StackOverflow Lost & Found, part 2

In part 1, we introduced the idea of strong and weak tags on StackOverflow, and offered some advice for posting questions that get attention from the experts you’re looking for.

Lost Questions

And that brings us to Lost Questions. StackOverflow experts typically focus their efforts on a narrow set of tags, expecting that people looking for their help will categorize them appropriately. Questions on a strong topic that are not tagged with that topic’s primary tag are “Lost”.

Say that Miss Dunkirk, a happy-go-lucky 4th grade teacher, uses Google Apps for Education. She’s been working on a Google Sheets add-on to share with her colleagues for managing the allocation of shared audio-visual equipment in their school. Last week she ran into a problem developing her add-on’s Google Apps Script scheduling routines, and after exhausting all other resources (actually, just asking her colleague, George) she decided to post her question to StackOverflow. Her question, “Help I can’t get my add-on to work”, was tagged with [spreadsheet], [add-on] and [error-code].

She hasn’t received any answers on her question, just one down-vote. George was helpful this time – he told her that it had nothing to do with her personally, but probably meant that she needed to improve her question. She started by looking at her tags…

tag questions followers strength
[spreadsheet] 1863 40 0.021
[add-on] 539 4 0.007
[error-code] 224 0 0

Miss D realizes now that the [spreadsheet] tag is weak, and the other two are pretty much useless. She could guess at some other tags, but that is what got her into this mess. Instead, she searches for an answer she has used before, to see how its question was tagged, and she sees this:

Those tags have strengths of 0.073, 0.035 and 0.021, respectively. The weakest of those three, [google-form], isn’t relevant to her question anyway, so she changes her question’s tags to just have [google-apps-script] and [google-spreadsheet], to get it in front of at least the 727 experts who follow the [google-apps-script] tag.

Finally, she clarifies her question’s title to “How to get content of timed trigger event?”, which she thinks is exactly what she needs to know to solve her problem.

Now, Miss Dunkirk’s question is Found, because it’s tagged such that relevant experts will be more likely to see it and respond. (There are still no guarantees – there never are – but the odds are much better.)

Lost & Found for fun & profit

Everyone in the StackOverflow community is charged with improving questions and answers where possible – and you’ll find that many high-reputation users are very active doing so, even when they no longer earn badges or increased reputation for doing so. Sometimes, this will mean adding a comment prompting the poster of a question or answer to add more specific information to a question, but often it’s a matter of making a suggested edit yourself.

Since we’re talking about finding questions, and that’s about “upgrading” tags, we’ll focus on just that editorial activity. In practice, when you’re editing a post you should take the opportunity to improve it in any other way necessary; clarify titles, correct spelling, grammar and markdown syntax, etc.

Locating Lost questions

First, we need to find questions that need tag edits!

Finding lost questions isn’t too hard, really, since new questions get incorrectly tagged daily. Speaking specifically about Google Apps Script related questions again, the most common mis-tagging happens with questions posted with any of the other less-popular [google-*] tags, for example [google-spreadsheet].

Here’s a sample search that would locate questions tagged with [google-spreadsheet] but not [google-apps-script], and containing code in the question with the string `SpreadsheetApp` in it. (A dead giveaway!) In this example, we’ll limit the search to questions only with the parameter `is:question`. If we leave that out, the search will include answers containing the target text, for questions that match the target tags. (Answers don’t have tags – only questions do.) Click the picture to see the full search, with current content.

Posts containing  spreadsheetapp is question    Stack Overflow

Other searches that I’ve found useful in past include:

  • [google-spreadsheet] -[google-apps-script] script
  • [google-spreadsheet] -[google-apps-script] google (but also finds dozens of posts where someone says they have “googled the answer”!)
  • [spreadsheet] -[google-apps-script] <text> (where <text> is some Google Apps Script class or method, such as `SpreadsheetApp` in our example.)

Lost is Found – editing tags and/or questions

Let’s look at one of the questions that was found in our earlier search. This diagram calls out two options for editing, circled in red. One of them, edit tags, is available only to users with reputation scores greater than 1000. It’s a short-cut editing option that lets you change just the tags on a question, without adding an explanatory comment. The other option, edit, appears along with other actions at the bottom of the question.

javascript   SpreadsheetApp is not defined   Stack Overflow

We already know that the tags need to be fixed up on this question, so it would alright to go ahead and change them. The original question has been tagged with [javascript] which made sense in the context of the original question, since the OP1 intended to access their spreadsheet using JavaScript. However, the problem was that they were embedding Google Apps Script methods directly in their JavaScript. It’s reasonable to assume that future readers who encounter this problem may search for either [javascript] or [google-apps-script], it would be best for us to leave the [javascript] tag and augment the list with [google-apps-script].

Tag Edits

While Google Apps Script is a variant of JavaScript, it’s best to ensure that all questions related to it are tagged with [google-apps-script], especially if the question is focused on use of a specific class that is unique to Google Apps Script. It’s fine to have other tags – other Strong Tags, as we saw in part 1 – but most important to keep the “main language tag”.

As it happens, this question already had strong tags – if there are weak tags, I advocate removing them. The question also came to us with another appropriate Google-Docs related tag, [google-spreadsheet], so we’ll leave that.

Aside from the tags, the question needs some general tidying up to be really clear, so we’ll go ahead and take care of that as well. You can see the changes in the revision history for the question. When suggesting an edit, it’s helpful to fill out the Edit Summary field describing what was done:

edit summary

You mentioned “Profit”, didn’t you?

Yes, I did. And here it is. In a very large majority of cases, Lost questions have either no answer, or no good answer, because they have not been seen by the right experts. By that, I’m talking about experts like you!

As you unearth Lost questions, each is an opportunity for you to provide the first really good answer – the sort that will get recognized both by the OP and by others in the community. Take your time, do your research, test your code – make it a brilliant answer, and you’ll profit in increased experience and knowledge – and probably in increased reputation points too!

What will you find?

Care to share your explorer’s notes? If you come up with a treasure trove of lost questions, feel free to add a comment and share the details of your search! Happy hunting!


1OP = Original Poster. This shorthand is very common in comments and Meta discussions related to StackOverflow – it simply refers to the person who made the original question posting.

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