be great, but it seems all people are trying to do is up their rep.

Many have pointed out that the burden is on me. I should ask people not to give lame answers by saying stuff like "I've seen these links", and "tried this and that". However, I strongly feel that the "competitive edge" of Stack Overflow is that I can get great analysis from smart programmers, not just a compilation of links - Google is much better at that.

Also, from listening to J&J, the kind of questions we want here, are the ones that are not answered by google, right?

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    Great analysis requires detailed information! You still need to clearly describe your situation and what you already know. – Blorgbeard is out Sep 12 '08 at 0:30
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  • @Rich: Funny stuff man! :) – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:35
  • #Esteban: You deserved it. :P – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:39
  • I still wonder how we're going to deal with the permanence of links. What happens when the link no longer exists? – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:44
  • @Esteban: It gets edited? Isn't that the whole point of the wiki style here? – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:45
  • I like this comment from dF: "Although I agree that good original content would be fantastic, I have no problem with a simple link as an answer, if it's the correct answer to the question". – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 1:11
  • Removing from sofaq due to not really being documentation. If anyone wants to write it into FAQ format, be my guest. – Jason Baker Sep 26 '08 at 4:48

13 Answers 13


As others have pointed out, a well written question is a great help.

Eric S. Raymond wrote a good (IMO) essay on how to ask questions well. Some of it is not relevent to SO, but a lot of it is.

Particularly relevent extracts:

  • Describe the symptoms of your problem or bug carefully and clearly.

  • Describe the research you did to try and understand the problem before you asked the question.

  • Describe the diagnostic steps you took to try and pin down the problem yourself before you asked the question.

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    Raymond's essay is a great one. Some of that stuff should probably go in the FAQ. – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 0:30
  • Thanks! I appreciate the link, but I'm more appreciative of your summary and analysis. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:37
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    Good formulated question is a must. But unfortunately in real world no matter how good you describe your needs, there will be people who suggest all kind of stupid things, some people will not read your question beyond first 3 sentences. – aku Sep 12 '08 at 0:43
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    @aku, those people hopefully will get voted down. There's not much else to be done about it. – Blorgbeard is out Sep 12 '08 at 1:03
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    @Blorgbeard: many of the people voting haven't read beyond the first three sentences either. – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 1:28
  • @Chris: Good point. But this site is supposed to be community moderated, so at some point we have to trust its community :\ – Blorgbeard is out Sep 12 '08 at 2:17
  • I love that the highest voted, accepted answer to this question is basically a link from a Google search. – benzado Oct 2 '08 at 1:06
  • Pretty much anything that can be linked to can be found with a google search. Anyway, I didn't google for it, I remembered reading it years ago and thought it was relevant. – Blorgbeard is out Oct 2 '08 at 8:03
  • Sometimes when you take the effort to express yourself clearly in stating the question you find the answer yourself. Happened to me countless times... ^_^ – schonarth Oct 15 '08 at 19:15

I think people need to start getting far harsher when it comes to downvoting. Jeff claimed on the podcast that they were trying to discourage downvoting and were 'pleased' to see user accounts containing just upvotes. I don't agree with this approach, and it patently has not worked in many cases.

All those people with 1,000s of rep points now have a duty to start using their power responsibly. Please start downvoting when appropriate - this includes answers consisting merely of an external link, blatant duplicates, and all those "what's your favourite colour" questions that I am sick to the death of.

BTW, I recognise the irony in answering a 'not-really-a-question' question with such a response. This is the only chance we have to discuss SO, though, so I think it's valid. But please vote me down anyway ;-)

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  • Sometimes an answer only needs an external link. I think it is unwise to just rule them out altogether. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:00
  • @Rich B: +1. Should we copy paste a good explanation or just link it like the Web intended? – Jared Updike Sep 12 '08 at 0:09
  • @Jared: Exactly. When I copied an article as an answer with a proper citation, I got flamed and downvoted. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:11
  • Well, that kind of downvoting sounds pretty ridiculous, although I'd suggest that if you don't have anything new to say, and if you cannot summarize or 're-edit' an external article, you might as well just leave the question alone rather than just answering for the sake of it. – Bobby Jack Sep 12 '08 at 0:15
  • BTW, my comments are aimed, more generally, at the overall lack of quality moderation occurring. For example, take this 'programming question': beta.stackoverflow.com/questions/56582/… Sure, many have downvoted the question itself, but one ... – Bobby Jack Sep 12 '08 at 0:16
  • ... of the answers has 6 upvotes! PLEASE, I urge everyone to go and downvote both the question and all (but one) of the pointless answers. I've just done this, and have no worries about losing my 'precious rep' - it's worth it to try to fine tune this site along the lines of its intent – Bobby Jack Sep 12 '08 at 0:17
  • @Bobby: Why? Who cares if there are numerous less informative answers to a question? Again, the good answers will bubble to the top. Perhaps someone will find that one link you threw in there 'for the sake of it' helpful. And maybe not. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:17
  • @bobby: Re: PBJ Sandwich -- Why should the people who answer the question in an informative or humorous manner be downvoted just because the question sucked? I hope this site doesn't end up with no sense of humor... – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:19
  • I don't see all the good answers bubbling to the top all the time. Sometimes, yes, sometimes there's a woeful lack of that. And they should be downvoted if only to discourage them from running riot with such cr@p, if that's not already happening - these people are chasing 'rep points' shamelessly – Bobby Jack Sep 12 '08 at 0:22
  • @Bobby: And the first answer to the PB&J question happens to be a link. Go figure! ;) – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:25
  • @Bobby: If you don't see the answers bubbling to the top, then you need to wait for more people to vote. You can vote too, so help the process. As far as downvoting single links, I think you are very wrong. Let them stay at zero. They aren't getting rep if no one upvotes them after all! Lighten up! – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:26
  • @Rich: I haven't been going around downvoting single links, honest ;) They just bug me a bit, that's all. I guess what I'm really trying to get a hold on is downvoting in general. I was quite reluctant due to trying to protect rep points, but I'm letting go of that now, and feel it needs to be done – Bobby Jack Sep 12 '08 at 0:45
  • I'm finding I'm a bit freer with downvoting now that I've hit the magical 2000 point edit ceiling, but I'm still getting used to it. – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 0:50
  • I think downvoting should be kept to an absolute minimum. Just because you have the power to do so doesn't mean you should. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:51
  • I'm not doing it willy-nilly (I still only have 16 total downvotes). It's that before I would see something and think "I really should downvote this, but I don't want to spend the reputation point". These days, I'm less worried about spending the rep point. – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 1:06

Have you considered giving people a little more insight into what you've already looked up, and why it didn't work?

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  • Good point. However, I have found that whenever I go back and add comments, most of the time the author never answers back. Maybe I've just been talking to the wrong people. – Esteban Araya Sep 11 '08 at 23:55
  • I meant in the original question, it is rare for people to come back to threads after they think the problem is "solved". – user131707 Sep 11 '08 at 23:56
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    I think you may need to put this stuff in your original post. If you want non-obvious answers, you need to point out that you've done the obvious stuff. – Chris Upchurch Sep 11 '08 at 23:57
  • It would be wise to take your time and make your question more thorough, rather than rely on comments. This will undoubtedly help your successful answer rate. – GEOCHET Sep 11 '08 at 23:57
  • The system is very poorly designed for following up. It's not easy to track changes to questions you've answered. Questions you've asked are slightly easier to track, so there's some asymmetrical knowledge at play. – Jon Ericson Sep 11 '08 at 23:58
  • Well, i thought the SO FAQ clearly stated that we don't want the obvious stuff. At least that's the impression I get from listening to Jeff and Joel. – Esteban Araya Sep 11 '08 at 23:59
  • Bobby Jack said: "J&J wanted this site to be the place for answers to certain questions. That ain't gonna happen if everyone just keeps linking to google. Plus, why an extra level of redirection when we want the answer HERE?" – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:02
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    But how do you differentiate the "obvious stuff?" I mean you do have askers who don't use google first. – user131707 Sep 12 '08 at 0:03
  • @Rob Rolnick: Agreed. You must assume the lowest common denominator after all. The burden is on the question poster to make his/her diligence known. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:05
  • @Esteban: actually it's the opposite-- From the official SO FAQ, beta.stackoverflow.com/faq: "No question is too trivial or too "newbie". " – dF Sep 12 '08 at 0:06
  • Yes, I just read the FAQ. I'm just talking about the impression I've gotten from listening to J&J. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:08
  • @Esteban: Ultimately the site is 'ours' so we will have to make it work for us. You shouldn't take J&J's word as gospel. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:10
  • @Rich: Good point. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:11

Although I agree that good original content would be fantastic, I have no problem with a simple link as an answer, if it's the correct answer to the question. (Remember that SO is mostly intended for questions that have an objective answer!).

If we discourage these links, we'll just end up with a lot of copied and pasted (or paraphrased) content, which will go out of date if the original source is updated.

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If a person feels that a google link will solve your problem, then that is the correct answer for them to post. The voting will take care of the rest.

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  • Yes, but the whole point of SO for me is that I can get answers from people, not from google. I'd rather hear what you have to say than what google has to say. I dunno, I want analysis, not just info. – Esteban Araya Sep 11 '08 at 23:57
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    Again, the burden is on you to show that your question is an exceptional one. – GEOCHET Sep 11 '08 at 23:58
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    And the two J's wanted this site to be the place for answers to certain questions. That ain't gonna happen if everyone just keeps linking to google. Plus, why an extra level of redirection when we want the answer HERE? And we want it maintained, edited, etc. not just some 5-year old static page – Bobby Jack Sep 11 '08 at 23:59
  • Excellent point Bobby. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:00
  • I would rather see the question and the answer in the same place, otherwise SO will become another search engine. Also, what happens if the url no longer exists? – Rismo Sep 12 '08 at 0:02
  • @Bobby: And when you try and copy that information (with citation of course) you get blasted for it. Not sure what the solution is in that case. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:03
  • @RichB: If you found the answer somewhere, you can say it, add the link, and then copy the information :) – Rismo Sep 12 '08 at 0:08
  • Unless you quote a small enough portion to fall under fair use, copying someone else's content here without permission is copyright infringement (regardless of whether or not you provide a link or other attribution). – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 0:14
  • @Chris: Then a link should be the preferred method. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:16

If you're worried about getting answers that you've already tried yourself, try mentioning them in your question when you post it.

Even linking to a few of the top Google hits and saying "I've already tried these, and they don't work for me" is a good way to avoid "lame" answers.

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You have 6 questions out of 16 where you haven't selected one of the answers as the accepted answer - so apparently you're happy enough with 2/3 of the questions you've asked?

SO is not just for times when Google doesn't answer - in fact I believe they mean to be the wikipedia for programming (ie, wikipedia has a topic for nearly everythign and regularly features at thetop of google searches). So they want to replicate a lot of data out there, and condense it into easier and more concise chunks of answers from people who actually have experience with a given topic.

If, however, you've done the searches on Google, ask the question on here, and people still give you the same pieces of information you've already seen, then it may be that they don't understand your question very well. You might consider rephrasing it, or attacking a smaller/simpler portion of the problem first.

But, ultimately, there will be unanswered and poorly answered questions on SO - it's inevitable. The right people won't be on at the right time. Hopefully you are able to resolve it and post the answer yourself so the next time someone does the same searches you did, they'll get your answer.

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  • In regards to the lesser answers: That is what the voting is for. The better answers will bubble to the top, and later people with better reps can cleanse answers if the question becomes a highly sought one. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:08
  • For the most part, I feel when I'm actually asking a technical question, I don't get a satisfactory answer. For all the "opinion" questions SO has been great so far. It's great to see what other developers are doing. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:14
  • You cannot always get everything you want. Welcome to life. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:22
  • @Rich: True. I was just hoping that SO would be the place were I could at least get good answers to technical questions. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:24
  • @Esteban: So far I think you are way off, I am very impressed by the quality level of the answers here. I think your expectations might be too high, and your detail in your questions too low. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:28
  • @Rich: Yes, it's hard to give a lot of detail. I hadn't considered that. – Esteban Araya Sep 12 '08 at 0:29

There are readers other than the original questioner. They may not have done the same Googling that the questioner did, so all these "lame" answers may have value to them.

Voting should take care of filtering the good links out from the bad ones.

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Again, thanks to all those helped me understand the burden is on me to get what I need out of SO.

I was convinced once I saw an authoritative article and then some summary/analysis. This is exactly what I'm hoping to get out of SO.

Interestingly enough, the answer didn't come up until I edited and revised my question several times in order to make my question clear.


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I think the scoring on the voting is wrong. You shouldn't get penalised (-1) for voting down content that deserves voting down. Also, you get +10 if your answer is voted up, but only -2 if voted down. A down vote should be equivalent to an up vote.

EDIT: Taking on board Chris' comment about the -1 being necessary to avoid abuse, how about preventing users from voting on other answers to a question that they have answered? This is how Slashdot's mod points work. If you answer a question that you've already voted on, your votes will be voided.

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  • When the beta originally opened, there was no downvote penalty. Some people tried to game the system by voting down every other answer to their own answer would appear higher. That's why downvoting has a cost, and doesn't cost the answer's owner much rep. – Chris Upchurch Sep 12 '08 at 0:26
  • OK, I can kind of see why that makes sense then. I still think the other point is valid though. In fact, maybe down votes should have a bigger impact. It's like Chris Rock's $5000 bullets, if I gave up 1 point to vote you down, you must have done something to deserve it. – Dan Dyer Sep 12 '08 at 0:34
  • I don't see a significant problem yet where I would honestly recommend changing this. – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:35
  • You can gain reputation by posting something wrong but plausible. If 5 people vote you up and 5 people vote you down, you've gained 40 points for being wrong. – Dan Dyer Sep 12 '08 at 0:40
  • I guess I don't see that as a huge issue. You fooled at least some of the crowd. I don't think we should become reputation nazis here... </GodwinsLaw> – GEOCHET Sep 12 '08 at 0:43

Also, from listening to J&J, the kind of questions we want here, are the ones that are not answered by google, right?

Once we're out of beta, the site should quickly gain enough PageRank that any question that's been answered here will instantly become answerable by Google.

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Links are completely relevant if they answer the question, provided the link isn't completely obvious, in which case you may as well say RTFM. I can already see jerks down voting any link in which case you discourage relevant information. It is sometimes a matter of knowing what to look for.

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I spent a few hours composing a question that would require at least a few minutes to read, consider, and respond to with something of value. (And then, only that quickly if you just happen to be actively working with that concept.)

I got half a dozen answers in the first minute, and it was painfully obvious that none had read the question. They seemingly seized upon this or that fragment, and spewed out what ever it made them think of first. After a few more minutes, most of these "Elisa" answers had already been voted up! I commented to the highest voted ones saying: okay thanks, and what about .. and alluded to the core concept of my question. To which I got: "huh, what are you driving at there Chris?" .. Still not reading the question?

I have gotten one real answer after 24 hours, but it of course languishes in the unnoticed hinter lands.

All I can think is that the points system has created a bizarre sort of gold rush. I just hope that time will temper this thing. There is a lot of potential here.

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