I have wasted my time because of SO. I don’t say that lightly because I am a big fan of the SO model and the help I have received here. Please bear with me on the long post.

A Common Scenario

I had a question about something so I searched for it. After careful review of all 73 results, it seemed I did have a new question. I was somewhat dismayed, though, when I had put some effort into creating a good question before noticing that it actually had been asked before because it appeared in the Similar Questions pane. I quickly get over my minor annoyance because, after 25 years of building them, I understand that no system is perfect. It did lead me to wonder – why didn’t search find such an obvious match in the first place? A second search on that question wasn’t in the results so, like a good community member, I went to create another new question. This time I watched for the Similar Questions pane to appear. Sure enough, after some amount of typing, “Voila!” my question popped up in the Similar Questions pane. I followed the trail of several more similar questions until arriving at likely the oldest question on this topic posted over 6 years ago.

The Problem

SO is a great model and a huge base of knowledge. But its potential is limited as long as people can’t find what they are looking for or can’t count on search results. Moderators, editors, FAQs, Help, and many answers like this one consistently push us to “Search First”. That's like giving us a barrel with a hole in it and then sending us over Niagra Falls (ok, not that bad; just trying to lighten things up ;-)

That 'standard search' and 'similar questions search' return significantly different results has been known for a long time. Advanced search operators "is:question" or "title:1" (not listed in Help) likely provide the needed functionality but that's not the problem.

My point is that users continue to ask questions, post answers and comments, read and vote on this topic. In fact, we have done so every singly year since 2009. How much time must be spent, how much inefficiency must be documented on this issue before a change is made?


I collected and tallied votes on questions, comments, and answers for these 3 questions and their Linked and Related questions (minus duplicates).

The counts:

  1. 560 Similar Questions results are better, use it instead of search
  2. 277 request an enhancement or UI change
  3. 59 puzzled that the searches returned different results
  4. 48 express negativity (annoyance, displeasure, dissatisfaction, etc.)
  5. 28 inquire/explain how to get desired functionality
  6. 13 neutral and/or informational

Almost 1000 interactions but the tip of the iceberg. Based on my limited search there are dozens more questions and hundreds of answers/comments on this topic across Meta and Meta SO. Due to time constraints, I had to stop looking.

Secondary Effects

I also observed a snowball effect on other aspects of how SO is being used. Look here for one example. The gist is that people can’t find what they need when searching, so go ahead and create a new question even if it's a duplicate. That's not good - duplicates create inefficiencies and sap people's time when having to deal with them.

In Conclusion

I will use advanced search operators if that gets me time-saving results. Since that solution is 6 years old, it is obvious other users will not. A solution is needed. My question is not "Why?" or "How?" like many others, it is "When?". Therefore, it is not a duplicate.

In light of all the questions about search and all the energy dissipated on their answers and comments over the last six years, I added background info and evidence to highlight the problem's pervasiveness. In the spirit of process improvement, what is the solution to this long-standing issue? And more importantly, when will something be done about it? Hopefully, it won't take another six years to figure out and implement a solution.

EDIT The problem is serious but so fragmented that it has not received the attention it deserves. I wasn't exactly sure what to do about it in light of that fact.

EDIT 2 Thanks @JoshCaswell for expanding my understanding on the dynamics of search and its affects from his question. It led me to duplicates as search targets and the discussion about amount of research effort to put in before asking a question. It seems logical to conclude that an enhanced search would reduce or eliminate the reason for my post as well as some of these other issues.

  • One small correction: the prevailing view on (well-written) duplicates is that they are good to have around because they broaden the search surface, making it easier for people who think of different keywords to find their answer.
    – jscs
    Dec 12, 2015 at 20:34
  • Another near duplicate is meta.stackexchange.com/q/63155/215590
    – PolyGeo
    Dec 12, 2015 at 20:35
  • 1
    @Josh Caswell I am not against duplicates. The problem is that, after going through 70+ search results, I shouldn't have to get a third of the way through creating a new question before I find out that there is a duplicate.
    – cb4
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:06
  • Yes, I have no argument with that, @cb4.
    – jscs
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:41
  • @JoshCaswell Upon further reflection, I am generally against duplicates. In an ideal system where search returned appropriate results, users would see that their question has already been asked. In rare cases like yours and this one
    – cb4
    Dec 14, 2015 at 16:48
  • ...timed out. This is the rest of the above comment. Cases like yours and this one where search terms differ enough but have answers are likely the exception rather than the rule and should be allowed. BTW, thanks for that link but not the hours I spent following that trail ;-) Search affects everyone - seems like it should be enhanced...
    – cb4
    Dec 14, 2015 at 16:58