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One of the standard off-topic close reasons is this:

"Questions seeking product or service recommendations are off-topic because they tend to become obsolete quickly. Instead, describe your situation and the specific problem you're trying to solve."

Can we clarify exactly what that means, and what types of questions count as off-topic because of it?

The link in the close reason above goes to a Jeff Atwood blog post from 2010 called Q&A is Hard, Let's Go Shopping!, in which he outlines the problems with typical product recommendation requests. However, he also shows what a good product recommendation request looks like.

I've seen several different classes of questions closed for this reason. Here are a few recent examples:


Types of questions:

"Is this particular service any good?"

"How do I find this information?"

"How do I use this particular website/service?"

"How do I accomplish this task?"

"Where can I get a better deal than what I'm currently getting?"

"Which is the best product/service?"


Should all of these categories of questions be off-topic?

Please note: I'm not arguing for or against any of the specific questions linked. These are just recent examples of the classes of questions that I have noticed have been closed as a "product or service recommendation" question. I'm only asking for general guidelines on what kinds of questions constitute a "product or service recommendation" request.

  • Thanks for the efforts in bringing this up, very nicely written. – Dheer Dec 3 '15 at 4:38
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I think its a mixed bag. To me intent of this was to closed question like is Bank A better than Bank B. Which bank/service gives the cheapest service.

So to me there are 3 things happening;

  1. Genuine closed where recommendation is being asked.
  2. Some look like product recommendation but are know to seek info [for example API trading, tool for doing something].
  3. Asking if some info exists. More often the answer would be there may or may not be paid service [for example Nifty 150 intraday]

I think from closing point of view, we have got most question right. There may be start few that maybe we shouldn't have closed. That I guess is bound to happen and hence we have the re-open process.

I guess the more serious issue is are we giving the right closure reason. I guess this is where more often we are getting boxed into picking easy options than type a specific reason.

4

I'll admit, when I am running through the review queue, I'll spend the time to decide a close is appropriate, but if there are two or more votes to close for a specific reason, I'm more likely to check that same one than to ponder whether another should have been chosen instead.

I do think the reason description is somewhat vague. Sometimes, to me, it seems like a variation of the "contact customer service" rejection that I'd thought would be a good choice of standard rejection reason. There are also times that an answer should offer a company, as in my comment on charity. There are dozens of brokers but only the two I named that I am aware offer the charitable gifting account.

In the end, I think we have a tendency toward checking a box even if a custom written response would be better.

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Along the lines of your examples, perhaps it would help if we drew up more specific templates for the off-topic question classes we are trying to avoid? For instance, here are some classes of questions that, IMHO, we should be closing as product/service recommendations:

  • Where can I get [free/paid] [current/historical] [stock/company/fx] data?
  • What [brokers/banks/credit cards/money transfer services] will let me _____ from _____?
  • Where can I find a [loan/mortage/funding] because _____?
  • What [service/software/app] should I use to track my [finances/budget/portfolio/taxes]?
  • What [service/software/app] has feature _____?
  • What specific [funds/ETFs/other financial instruments] are appropriate for me?
    (steer such a question to discuss asset classes, not products)
  • Who is a [cheaper/better/faster/more reliable] provider of _____ services?
  • Where can I find an [advisor/accountant/insurance broker/other professional]?

I also tend to look at questions this way: If the answer to a question could just be the name or a link to one or more product or service providers (whether with or without descriptions of the products/services, promotional or otherwise), then IMHO it isn't a question we want — it will attract spam and it will get out of date.

I'll call out a specific exception for questions and answers about government tax authorities (e.g. IRS, HMRC, or CRA) or other government departments relating to social/retirement benefits (e.g. SSA, Service Canada, etc.). I wouldn't consider public resources to be products or services per se.

  • The templates you suggest are a good point of discussion, but the 'reasons for closure' are still limited by the 5 we have. Either way, I think we will always have a grey area. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 6 '15 at 13:26
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I think there is room to be more permissive in this area. To my mind, there are two main downsides to these types of questions. First, they are too specific and thus often cannot get answers that will satisfy the questioner (sometimes leading to endless back-and-forth in comments). Second, they tend to not be useful as references later (e.g., if found via Google search), again because they are too specific.

As with many close votes, I think we should try to restrain ourselves from closing questions that ask something specific if we can instead give a helpful but more general answer. We should also be wary of knee-jerk close votes simply because the question mentions specific products/services; the question is not whether the question has to do with those specific products/services, but whether an answer would be useful to others. An answer can be useful to people other than the original questioner because it applies to similar (but not identical) circumstances, or because the specific circumstances in the question are very common.

In practice, I think this means we should accept many questions that related to widely-used products and services. I think there have been discussion on meta about this before, but personally I think questions like "How can I do XYZ commonly needed task in Quicken/GnuCash/etc" should be on topic, because lots of people use those products and the answers may be generally useful. At an extreme, the S&P 500, for instance, is actually a specific product provided by a specific company, but (I hope) we wouldn't think of closing a question simply because it was asking something about the S&P 500.

Some of the other questions (like the "which brokers offer a trading API" or "what is a good book about investing") are more shopping-list like, but I think they often admit of good answers that simply sidestep the specifics. When someone asks "what is a good book about investing", often what they actually mean is "how can I learn about investing", and that's a perfectly fine question. So you can just write an answer that says "Personally I liked this book, but there is also this website and this podcast, and those are some starting points for you to find resources that you personally would like." Likewise if someone asks "Should I invest in this particular mutual fund", often you can give a general answer about how to decide what to invest in.

In other words, people sometimes ask questions that are more specific than the ones they actually needed or wanted to ask, even if they're not aware of it. If someone asks "is X good", the the question is often really "how do I tell what is a good choice in this domain", and that can be answered.

On a more general note, I think one way my perspective on this differs from that of many others is that I don't think it is a bad thing to have a fair amount of unanswered questions. There are lots of good questions that probably have real answers, but that no one here knows the answers to. That is fine. We shouldn't close a question just because it happens that no one is around who can answer it. We should close a question if we can't imagine anyone ever being able to give a generally useful answer.

  • I think "How can I do XYZ commonly needed task in Quicken/GnuCash/etc" should be off topic, because it's about a specific piece of software. Similarly, if someone asks how to do something in TurboTax, but, they are really asking a tax question, and the product name can easily be swapped for "my tax software" I think it stays. Essentially, it's a tax question. In the end, I agree that it's best to err on the side of caution, we should be slower to close. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 6 '15 at 13:31
  • "what is a good book about investing" can go either way. I recall answering multiple variations of this question. The best book on options for one. However, I think we need to push the OP to be specific about what they want, else that type of question can be answered once, and all others closed as duplicates. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 6 '15 at 13:35
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    @JoeTaxpayer: The Quicken is an area where we disagree. I don't see anything wrong with asking about a specific piece of software, as long as the question is likely to be useful to a wide audience. On other StackExchange sites, there are plenty of questions about how to use specific tools (e.g., questions on GIS StackExchange about how to do X with ArcGIS, questions about bibliography management software at Academia SE, and so on). Using personal finance software is part of personal finance. – BrenBarn Dec 6 '15 at 19:04
  • it's ok to disagree, I don't feel so strongly on the issue, I'm happy to keep Quicken in mind as so common that we should keep the question here. In general, I think it's a slippery slope, the on-topic need to stay a very short list, else we open the door to a lot of questions that are marginal in value. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Dec 6 '15 at 19:17
  • @JoeTaxpayer I'd also be happy to see more questions about accomplishing tasks in personal finance software. We already get questions about GnuCash, but I'd love to see questions about YNAB (my software of choice). – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Dec 9 '15 at 14:38

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