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One question that eventually surfaces on many new Stack Exchange sites is this: What do we do about questions where the asker is looking for software?

These questions oftentimes are based on a legitimate need, but it's a need that can generally be solved with Google Trends or with some research. The asker has a problem that he or she believes can be solved by obtaining a piece of software, so the asker posts a question on a forum or Q&A site in hopes of crowdsourcing a solution. However, these questions tend to be problematic for a number of different reasons:

  • The asker doesn't do any research on his or her own, something that generally produces much better questions more likely to attract experts.
  • They don't describe the problem in detail that the software should solve.
  • They don't treat our community as experts but instead treat us as a proxy to a Google search.
  • They don't focus on learning. Stack Exchange exists to help teach folks how to fish, not merely give them a fish.
  • These questions tend to attract spam and low quality answers that are nothing more than a link to a third party site.
  • As technology moves very fast, the answers may soon become outdated and useless to future visitors.

In the Stack Exchange blog post, Q&A Is Hard, Let's Go Shopping, Stack Exchange Co-Founder and CTO Jeff Atwood describes how these questions could possibly be reworded to focus more on the Stack Exchange mission, to provide expert answers to questions that explain why and how and that teach not merely tell.

In general, if we can coax the motivation for asking such a question from the asker, we may be able to provide an actual answer to the problem, not just a link to a resource that may or may not still be valid a year from now. One way to do this is to ask how one might evaluate software that solves a particular problem, similar to the examples cited in the blog post:

Example of a bad question:

Q: What’s the best low light point-and-shoot camera?

A: Canon S90 and Lumix LX3.

Example of a better way to word that question:

Q: How do I tell which point-and-shoot cameras take good low light photos?

A: I strongly recommend looking for something with

  • a fast lens (2.0 at least)

  • reasonable ISO handling (at least 400, but preferably 800)

  • the biggest sensor available

  • The sum of these factors are really critical for low light situations.

While the former question will be useless in a year, the latter question will still be valuable long after the answers are posted.

Without serious editing, these posts may very well harm our quality in the long run, as people who visit the site a year from now, who find outdated answers, may be less likely to come back and use this resource again.

I propose adding these questions as a custom, off-topic reason and that we as a community do everything in our power to first try to edit them into shape. If they can't be improved, we should flag them or vote to close them if they don't describe a real, actual problem faced in the Freelancing sector.

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If a question can't realistically be salvaged (and the answers to the question aren't exactly good), I'd close it as opinion-based.

If the answers are similar to that of your latter example, editing the question and keeping an eye on the quality of answers (possibly by protecting the question) would be the way forward.

While shopping questions might seem like a great idea to the asker, they do severely harm the site; giving answers that merely serve as borderline spam and potentially outdated information that will need updating and maintaining (which very rarely ever happens) are not at all what Stack Exchange is about.

I think we should encourage active researching of topics (as there are reams and reams of subjective blogs and articles out there) and have people come here for the hard facts and expert questions.

...though I'm still on the fence about legal issues.

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    I agree that we should nix product recommendations, unless they ask like on Superuser. There, the user needs to describe a problem that they need solved, and if a software program will solve the solution, then it can be posted; but the asker cannot ask directly for a hardware or software recommendation – Canadian Luke Sep 12 '13 at 17:12
  • @CanadianLuke - Great guideline! We'll all have to use care when closing these, and leave comments that encourage folks to find ways to edit them to be more on-topic. We're going to get a lot of folks trying to ask these, so we should encourage the community to try and help folks move from [on hold] to reopened. – jmort253 Sep 16 '13 at 2:04
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I think some of the software questions are legitimately hard to find an answer elsewhere. I think this question spawned this discussion (at least partly).

To me, that question is legitimate, it seems like he's looking for a way to duplicate the oDesk time verification model, which would probably require more of a 'system' based on a collection of potential software / services.

Just seems to me that software questions like that are actually useful, as the answer may not be a single piece of software. Even if it is, there's probably more to how you use it than just knowing what to use.

All that said, I understand that outside of the one "Don't do this!" answer, the others weren't high quality answers.

Following @CanadianLuke's comment, the auther actually did ask about a problem:

I've been asked to produce a report for clients that shows that I was working on their project for the number of hours that I bill them for. How could that be achieved? The client is familiar with oDesk and asked that I create a similar report.

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  • If we can find ways to answer the questions in a manner that teaches instead of tells, then I support editing such questions and keeping them opened. I edited the question you referenced to help it out. I'm not quite confident in reopening it because of the answers it got, so let's see what others have to say. – jmort253 Sep 17 '13 at 4:44
  • As well, just to defend my comment, I did not read the question in question, I was merely mentioning how things are done on SuperUser, which is my most active site – Canadian Luke Sep 24 '13 at 1:05

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