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I have often wondered at the practice on Stack Overflow, Server Fault, and the other sites where someone will ask a question and an answer will come in that says Look here: http://link elsewhere. Rarely will the link have exactly the answer necessary -- often it's an entire article -- yet these answers get voted up.

Why is that, exactly? I realize this is subjective, but my own thoughts are that one should try and give the answer (even if the answer is 'no, it can't be done' or 'no, I don't think it can be done' -- very different answers) and then if you have a link that explains it, go ahead and post it within the answer.

What does the community think about this?

For more information, see "How do I write a good answer?" in the Help Center.

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724

Links are fantastic, but they should never be the only piece of information in your answer.

An analogy would be if you are standing at 100 Main St. and you ask where 98 Main St. is. A good answer would be:

"It is the next building over". points at building

If you instead include a link, you are saying:

"I'll direct you to a tourism information booth, and they will be able to provide you with your answer and much more!"

Which is great, however, you haven't answered their question at all, you've deferred the answering to somewhere else. And in this (fictitious) case the person has to take quite a detour to get to their destination.

When someone goes on Stack Exchange, the question "answer" should actually contain an answer. Not just a bunch of directions towards the answer.

You should provide context to all your links, otherwise the OP will have no idea what they are clicking into.

I think of all my answers on Stack Exchange as if they are technical emails to a client. And unless the client asked "Can you resend that link?" there is no excuse for sending them an official email with only links.

It's also a way of saying "I have absolutely no value beyond a search using a common search engine." Which is completely untrue, so why sell yourself short?

Linkrot is a whole other reason why "only links" is a terrible response.

88

A link alone as an answer is a bad answer in my book. Links break and the answer becomes worthless later even if the linked material answered the question initially. At least if you include a summary, the answer can somewhat stand on its own.

See the fledgling FAQ on how to write a good answer.

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    I think this is the biggest argument in favor of always including a summary with links. But that's not to say a link only answer should be overlooked. Sometimes a summary isn't doable or applicable. And even if it is, sometimes you just don't have the time to do it. Other times it's just not all that relevant to summarize every link - this depends on the whole context. – cregox Feb 17 '10 at 23:31
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    Late to this party, but I wanted to add that if you're going to provide just a link because you want to be quicker about your answer, fine, but you should go ahead and edit the answer and provide more follow up. Best of both worlds. – Katie Kilian Mar 30 '12 at 16:42
  • This depends on the link itself; sometimes they encode information in the url itself that will remain useful even if the target disappears. As a related issue, fancy formatting to hide the actual URLs can degrade answers, by removing such information - as well as attribution - sometimes present in the URL. – Chris Stratton Jul 16 '12 at 18:54
31

What if the question is something like, "Where can I find the documentation on numeric format strings for C#?" Of course, in that case the entire correct answer is:



Generally, including a summary is good idea. But saying a link only is always bad isn't exactly right either, especially if that link points back to "official" documentation of some kind.

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  • 1
    but...how many duff links are there are over at microsoft/msdn – redsquare Jul 22 '09 at 20:07
  • I see your point, but I'm not making a grand sweeping statement about links elsewhere. Even your links have descriptive text to them, which is more than some answers get. – romandas Jul 22 '09 at 20:07
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    MSDN is the worst for bad links. – Lance Roberts Jul 22 '09 at 20:20
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    That's why I will sometimes craft a very specific "I'm Feeling Lucky" link to point there. That way it will hopefully continue to get you to where you want. – Brad Gilbert Jul 22 '09 at 21:05
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    It depends what part of MSDN. Real documentation, especially the .Net stuff, is generally stable. "Articles" are often less so. – Joel Coehoorn Jul 22 '09 at 21:14
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    I realize this answer is old, but I would say that a question for which the entire, correct answer is a link to another site is probably a bad question. – tvanfosson Jan 11 '12 at 16:20
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    Questions that merely ask for references to other resources are generally off-topic. That's what Google is for. – user102937 Jun 20 '12 at 14:45
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    But some resources are hard to search for. "Where can I find documentation on Python's % operator?" seems like a fair question to me. – Daniel Lubarov Nov 20 '13 at 4:18
  • @RobertHarvey Agreed, but not all the users have the same skills. If you put good keywords in a cache clean browser you can find a good solution, not biased. The point is to select the right ones. For one is difficult for another easy. Maybe, since we want to solve a problem as well as to learn how to solve it, it can be useful to write even how that link was found, and the link will be updated by the new search of the engine. – Hastur Sep 18 '15 at 8:22
22

When I ask a question I am very happy if someone posts a link that quickly that solves my problem! - This is much better than if they decided they did not have enough time to post a “good” answer.

However when I read an interesting question I would rather I could learn something from the answer without having to look at other websites etc.

There is nothing stopping someone else that has more time reading the linked page and writing a more complete answer – then we get the best of both worlds.

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  • 25
    I'd then comment to the question to post that link. – Arjan Sep 22 '10 at 17:44
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    @Arjan, a lot of users don't have the rep to comment – Ian Ringrose Aug 17 '12 at 9:50
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    There's a reason for that... – ggorlen May 25 at 20:59
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I believe it is not good practice (although have been guilty of it myself). What happens if the link ceases to exists? The answer becomes worthless. I would prefer to paste the main gist of the answer into the answer so if the link ever goes down for whatever reason then the answer is still valid.

A large majority of my answers involve providing demo's of code via a live pastebin, however if these external sites go down, what is the point? I have pushed for a Stack Overflow pastebin to minimise this risk, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears.

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    My only comment on using copy&paste from another site is potential copyright infringement. At the very least, if you are going to copy content from another site, you should provide a link to where that content came from. – Tracy Probst Jul 23 '09 at 12:27
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    @Tracy: Nobody said that the link shouldn't be posted too. Providing a summary or quote and the link should be optimal. – Georg Fritzsche Sep 23 '10 at 17:10
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Another situation I do not see discussed here is similar to link rot.

A lot of users on Stack Overflow work for corporations. It is possible that Stack Overflow is not blocked by the company firewall, but the site you link to is. This could be the same if sites are blocked in certain regions, etc.

Following random links on webpages might be some people's view of the Internet, but it could turn into a security nightmare.

Note: Even if Stack Overflow handles bad links (through a flag system, or preemptive discovery), system administrators would still discourage clicking user submitted links.

You can also always hover over the link to see where it points before going there, but some people use URL shorteners, so this would not help every case.

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    People shouldn't be using URL shorteners here in any case. – ale Apr 22 '13 at 18:26
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    @AlEverett Completely agree, but I have seen it. – Nick Freeman Apr 22 '13 at 18:55
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    No URL Shorteners? – ale Apr 22 '13 at 19:00
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Anyone coming to this answer here at the bottom knows no one likes link-only answers, so I actually do something about it and leave a custom comment instead of a canned one:

Although your answer is 100% correct, it might also become 100% useless if that link is moved, changed, merged into another one or the main site just disappears... :-( Therefore, please [edit] your answer, and copy the relevant steps from the link into your answer, thereby guaranteeing your answer for 100% of the lifetime of this site! ;-) You can always leave the link in at the bottom of your answer as a source for your material...

Standard SE rules for © apply (meaning: copy and use and don't credit me: the SE family of sites as a whole will become better!)

For easy copy-pasting, herez the codez:

Although your answer is 100% correct, it might also become 100% useless 
if that link is moved, changed, merged into another one or the main site 
just disappears... **:-(** Therefore, please [edit] your answer, and copy 
the relevant steps from the link into your answer, thereby guaranteeing 
your answer for 100% of the lifetime of this site! **;-)** You can always 
leave the link in at the bottom of your answer as a source for your 
material...
  • @ShadowWizard: thanks for the prettifying, but the actual idea is for everyone just to be able to copy-paste the above and start using it... In your revision that became more difficult (my sincerest apologies for rolling back to Muru's edit) – Fabby Oct 2 '15 at 21:13
  • That is NOT code. It's a quote. Please use proper formatting. Code block is for, well, code. Sorry, but I'll keep rolling back until a diamond will tell me otherwise. – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask Oct 2 '15 at 21:15
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    @ShadowWizard: chat instead of an edit-war? – Fabby Oct 2 '15 at 21:16
  • Never mind, not worth a war. Still think it's misuse of code block since it's not code, but meh. – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask Oct 2 '15 at 22:30
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    @ShadowWizard: <Whew!> And actually, if memory serves me right, this is the first time ever I thank someone for a "Meh..." (And I'm old!) So: "Thanks!" :-) – Fabby Oct 2 '15 at 22:36
0

How do I make a link that goes nowhere?

Links may have many purposes, but it's nice to add a comment or two. I can think of at least one link that does not need introductions and the link itself is self-explanatory.

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