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Many new users ask questions asking for product recommendations and offsite resources. We could be very helpful to these users, but currently these questions get closed with the reason:

Questions asking us to recommend a tool, library or favorite off-site resource are off-topic for Pro Webmasters as they tend to attract opinionated answers and spam.

I feel like this is one of the more frustrating experiences for many new users on the site. We could be a much better and more useful site by allowing these types of questions.

  • Just found this proposed SE site for these kinds of questions (see the objections raised about it) – John Conde Dec 3 '13 at 15:42
  • The two objections that I see are "hard to moderate" and "deal with questions about hacking and cracking". Both of which have good responses. – Stephen Ostermiller Dec 3 '13 at 15:51
  • It will be interesting to see if that site gets to beta or not. It's almost a referendum for these types of questions. – John Conde Dec 3 '13 at 15:53
  • For StackOverflow, I understand why these questions are not good. There is enough to deal with there and the moderation overhead would be large. I don't think that is true across all StackExchange sites. – Stephen Ostermiller Dec 3 '13 at 15:57
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Here are some of my reasons for not wanting to see recommendation type questions being asked at Pro Webmasters.

  • These same resources can be found using Google (or Bing, or whomever floats your boat). Any major search engine is going to come up with a healthy list of recommendations and reviews that some researching software or other items can easily find and review.

  • Too many link only answers. These are low quality even when they point to a great resource. Besides not providing any substantive information to this website, links tend to go bad which reduce the quality of the answer completely and the quality of the page a variable amount depending on the number of other responses there are. This will only serve to unnecessarily increase the moderation load.

  • Recommendations can become obsolete quickly. Offsite resources and software come and go far too often and quickly. This means the same question could and would need to be asked periodically and would lead to questions like, "What's a good sketching application (2013)?".

  • We have a place for recommendations and opinions. It's called chat. It's not very active but if we promoted it for subjective/recommendation questions that might change.

  • They drown out the quality questions. Back when we were allowing these questions it seemed like the majority of questions we were recommendation-type questions. It really did make finding the quality questions more difficult to do.

  • We can't be selective in which recommendation questions we allow. How would we determine which is okay to ask and which is not? Why would webhosting be any different than any other service provider?

Basically, not only do they already have an acceptable place on this website (chat) but they violate most of the quality guidelines set forth by the Stack Exchange.

  • There is no point by point rebuttal system built into the lousy stack exchange software, so I'm going to respond in a bunch of comments. >:) – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:09
  • "These same resources can be found using Google" -- but not ordered by votes. Perhaps "too easily answered by search" could be an off-topic reason in and of itself, but that wouldn't preclude a question like "Does any SSL certificate authority handle third-level .name domains?" – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:09
  • "Too many link only answers" -- Link only answers should be deleted by moderators. The question in my mind is whether or not that would increase the moderator load too much. – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:10
  • "This means the same question could and would need to be asked periodically" -- Or we could have a policy to turn them into community wiki questions so they could be maintained in place. – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:11
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    "We have a place for recommendations and opinions" -- You make the fallacy of begging the question. You state that by definition we shouldn't allow this. In my mind recommendations are very different from opinions. Opinions shouldn't be tolerated in answers but I'm very open to discussing recommendations. – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:13
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    "They drown out the quality questions" -- excellent point – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:13
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    "We can't be selective in which recommendation questions we allow" -- you make the fallacy of the slippery slope argument. It doesn't actually have to be all or nothing. We can place other criteria on questions such as "how often are similar questions asked", "does this question call for opinions", or "is this question better typed into a Google search". – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:16
  • whew, I'm done. (and an upvote for you for providing an in depth answer, John) – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 19:19
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    You just blew up my inbox! LOL. There are definitely finer points to be made about each of my points but collectively it shows there is a lot of problems with these kind of questions as a whole. If there was a way to somehow make them fit without a complex rule system and affecting the quality of the site I would be all for anything that gets more participation at this website. – John Conde Nov 20 '13 at 19:55
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The concern I have with these questions is not just the spam aspect, but how the answers might not actually be helpful. Take recommendations for hosting as an example. The answers to the question "which hosting company should I use" end up like this:

I use X and I've had no problems.

I had a problem with Y so I don't recommend them.

The way hosting seems to work is that it generally runs fine most of the time. So for almost every company you could find users that had no problems. This isn't useful data. If there is a problem, caused by hardware failure or incompetency for example, the question then becomes whether the support person handled it well. Most of them handle it well, so that's not useful data. You might get one person, or someone who's having a bad day, who isn't helpful. This one case isn't enough to help someone else decide whether to use that company. The only useful data about hosting is based on hundreds or thousands of customer opinions and we're not going to get that.

Questions on topics other than hosting may yield more useful results, but I'm concerned that if you let this sort of recommendation question in then you open the floodgates.

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    I'm seeing questions asking for something a little more esoteric than hosting. There may only be a handful of products that can actually do it. Hosting questions were clearly a problem and would still be all referred to the catch-all question. – Stephen Ostermiller Nov 20 '13 at 10:28
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Allowing these questions could:

  • Not drive away new users who ask these seemingly on-topic questions
  • Produce useful answers
  • Produce questions and answers that would be among this site's most popular

Origins

Since I started using this site (and later moderating it), this policy seemed to be in place informally. We made it formal when we discussed what our custom close reasons should be. Shortly after that we discussed changing the on topic help page to further codify this.

I can't find any discussion on the meta site that put this policy into place. The following discussions are relevant:

  • August 2010 List of X questions -- The top voted answers make points both for and against them, but come out in favor of having them:
    • it might be good to allow them
    • they are useful
    • in favor of protecting them
    • in favor of making them community wiki
    • quickly become so lengthy
    • attract "Thanks!" or "Me too!" answers (as well as SPAM)
    • detract from more serious questions
  • July 2010 Recommendations for specific commercial services:
    • We have moderators and (eventually) 10k users who are more than happy to keep the less-than-ethical folks at bay
  • July 2010 Host Recommendation Questions
    • They're fine, and legitimate
    • These 'list of' questions become very problematic to manage in the future
  • October 2011 We need to decide what we're doing with web hosting questions
    • created the concept of "catch all" questions
    • nothing general about list of X questions was discussed

StackOverflow

Our policies do not need to mirror those of StackOverflow. Their policies work for them and they typically do not allow product recommendations. They do have a lot of discussion about the topic which is worth a read:

Spam

We have tools to deal with spam:

  • Post deletion
  • User bans
  • Protected questions
  • Community wiki

We could make the current informal moderation practice formal: Link only answers and product recommendations from new users are likely to be self-promotion or spam. Such answers will be summarily deleted by moderators for users with low reputation.

Allowing these questions would almost certainly increase the moderation load somewhat over time. As a moderator, I don't see this as being a problem. The moderation load is fairly low now.

Objectiveness

Some questions for offsite resources are certainly subjective and call for opinions:

  • What are your favorite X?
  • What is the best X?

These questions are very different from "What X can I use for Y?", even if there are multiple possible answers to that question. We would have to use our judgement on how subjective the particular question is rather than the fact that it asks for off-site recommendations.

Examples

Here are some closed questions that I would like too see allowed:

2

The problem is far more general on SE. The people who do things are the ones who have experience with tools. This is not true just in WM, but it is is true in Photography, GIS/GPS, AskDifferent, SuperUser...

The Software Recommendation site is moribund. I've had detailed questions up there for over a year and gotten 1 answer -- not one that would get a check. And you can see why. How many WM guys read SR? Most of the stuff there is NOT WM stuff, so you aren't interested.

The key is to have a decent guide for both that type of question and that type of answer.

E.g. A tool request should have:

  • A list of properties that the desired solution has.
  • A minimum of N tools that the author has looked at, and rejected with the reasons listed.
  • Optionally a list of items he's considering, with notes as to details he's uncertain about, or still checking out. If this list is longer the the list above, he gets a curt, "Come back when you've done more homework"

In general the question and answer should be proportional. Indeed much could be done to improve questions on SE (and Quora...) if there was a minimum character count on the question.

Answers should be in the form Name of tool. Date of last release. Top level web site of tool (DATE) The answer's estimate of the fit of this tool to the question. Response to the items on the desired property list.

Partial answers in the form of "Have you considered X" should be posted as comments to the original question, and the author is responsible for editing the question to address that recommendation.

In some cases the request can be for a meta answer. E.g. What are good recommendation sites for X


Spam and self promotion. If there were a product that matched my needs out there, do I care if the author of it tells me? No. I have zero objection to Relevant self promotion.

Possibly a user needs to have X points before being able to respond to a question tagged tool (server, whatever) recommendation.


I agree that asking about hosting sites is probably a wheel spinner. It changes too fast. It's also largely a commodity market. Ultimately you don't care if your packets come from a server room in San Jose or Seattle.

Software -- server, or toolchain -- is different. Usually there is a learning curve (cliff...) and getting it set up even to do a test can take days. Often switching systems can require time consuming data mangling.


Searching. Sometimes I've beat my head against the monitor intermittently for days trying to find an answer. Then I come up with the right search word, and blossoms unfold before my eyes. Sometimes the answer to a question is suggesting the right set of search terms.


I got embroiled with this with the following problem:

I want to host some 200,000 images, with a canonical organization by date, but with virtual albums based on ITPC metadata. It needs to run in a LAMP environment. Presentation pages must be customizable, or there need to be extensive collections of themes. There needs to be a distributed moderator system, and a way to attach threaded comments at any level. E.g. discussions at the category, album, event, and image. It needs a good support community.

If someone can show me the google search that will find me answers to that, please post a comment. (The above is a synopsis. See the closed question on the main page.)

Or if someone can tell me how to find a good source of LAMP compatible photo galery servers, I'd appreciate it.

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I would like to see more discussion about product recommendations tools.

I've seen a lot of threads where users have a problem and they are looking for a tool to solve it, and it happens to be that I've used a tool/program to solve this same problem for myself. The user might be a lot better off if he were to know about the application, but the topic gets closed.

While product recommendations could clearly lead to some spammy situations, I think there's a way to potentially moderate this. Perhaps if a topic is marked as "product recommendation requests", you could limit answers to people with ># Reputation. That way only people with strong reputation can recommend software/sites. This should clear out a lot of the spam and self promotion.

On top of that, product reviews amount to a lot of organic search traffic. People are often searching for reviews about a product that they've recently discovered. They want to make sure that it works, that it doesn't have malware and that there isn't something better out there instead. By offering product/site recommendations you'll be bringing in a lot of people from Google this way. And because the community has such high domain authority/trust, you'll probably rank very well.

I think allowing this would be very helpful.

Personally, I think a lot of questions get put on hold too quickly. I would allow for most of those questions to come through. New users who have their questions put on hold could discourage them from participating on the site. And these questions lead to a lot more good content. To grow the community really big, the more good content that it gets, the more traffic that will come.

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