I ran across a flagged answer (it is deleted now, so you need enough rep to see it) which is basically a link to a blog post. The link explains precisely how to do what's asked in the question, so I marked the flag "invalid". Moderator disagreed, and deleted the answer.

I understand that link-only answers are frowned upon on Stack Overflow sites, and for very good reasons. However, I did not think that they are automatically considered a valid target for "not an answer" flag -- regardless of how helpful the link is. The moderator who deleted the answer obviously disagrees with me.

  1. Why did he disagree?
  2. Should I even bother investigating the helpfulness of the link while reviewing these kinds of flags in the future?
  • 6
    If it's only a link to a blog post, it's not an answer. (<10k, so I can't see it). In that case it's like saying "Look over there for your answer". The post is not self-contained and in itself does not answer the question.
    – Bart
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:45
  • 3
    The community is quite divided on how to handle it. Some say it should be edited, improved, etc. (but it needs people to have some background on the subject to read the blog and summarize it). Some people prefer the quick way of removing the post (link rot, too much effort needed, etc.). I'm in the second camp...
    – nhahtdh
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:47
  • 5
    Relevant: Are answers that just contain links elsewhere really “good answers”?
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:50
  • 1
    flagger is guilty anyway. "Although link-only answers are rather heavily discouraged, a flagger needs to take into account that currently, these carry a certain risk of flag decline. In addition, types of flags that go through 10K tools queue at Stack Overflow carry a risk of being disputed by one of few thousands 10Kers. No matter what flag you use, there can always be a feasible explanation that it was wrong. Explanation will of course depend on the flag..." (flagger's guide to link only answers)
    – gnat
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:53
  • @RobertHarvey irrelevant for flagging purposes: the very word "flag" is not mentioned neither in the question, nor in any of the answers, not even in comments
    – gnat
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:54
  • @gnat Though that question perfectly demonstrates the community's opinion on link-only answers and pretty much details that they are not considered to be answers. Not a dupe, but relevant nonetheless.
    – Bart
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:55
  • @Bart what's the use of it for flagger? Other than helping if a flagger needs to explain that their intent was to be helpful...
    – gnat
    Jan 29 '13 at 15:58
  • 2
    @gnat: Flagging exists to point out problems with a post. Link-only answers are a problem that can occur with posts. Ergo, flags are relevant here.
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:08
  • @RobertHarvey that's a smart twist; agree with relevance (though my point of it being useless in justifying correctness of specific flag stands)
    – gnat
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:21
  • 2
    Link-only answers can be helpful immediately, but may lose their relevance at any time due to link rot. I don't usually delete new link-only answers, but old ones are fair game.
    – mmyers
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:44
  • That was me. Link-only answers attract link rot and spam. It would have been a fine comment, but that doesn't mean its an answer. It doesn't answer the question, it just lets the OP know where to find their answer. We used to allow this in the past, and now we get "this link doesn't work anymore!" flags all the time. Oh, and spam.
    – user1228
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:50
  • @Won't (AKA Will - nice pair of nicknames, by the way :-) That is a very important bit of information, thank you very much. Jan 29 '13 at 16:57
  • 2
    Seems like it was my flag that was disputed. The answer turned up as a new answer to an old question. There are already several other answers, one of which has been the selected answer for a long time. The new answer doesn't add anyting other that "I know the answer too, read my blog". It isn't even "immediately useful" as it is about 18 months too late for the questioner. Adds nothing of value to SO, IMO.
    – Bo Persson
    Jan 29 '13 at 20:20
  • 1
    would it work better for you if 10K tools had an option convert-to-comment for such answers? There's a feature request for this...
    – gnat
    Jan 29 '13 at 20:28

The problem with "helpfulness" as a metric is that community moderators now have to go to the linked page, read it, and evaluate its merit before deciding whether or not to delete, a process that should not be required for moderation (since mods are not expected to evaluate answers on their technical merit). Requiring moderators to evaluate answers this way puts them in the unfortunate position of deciding which answers are good or bad, a process for which votes are reserved, not deletion.

Consequently, the fairest way of dealing with link-only answers is to treat them all equally, which basically means deleting all of them. Folks who are answering in good faith (and not just promoting their blog by posting links everywhere) should have no problem with providing a brief summary in their answer, which solves the problem for everyone.

Note that it doesn't always take much of a summary to turn a non-answer into an answer; the edit you performed here turns that link-only non-answer into a perfectly good answer.

  • 3
    A lot of these folks who are "answering in good faith" also find it in good faith to not reproduce content from the external sources that they link to, apparently. That's the excuse I get most of the time. Jan 29 '13 at 16:00
  • I assume in those cases it's not their blog? The doctrine of "Fair Use" allows brief excerpts of the blog entry to be used for summarization purposes, if the answerer doesn't feel compelled to write a summary in their own words, and the answerer doesn't copy vast swaths of the blog entry.
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:02
  • Not in every case; their reasoning is that "it's adequately covered in the blog post so I shouldn't have to repeat it here" Jan 29 '13 at 16:04
  • 1
    The answer should be the primary source of the information, not the secondary one. Links are supposed to support answers, not the other way around. Links are not answers by themselves.
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:05
  • That's what I usually tell them, and if they don't cooperate I delete. Jan 29 '13 at 16:09
  • Ah, well you're kinder than I am. I delete first, and let them ask questions about it later. :)
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:10
  • 1
    I think the mod should leave a comment before deleting it though. "Deleting because you've only provide a link, not the answer. If you provide an actual answer then we can undelete it for you" so that at least the poster gets an indication of why it was deleted.
    – JonW
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:11
  • Putting it that way... I'm only kind sometimes ;) Jan 29 '13 at 16:12
  • 2
    @JonW: All deleted answers have a notation that says "Why was your post deleted? See [link to faq]". I agree that is not ideal, but putting a comment on every answer that I delete would pretty much triple the time it takes for me to process the moderator flags. And we get a lot of flags like this.
    – user102937
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:12
  • @RobertHarvey well you need pro-forma comments just for this!
    – JonW
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:17
  • 2
    @JonW: That's why we only need triple the time; without it we'd need 20 times as long to process flags. Jan 29 '13 at 16:18
  • "the edit you performed here turns that link-only non-answer into a perfectly good answer" Perfect! I did it to test my understanding of mod's policy, and it looks like I got it right. I also didn't want to see an answer on the verge of earning a "nice answer" badge deleted. Jan 29 '13 at 17:55

The blog post itself might well be a good answer to the question. However, a signpost pointing to a good answer is not an answer.

A relevant excerpt from that blog post would not have been too much to ask, and would have avoided the oft discussed problems with link only answers.

Aside: The answer had some potential if the answerer could have been convinced to reproduce (if only partially) the content of the blog post, but this is no longer possible due to the deletion. It would have been nice if the user who flagged the post had taken the time to research the link as you had, and left a comment informing the answerer of how to fix the problem. This is a very high standard to hold people to, of course, and we can't expect this to happen in the majority of cases.

  • The user who's post was deleted can always edit the answer to include a quote/summary and flag for undeletion, so it's not like the fact that it's deleted means the information is forever lost.
    – Servy
    Jan 29 '13 at 18:46
  • @Servy A comment can no longer be left on the answer prompting this change.
    – user200500
    Jan 29 '13 at 19:02

I've had some success with this explanation for people who post lots of these answers in the past, so I'll try it here, now!

Basically, one of the primary reasons that link-only answers are 'not an answer' is because the purpose of Stack Exchange is to have sites that serve as repositories of questions and answers - not to serve as collections of links. This is the same reason we generally do not accept questions that merely link to a website/jsfiddle/etc; the content should be here, on this site.

Links are generally fine if done in a comment, which is what that answer should have been.

  • 1
    Links can be useful within answer text, not just comments though. Providing the link as a citation to where you got the actual answer from is probably what should happen here. Provide the answer, if you got the answer from elsewhere then credit the other person/site within the answer.
    – JonW
    Jan 29 '13 at 16:09
  • 1
    @JonW - But in this case it is an answer to a question several years old, and with an accepted answer. The new post more or less says "I know the answer too, read my blog".
    – Bo Persson
    Jan 29 '13 at 20:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .