StackOverflow Lost & Found, part 1

Icon (c) StackOverflowI love answering questions about Google Apps Script on StackOverflow.com! As of this morning, I’ve made 792 posts on the google-apps-script tag, by far my most active tag. A large number of the questions I’ve answered came through what I call a “Lost & Found” activity – and so have many more that I’ve edited and left for others in the community to answer.

Read on to learn what causes a question to be Lost in the first place, what you can do to Find them, and how that can benefit you in terms of SO reputation gain and food for your soul or Karma.

I’ll reference  the google-apps-script tag throughout this post, but the same concepts and techniques apply in many other primary tags in SO.

What are tags?

StackOverflow uses tags on questions, just as you might use a #hashtag in a social media post.

A tag is a word or phrase that describes the topic of the question. Tags are a means of connecting experts with questions they will be able to answer by sorting questions into specific, well-defined categories.ref

Strong vs weak tags

Each question can have up to 5 tags applied to it. That’s totally sufficient when people are mindful about choosing strong tags. A strong tag is one that effectively directs a question at the experts best able to answer it. Although it’s considered a low traffic tag, the [google-apps-script] tag has 727 followers and 9,976 questions to date, a ratio of 0.073 followers to each question. This compares favourably with the high-traffic [c#] tag, with its 54.5k followers and 814.3k questions, a ratio of just 0.067

But quite a few questions are posted with 5 weak tags. Unlike strong tags, weak tags do little or nothing to expose the question to experts. An example of a very weak tag is [for-loop], which has been used on 19,640 questions to date. Despite all those questions, it has just 184 followers, a ratio of just 0.009. This is probably because the people asking these questions thought that [for-loop] was important to the understanding of their question, yet the answering community feels that the tag is not specific enough to warrant volunteering towards answering questions about it. (The moral is… don’t use very weak tags!)

Here’s a table and chart that compare the strength of the Top Ten tags (those with the most questions) to six tags relevant to Google Apps Script programming.

tag questions followers strength
javascript 884,121 71,500 0.081
java 882,143 66,100 0.075
c# 814,324 54,500 0.067
php 770,610 51,500 0.067
android 691,394 35,100 0.051
jquery 628,979 53,800 0.086
python 441,895 49,400 0.112
html 429,659 37,700 0.088
c++ 378,947 39,200 0.103
ios 346,228 19,400 0.056
google-apps-script 9,976 727 0.073
google-spreadsheet 5,358 190 0.035
google-calendar 2,597 77 0.030
google-docs 1,652 87 0.053
google-apps 1,406 132 0.094
google-form 568 12 0.021

 

Applying meaning to strength ratio is still subjective, but let’s say that any tag with a strength ratio below 0.050 is weak, and below 0.02 is very weak. This is about assessing how many sets of eyes will see a single new question amongst the existing pile. There are other factors affecting that, which this measure ignores. For instance, newly asked questions do tend to get more attention than older ones in the “newest” lists for any tag, so on heavily-followed tags there will be many people watching, even if the strength ratio is lower. In other words: More experts will tend to see a [javascript] question, because of the overwhelmingly larger following, than a [google-apps] one, despite its higher strength ratio.

When posting or editing a question’s tags, try to keep at least one strong tag in the mix, and only include weak tags if they are unambiguous and important to the question. Don’t use very weak tags at all.

Next…

Now that the foundation is laid, in part 2 we’ll talk about Lost & Found questions. For those interested in volunteering time to answer questions on StackOverflow, we’ll go into how Lost & Found can benefit both you and the community.

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