Yes, I have seen this question (and all of its derivatives):

Can we get some consensus on what flag to use for link only answers?

I'm having a hard time reconciling consistency. Earlier today, a colleague had a a link-only answer (10K) flag declined:

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This morning, I flagged the same answer with the same - albeit slightly more verbose - reason:

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It was marked as helpful, and the answer was deleted by Andrew Barber.

So, my question, naturally, is: what gives?

  • Did my flag get processed by a different moderator who feels differently about link-only answers?

  • Was my more elaborate comment simply more persuasive?

  • Was her flag declined by one of the moderators (like George) who feel that we should leave a comment on these answers first, hoping that the author will fix it before it has to be flagged?

You'll note that, in this case, the question is from last summer, and has many extensive answers already. Regurgitating content from the official documentation into a new answer is unlikely to be helpful to many people.

You should also be well aware that the likelihood of someone commenting on a crap answer goes down and down over time, because of things like retribution. I know I am much less likely to comment on a crap answer if there are down-votes already (or I suspect there will be soon), because of too many incidents I've had where people have "paid me back" - even when I wasn't a down-voter.

I understand we really haven't come to any consensus about exactly where to draw the line on link-only answers, but for those of us interested in cleaning up the site and dissuading people from posting this junk, it would be great to get some consistency. If we need to post a comment and give the author of the post 24 hours to respond, then maybe that should be stated somewhere, and all moderators should be responding to them the same way.


Okay, so Shog9 has made it clear that we should be flagging link-only answers that meet the right criteria as very low quality instead of other > requires moderators' attention. No problem. However, if someone has up-voted the answer (hey, the whole community can't agree that a link-only answer is not helpful), this flag category is no longer available. So what then?

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    Getting consensus on this would be helpful. I have read the discussions about link only answers and was taken by surprise to have so many flags declined in a short period of time, especially when my flags on these have not been declined in the past. – Taryn ModStaff Sep 11 '13 at 14:54
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    Link-only logic aside, your question is answered entirely in the first sentence of Shog's (recently-edited answer). If you tell us exactly what is wrong with the post, (and preferably what you want the moderator to do about it and why), your chances of success go up dramatically. – user102937 Sep 11 '13 at 15:41
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    In addition, there isn't a lot of divergence WRT the way mods on Stack Overflow handle link-only answers: we generally delete them, or convert them to a comment if the link actually appears to be helpful. But voting and edits are always preferable (something that is better left to the community, not mods). – user102937 Sep 11 '13 at 15:44
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    @RobertHarvey I'm more than happy with letting the community deal with these answers. I've just always used the other flag with other > link-only answer (well, used to be not an answer). Now I know that "very low quality" triggers it to go into a review queue, so that's what I'll do. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:47
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    ...if there hasn't been an up-vote. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:54
  • Russian roulette. Business as usual – gnat Sep 11 '13 at 17:56
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    "I know I am much less likely to comment on a crap answer ... because of too many incidents I've had where people have 'paid me back'" -- When I want to comment on an answer and I'm worried about this, I just preface my comment with, "I didn't downvote, but..." -- I'll often even say this if I did downvote. It doesn't just help prevent retaliation, but I've found that people will be much more civil with you and be more likely to heed your suggestions if they don't think you down-voted. – Ben Lee Sep 12 '13 at 20:02
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    @Ben I've said that and still had retaliation - both in cases where I was lying and cases where I wasn't. I've just found that, more often than not, it's not worth the trouble commenting. Too many answerers are too stubborn to take your advice anyway. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 12 '13 at 20:09

The mistake here is in thinking that you can use the "other" flag reason without following the instructions provided for it and still have a 100% success rate:


I've noted before that the moderators are remarkably consistent when handling flags on crap posts, even when no real effort is made to describe the problem being flagged. But if you really can't handle rejection, it just might be worth your time to follow the guidelines presented on the screen. "Link-only answer" is not a descriptive flag; if the answer is redundant, if the link is broken or irrelevant... Then write that. If the post is so embarrassingly bad that you can't bother to type more than three words, don't type at all: just use Very Low Quality.

I'll leave the moderators involved (there were two) to comment on their own rationales if they feel like doing so. But I want to note what changed between the handling of the first and the second flag:

  • One person commented on the answer
  • Two people flagged it (one VLQ flag, and your more detailed)
  • Three people downvoted the answer

In other words, there was a lot more visible consensus as to the answer's worth (or lack thereof) by the time the second flag was handled. Combined with your detailed, persuasive argument, I don't find it surprising that the outcome was different the second time around.

I'm also rather surprised that it took two days for anyone to cast a down-vote or VLQ flag on this post. Why would you use a custom mod-flag before resorting to the most basic interactions the system provides (voting, etc.)?

P.S. Yes, I'm still firmly opposed to any notion that the presence of a link should necessarily short-circuit the normal process of community review and ranking. If the answer isn't bad enough for anyone to down-vote it, I have trouble believing it requires a moderator's urgent attention.

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    Well, I suspect a lot of people (especially those with a long history of successfully flagging link-only answers) don't feel that wasting down-votes on an answer that - in their mind (and in their experience!) - doesn't belong in the first place, should be necessary. And I already suggested why folks may be hesitant to comment on crap answers. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:05
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    Why can't link-only answer flags enter a community review queue instead of demanding a moderator's urgent attention? Also, I don't think we flag with the intention of getting urgent attention. But link-only junk should be deleted when a moderator gets around to it, whether anyone has bothered to also down-vote it. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:08
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    Voting is anonymous for a reason, and that hasn't changed. Interestingly, the comment is actually a direct result of the VLQ flag - which would've very likely also resulted in the deletion of the answer if a moderator hadn't gotten to it first. But yeah, if you'd rather have your flags subject to a small panel of overworked mods and a whopping 3% chance of being declined, go for it. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 15:11
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    ok, so we should flag these as VLQ instead? As an aside, please stop insinuating that we are just blindly trying to throw more work at overworked mods. I'm a mod too, and it's not my intention to cause work where it isn't needed. I raised the question because I want to understand how we should be doing this, not complaining that mods aren't doing it right. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:12
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    If they are VLQ, then flag them as VLQ. Your entire argument appears to be centered around the idea that the answer was so bad you hated to waste any more effort on it, so... Sounds like VLQ to me. That isn't necessarily gonna apply to every answer with a link it it, but when it does by all means make the most of it. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 15:13
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    Also, I'm very well aware that voting is anonymous, and why. But the recipient of a comment is going to associate the down-vote with the comment, whether it was the commenter or not. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:15
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    I think part of the problem is there seems to be a lack of consistency, some mods will mark those flags as helpful, you are suggesting flagging them as VLQ and then I had several declined last night with the comment to downvote, etc. I flag a lot and have very few declined flags so I guess it was wrong on my part to think I was flagging link only answers correctly. – Taryn ModStaff Sep 11 '13 at 15:24
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    @Shog9 I never said it was a magic incantation, however as I said when I have flagged a lot of answers using that description and they are marked helpful, it is curious as to why all of a sudden a mod went ahead and declined 15 in one sitting. I have no issue changing my behavior on these crappy answers! :) – Taryn ModStaff Sep 11 '13 at 15:41
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    @Shog9 that one has some text but still is a link-only answer. I think when people flag with link-only, it is because of the link rot. It does not help if somebody tells 'I liked it'. – dezso Sep 11 '13 at 15:46
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    One up-vote just means you have to down-vote before you can flag it, @aaron. Two or more might mean you have to leave a comment describing the problems, or raise a more persuasive flag. Or, y'know, edit to fix the problems while preserving whatever made the answer helpful to others in the first place. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 15:55
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    Editing isn't the only option available to you, although it is my favorite @Aaron. If you don't understand the question well enough to say why others found the answer useful, perhaps you should be thinking twice before asking a moderator (who may well know no more than you do) to obliterate it? – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 15:59
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    @Shog9 I see up-votes on a lot of posts where I wonder what they were smoking when they clicked that button. I don't think a psychology degree should be required to try and understand the motivation for the up-vote, nor do I think it is anyone else's job to whip a crappy link-only answer into better shape. If the answerer can only be bothered to post a link without explaining it (or barely explaining it), why shouldn't this be a comment? – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 16:02
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    It's not your job to do any of this. Presumably, you're doing it (whether "it" is answering, flagging, editing, or voting) because you care enough to want higher-quality content on the site. Each of those activities has certain advantages, and certain downsides - being aware of them and choosing the right one(s) is critical to achieving the results you're striving for. As for why shouldn't it be a comment... Why should we want more comments? This is a Q&A site, not a "kibitz on my problems" site; if an answer is useful, great - if it's not, then it should be downvoted and/or removed. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 16:05
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    @Shog9 I'm trying to clean up and persuade users to post answers that stand on their own. I should be able to get the conceptual gist of what the user is suggesting without having to click on the link; the link should only be useful for more details or specific implementation, official docs etc. Most of the answers I flag say things like "The answer you want is here" and to me that is a useless answer whether it points to MSDN or Billy Bob's sometimes-up blog. Maybe there should be a review queue for "should have been a comment." – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 16:08
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    "I have trouble believing it requires a moderator's urgent attention." - this. Moderator level access and decision making is not necessary to deal with this in most cases, and is better spent on issues where it is. – Tim Post Sep 11 '13 at 16:34

Thanks for bringing this up. We get a lot of these flags every day, and it's been bothering me. It's not always 100% clear what we're expected to do with link-only answers, so it can be challenging to process these flags in a way that looks consistent. I'll address your questions (somewhat) directly first.

Did my flag get processed by a different moderator who feels differently about link-only answers?

Yes, that did happen.

Was my more elaborate comment simply more persuasive?

Yes, your flag was more persuasive because it had a clear call to action (convert to comment). However, MSDN is a pretty reliable source, so I'm not sure links to it ought to be automatically converted.

Was her flag declined by one of the moderators (like George) who feel that we should leave a comment on these answers first, hoping that the author will fix it before it has to be flagged?

Yes. That answer was only two days old, and no effort had yet been made by anyone to salvage it. I don't think it was yet ready to simply be deleted.

This brings me back to my point about how challenging it can be to process "link only answer" flags in a consistent way. There are just way too many variables to consider.

  • Is the link broken?
  • Is there an actual answer behind the link?
  • Is the source reliable, or is it just a link to someone's crappy blog?
  • How old is the answer?
  • Has anyone tried commenting to get the link poster to expand on their answer?
  • Could someone just bypass the OP and expand on the link with an edit?
  • Is it the only answer?
  • Is it the accepted answer?

Depending on the answers to these questions, a moderator might just delete the answer and move on. If the link provides some value though, we might just convert it to a comment or even leave it as an answer. The "not an answer" and "link only answer" flags fail to address these questions, so you're really leaving it up to the moderator to answer them.

As you can see from the answers to Can we get some consensus on what flag to use for link only answers?, attitudes towards link-only answers are still evolving. We used to delete them pretty much automatically, but now we're more likely to look to see if there's any value in the answer.

The best thing you can do when flagging link-only answers is leave a custom message that answers the above questions for us. If the link is broken, say so. If it's just blogspam trying to drive traffic, tell us. If all of the information behind the link already exists in other answers, let us know. What we don't want people to do is flag any and all answers that consist of mostly a link for that reason alone. If we were supposed to act on these automatically, we could write a script to do it.

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    The reason I think that MSDN links should be treated like any other is that they have a history of completely revamping their directory / filename structure and orphaning a whole slew of links in the process. Also portions of the Internet become unavailable to certain people from time to time, for various reasons, so just having a link to documentation and no tangible content in the answer seems of questionable value to me, regardless of the destination site. I'd rather see "From the documentation, you should use <foo>" rather than "The answer is in the doc"... – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:44
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    @AaronBertrand There's no question that that's a better answer, but if the link-only answer is still new I'd rather give people a chance to fix it. If they don't fix it, converting to a comment is fine though, since that doesn't completely destroy the information that the answer was on MSDN, and you can probably find it if you look. – Bill the Lizard Sep 11 '13 at 15:55
  • And if the link-only answer is on a year-old question with several, more elaborate answers, is adding two words to the answer really making it a valuable answer? (Also note, in this case, my call to action was not followed - the answer was deleted, not converted to a comment.) – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 15:59
  • @AaronBertrand If the link-only answer is not adding any value in the way that you describe, I'm ok with just deleting it. Just let us know in the flag message so we know what we're looking for. – Bill the Lizard Sep 11 '13 at 16:01
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    @BilltheLizard If someone isn't going to take the time to flesh out a real answer and only bothers to just post a link I consider it their responsibility to fix up the answer, not our responsibility to fix it up for them. If they edit the deleted answer to make it a real answer, incorporating the content of the link, etc. then they can flag it for undeletion. Much like a bad question should be closed and then reopened if fixed, I think a bad answer should be deleted rather than left there to be fixed up. If the link alone is sufficiently valuable, converting to comment is sufficient. – Servy Sep 11 '13 at 16:07
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    @Servy It's not your responsibility, it's your choice. You don't have to fix up their answer if you don't want to. But flagging it as "link only answer" in drive-by fashion is just attempting to put all the responsibility on a moderator. – Bill the Lizard Sep 11 '13 at 16:14
  • @BilltheLizard I never meant for the link only answer to appear to be drive-by. I do typically go into the answer/question to see if the question should be closed or if there are other issues. Using that reason in other has typically been my behavior and I haven't received decline flags from it. I know better now. – Taryn ModStaff Sep 11 '13 at 16:18
  • @BilltheLizard Well, if it were more feasible for such posts to be removed without moderator intervention then that would be great. I know the VLQ review queue does help with this a bit, as many of these kinds of posts end up there, and are often deleted. The point of my previous comment is that you're giving the impression that the community is responsible for trying to fix the answer before considering deletion. I disagree. I think that when these types of answers are posted there should be a comment indicating how the OP can fix the answer and then it should be deleted. (cont.) – Servy Sep 11 '13 at 16:20
  • And then if the author take the time to act on those comments and improves the answer, there should be a way for them to get it undeleted. The VLQ queue actually does a decent job of this, with the automated comments posted and non-mod deletion. I think we could build on that by just having people flag posts such that they'll go into that queue (possibly even perform the relevant action that would have been done for a link-only answer in that queue). – Servy Sep 11 '13 at 16:21
  • The VLQ queue provides just such a comment, and even includes functionality to ensure that the author is notified of said comment and given the opportunity to correct the problem post-deletion. @Servy. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 16:24
  • @Servy I'm in favor of these just going to the VLQ queue for review as well. Does the author still get notified of comments if the post is deleted? (I know they get notified if a mod comments, but I'm not sure about everyone else.) – Bill the Lizard Sep 11 '13 at 16:24
  • @Shog9 Yep. I mentioned that in the comment. The main problem is that if you come across a post not in the VLQ queue you don't have a good way of performing those actions. I'm not sure if we could just change how people flag posts to get them there (do all VLQ flags put the post in that queue?) or if we'd need to add a new type of flag to really make this system work effectively. – Servy Sep 11 '13 at 16:27
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    They do get notified of the canned comments available to VLQ reviewers post-deletion, @Bill. (I do have references for all of these claims somewhere, but... uh, busy atm) – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 16:30
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    Delete (with optional comment) / edit / don't delete. @Aaron. If you really think a given post would make a kick-ass comment, flag it & say so - there are a lot fewer of them than most folks realize. – Shog9 Sep 11 '13 at 16:47
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    @Shog9 I think a lot of link-only answers are better as comments. I just converted one of my own that was pointed out to me (I'm sure a lot of us have old answers like this, but aren't going to browse through 3000 answers to find and purge or edit them). – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 16:49

Everything Bill the Lizard and Shog9 say in their answers is correct, of course. But since I'm the one who eventually did delete the answer, I'll chime in.

The reason I did delete that one is because while the link was related to the topic being asked about, I saw that it was simply a link to the doc page for a related class. Had the link been to a tutorial or some other discussion about the topic, I probably would not have deleted.

That said, I may have goofed here; I did not realize how short and lacking detail the question was; I was only going by the title of the question.

Given that, I think the question deserves that particular answer, as it's probably about as good as could be given. I'm going to undelete it.

As has been noted, there is some inconsistency with these flags. I, myself, have previously been of the "Link-only answers must be squashed on sight" mentality, but I have definitely softened my stance on that, given what the community, other mods, and the CMs have noted on this topic.

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    Good follow up. I hadn't noticed the quality of the question either. It's definitely a factor to weigh in. – Bill the Lizard Sep 11 '13 at 16:27
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    To be fair, it was asked in the middle of 2009, when we were much more lenient about the quality of questions. All the more reason a new link-only answer posted in 2013 isn't going to be useful to anybody, particularly the OP. – Aaron Bertrand Sep 11 '13 at 16:52
  • @AaronBertrand True. And I think existing answers covered it much better. – Andrew Barber Sep 11 '13 at 16:52

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