We don't want to answer questions with a just a link. But there are a lot of questions where a simple link to the documentation will suffice. I've seen several of these questions just go unanswered because someone will post a comment with the URL that answers the question. The particular example that prompted the question today is this one (which in this case also turns out to be a duplicate as well).

These question add noise to the community (show as unanswered, but practically speaking, are answered) without adding anything useful (a quick Google search and skimming the docs would answer the question). How should we handle these types of questions?

  • Flag them? You could argue they don't "demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved" and therefore don't really belong on Stack Overflow. In this case, one could also close it for being a duplicate, but maybe we'd rather it be deleted entirely?)
  • Answer them by summarizing the info in the documentation?
  • Something else?
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    Well, whatever else you do, it's almost certainly demonstrating poor research effort, so it should be downvoted. In my eyes, that's probably the important point. – Servy Dec 19 '13 at 20:44
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    True. Though you could actually make a nice answer out of it for the specific example @Servy. – Bart Dec 19 '13 at 20:46
  • @Bart You can, but that doesn't make it a good question. – Servy Dec 19 '13 at 20:47
  • No argument there – Bart Dec 19 '13 at 20:48
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    @Wendi do we really want 7,000 identical questions about how to do x in language y, though? Most questions of this type can't really be edited into shape, IMO. – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 20:57
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    We should make a canonical one with the answer "Learn to use Google", and protect it. All documentation questions will be marked as a duplicate of it. I volunteer personally to receive the upvotes for the answer. – Tim Seguine Dec 19 '13 at 21:05
  • @Pëkka I read the question too fast; I thought it was referring to answers which were only links to documentation. I've removed my comment. – WendiKidd Dec 19 '13 at 21:12

The problem with documentation is that it's not workflow based. It tells me what something does, not when I'd use it or the context of its use.

That's where Stack Overflow answers could really shine.

A good answer would:

  • Reference the documentation
  • Extend that documentation with an example using the OP's code
  • Point out where that particular feature works and doesn't work
  • And include the 'why' and the best workflows for that feature.

We don't replace documentation; we should extend it, make it better, and make it relevant to individual situations.

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    Of course, sometimes even the documentation has all of that information. Some environments have great documentation, or very high quality and easily discoverable information, and some don't. – Servy Dec 19 '13 at 21:29
  • I have seen some fantastic answers in this vein. I think the FGITW trend on questions like this is at odds with this approach though. – Tim Seguine Dec 19 '13 at 21:38
  • But does there really need to be a SO answer for "how do I concatenate a string in language x"? Usually with thousands of duplicates as well? I say burninate the lot of 'em. – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 22:27
  • If the question demonstrates a poor research effort, downvote. My rule of thumb is: if Googling the question's title would have produced the documentation link as a top 3 result, it deserves a downvote. (Not sure whether that applies to your example though.)

  • Closevote if appropriate - using the "minimal understanding" reason, or as a duplicate of the existing question that is bound to turn up in the search results.

  • Leave a comment pointing to the appropriate documentation page. We're nice people after all.

  • If it was a really lazy question: leave a polite comment asking the OP to always consult the search engine of their choice prior to asking a question on Stack Overflow.

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  • Which close reason do you use for Googledoc questions? – user102937 Dec 19 '13 at 20:53
  • @The "minimal understanding" or the duplicate that is bound to turn up when doing the Google search that the OP failed to do (will add that) – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 20:54
  • That close reason has the phrase "asking for code" in it. – user102937 Dec 19 '13 at 20:54
  • @The true, but "general reference" never materialized so it often feels like the best option really. Do you have a different recommendation? – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 20:56
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    Yes, I'm writing it up now. – user102937 Dec 19 '13 at 20:57
  • I also strongly disagree with using the "minimal understanding" close reason as a "your question is too basic" replacement. – Josh Darnell Dec 19 '13 at 21:20
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    @jadarnel27 It's not about how easy/hard the question is, it's about not putting the time/effort into attempting to solve the problem and doing research before posting the question. There are some really, really hard problems out there that most people couldn't solve on their own, but that have solutions easily found through research; the close reason applies to those just as easy as a hello world question. – Servy Dec 19 '13 at 21:26
  • To extend Servy's comment... it's about not attempting to read the really obvious documentation that explicitly states the answer to exactly what you're answering then asking someone to write the code for you @jadarnel27... – ben is uǝq backwards Dec 19 '13 at 21:27
  • @Servy If the question isn't asking for code, that close reason doesn't apply, is what I'm saying. If someone asks "what's the difference between using string and String in C#?", the "minimal understanding" reason doesn't apply (but I have seen people using it that way). I'm not saying we shouldn't close questions that show no effort, I'm saying we should not misuse the "minimal understanding" close reason. – Josh Darnell Dec 19 '13 at 21:33
  • @benisuǝqbackwards Sorry for the confusion - I agre we should close questions that don't show any effort. I was just saying that "minimal understanding" is the wrong close reason. – Josh Darnell Dec 19 '13 at 21:34
  • @jadarnel27 I agree that there are problems with using that close reason, your earlier comment about it equating no effort with "basic" just isn't one of them. You are correct that not asking for code is a valid problem with using that close reason. – Servy Dec 19 '13 at 21:34
  • @jadarnel I agree, but they killed "general reference", so we're not really left with any other choice. – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 22:25
  • @Pëkka: George Stocker said it better than I could, but in any case the "minimal understanding" close reason is unsuitable for icanhazgooglez questions. "Minimal understanding" is meant to address icanhazcodez questions. – user102937 Dec 19 '13 at 22:27
  • @TheGrinch seeing as it was SE's conscious decision to withhold the correct close reason from us, I can't say I'm feeling too guilty for using a slightly incorrect one. – Pekka Dec 19 '13 at 22:28
  • @Pëkka: Or you can, y'know, abide by the spirit of the close reason wording and accept that these are perfectly valid questions to ask. :) – user102937 Dec 19 '13 at 22:29

Take it on a case by case basis. Not all documentation is equally good; in some cases, someone may have read the relevant documentation and still be confused. Ideally, the OP should explain what they've read and/or tried so that you have some context for your answer, but even if that's missing you shouldn't assume that a mere link to the docs will enlighten the OP.

If you can muster a brief but clear explanation along with a link to the docs you'll have provided a helpful answer which may help others in the future.

Link-only answers are discouraged here because a) the link will break at some point and b) readers have no way to tell what they'll find at a linked page, if the link still works. But short, clear answers with a link to more information are fine.

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It kind of differs from question to question. If there's a limited amount of effort and/or research, flag it or downvote it.

If I find useful information in the documentation I usually take out the parts that answer the question and add it to my answer and also include the link to the documentation in case they're interested in learning more.

Another reason to include references from the documentation in the answer itself is Link Rot. I've seen a lot of posts (both questions and answers) where the link is no longer working which leaves the post useless down the road.

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