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I know there are previous discussions on this, but they appear to be somewhat contradictory, and it is coming up enough that we should have a clear and current consensus.

In the original What sites should be considered general references? question, the accepted answer clearly states:

We should only consider as general reference questions that can be easily answered by typing all or part of the question into Google.

However... this related question from 3 months later looking to clarify the status of Wikia.com includes this in the accepted (and only) answer:

On a related note, Google should not be used as a measure to determine whether a question is a legitimate Stack Exchange question. “General reference” does not take Google into account (or at least it should not, by its definition, even if it's sometimes abused). General reference means “look it up in a dictionary / in an encyclopedia / in the manual”. It does not mean “google it”.

That answer directly links to Gilles' answer on the first question I mentioned, which is the lowest voted answer.

The fact that Gilles' answer on Wikia.org has been cited several times as proof that our current and accepted policy is that an answer being returned by a Google search is not sufficient for closing as General Reference. Yet the original question indicated that there was a lot of support for just that.

My personal feeling is that the mention of Google in the "Is Wikia.com valid" answer is off-topic, and confuses the issue. I upvoted that answer, but I upvoted it because it was a good rational as to why Wikia.com, by itself, is not a good GR resource. I did not vote because I felt that "Google should not be used as a measure of whether a question is legitimate".

So let's clear up any confusion.

If I search a rather mundane question (a reference to Borror0's chart listed in this answer, indicating that if a question is interesting, it shouldn't be marked as GR), and I get one or more hits in the top few results of google that clearly and unambiguously answer the question, is that sufficient to close as General Reference?

Does the actual sites that are returned impact this?

If I ask "what is the name of the cat in Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls", and get a bunch of random fan sites and blogs that all say "Pixel is the cat in the book", and we all agree that that is the answer, is that sufficient for GR closure (even if Wikipedia inexplicably is not present in the search results)?

Is Wikipedia.org the only source acceptable for General Reference closure, or do individual other sites that are easily found through a Google search count? If other sites count, do we need to set a threshold (i.e. if you can find 3 other sites that provide the same answer, and no sites that provide contradictory answers, then it is GR)?

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Here's my reasoning, and in general what I hear in chat and others' comments:

  • Google will customize your results based on past searches.
    • Now, in this particular instance, "star trek" was part of the search criteria that DVK proposed. Yeah, that's pretty unique - but it's not always going to be. For example, the word "supernatural" is also the name of a TV series that's fairly popular on this site. So do we really want to start listing "Okay, Google is general reference for these terms, but not for these terms" ?
    • For example, if I search for "tree" right now, most of my results are about data structures and graph theory. Even those Wikipedia results are pushed well above the plant that is called a tree.
      • DVK's counter of using "incognito mode" in Google Chrome would've failed my "tree" test because he doesn't have the search history that would push Sci-Fi lower in the Google's search results. Besides, are we really going to ask all new users to do searches in incognito mode before asking questions??
  • It will not be easy to tell whether or not most sites are reliable.
    • Wikipedia and (mostly) IMDB are the exceptions to this. There've been mistakes in IMDB found that are difficult to get someone to fix, but overall they're reliable enough and well-known enough that we can call them general reference.
    • Memory Alpha is an even better resource than Wikipedia for Star Trek stuff, but it fails the "well-known" test for being General Reference. An average user - or Slytherincess - would not necessarily have enough knowledge of Star Trek to know Memory Alpha is a good resource.
    • Popular fan theories will show up all over the place, such as Crowley (from the aforementioned Supernatural) being a red-eyed demon, prior to the recent reveal. This fails your The Cat Who Walks Through Walls test.
  • it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information
    • The text from General Reference. This close reason is for when another source, like Wikipedia or IMDB, is better than what you'd get on a question/answer site. Wikipedia has plot summaries - provided you know the book/episode/series well enough to find it - and IMDB has actors/etc.
      • For an example of what I believe is the intended use, look at this question. He knew the actors, so either IMDB or Wikipedia would've been the best place to look, because they have filmographies for actors.
      • On the other hand, when you have a plot without a solid reference, it deserves the so-popular tag, which usually don't get closed very often. Even when they're painfully obvious to us.
    • If it gets closed as General Reference, then IMO it also deserves a downvote because it should have been found. But not necessarily the other way around; Crowley's eyes in Supernatural being one example. It was easy to find "his eyes are red because he's a Crossroads Demon" on fansites all over, but there was no proof until episode 8x02.

The question that spurred this meta question failed this test for me, by the way. DVK hit on the exact combination of terms to make Allegiance show up in Google results, even for my oft-used Star Trek searches; I tried the first terms to come to mind and got both Schisms and The Last Outpost (and -surprise- the question in question) as my top results.

The Babylon 5 one I linked above passed it, though, with "tv show 90s space station security guard", Babylon 5 being a top result (and that question beating it)

  • Wait, why am I in a Star Trek example?! ;) But seriously, I could probably figure out what Memory Alpha is if I were delving into ST fandom. It only took me minutes of Googling and clicking on returns to find Tolkien Gateway. Frankly, a person has to know their canon at such a ridiculously high level of geekiness to be able to authoritatively evaluate a fan site, a wikia, or the Wikipedia itself (Heck, I found a blatant canon error on Pottermore, J.K. Rowling's own personal Harry Potter site!). None of the sites are perfect, so why should we focus on only two resources as authoritative? – Slytherincess Nov 11 '12 at 17:10
  • @Slytherincess In terms of reliability, for IMDB, I'm not sure. I don't much care for the site. For Wikipedia, I believe it's because of their rules for citing sources. Wikipedia editors tend to be a lot more stringent there than elsewhere. – Izkata Nov 11 '12 at 17:57
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Forgive me while I wax emphatic:

No, Google is NOT General Reference!

People who think it is have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the "General Reference" close reason. It's not enough for a question to be too basic. It must also be of a type that can be answered by a reference source designed to answer it. The canonical example is, of course, a dictionary for looking up the meaning of a word, which doesn't really apply to this site.

Really, the only two standard references that apply here are IMDB and Wikipedia. The per-universe sources such as Memory Alpha or Wikia are not generally known, and thus fail the availability test, and some of them fail the reliability test as well. And even with IMDB & Wikipedia, if the answer is buried in a lengthy plot summary or something, then the question may not actually be general reference.

Google is a search engine. As such, it's designed to answer questions of the form "where do I find a website about [such-and-such]?" — which would obviously be off-topic here. Again, for emphasis: the only questions for which Google is a valid general reference are off-topic for this site. And then there's the fact that there are a lot of crappy websites out there with misleading or false information, and said websites don't have the downvotes and comments and other tools SE has that are designed to filter the wheat from the chaff. And then there's the fact that with modern search engines, your past browsing history influences the search results you get...


I get that sometimes people post useless questions, and it's infuriating that they can't be bothered to do even basic research before posting. Really, I get it. But the thing to do when a question shows no research is to downvote it. It says so, right there in the tooltip for the downvote arrow. If, in addition, it's hard to tell what it's asking, because in addition to no research, the poster couldn't be bothered to employ something resembling proper grammar, then you might consider voting to close it as "not a real question". Or one of the other close reasons, if it fits. But just because you googled it and found a website you know to be reliable in the first few results and the answer was right there if you knew where to look... that doesn't make it general reference.

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    Re: your last paragraph: I completely agree. – Beofett Nov 9 '12 at 20:38
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    Every single one of your objections I addressed in my answer, but 1) You can't state that GR is only for questions that are answered by references designed to answer the question, then refuse to accept the references designed to answer the question (the domain-specific wikis) as counting. 2) There is no "availability test". 3) Choosing only Wikipedia and IMDB as the only ones that count is a personal preference: they can be just as inaccurate as anything else. If we're going to be completely arbitrary, we should just do away with GR entirely (which, not for nothing, I support). – user366 Nov 9 '12 at 22:07
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    @MarkTrapp: the GF close reason specifies "a standard internet reference source" (emphasis mine). That's what I'm calling the availability test. For example, on ELU, the OED — generally recognized as one of the best, if not the best, dictionaries out there — is not considered general reference, because a random internet user probably can't access it. – Martha Nov 9 '12 at 22:19
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    @Martha We're not ELU, so if it was the case that they—for some weird reason—barred the OED as a standard general reference on a site about the English language, that has no effect on us. But thankfully, it looks like they didn't. In SFF, wikis like Memory Alpha are the standard internet reference sources for their specific domains. I get that a few people don't happen to prefer them, but that's all it is: a preference, because your answer doesn't do anything to discredit them any more than the sources you do say "count". – user366 Nov 9 '12 at 22:38
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    @Martha That is to say, other sites other than Wikipedia/IMDB pass your "availability test" and Wikipedia/IMDB fail the "reliability test" (they can, and most assuredly are, sometimes wrong, just like the domain-specific wikis). So we have no reason—given your argument—to favor them over anything else. Since there is no consensus here over what references people prefer to answer questions, stating those are the only that count is arbitrary. We could just as easily insist that only Memory Alpha or the Tolkien Gateway count. At least with a Google search, someone can find some answer convergence – user366 Nov 9 '12 at 22:39
  • @MarkTrapp Availability isn't the reason domain-specific wikis aren't considered general reference. We've learned from experience that domain-specific wikis in general tend to be more wrong than Wikipedia, largely due to unspecific citing rules. So instead of ending up with a complicated list of which to allow as Gen. Ref., all were disallowed as Gen. Ref. – Izkata Nov 11 '12 at 4:42
  • @Izkata I'm well aware of previous discussions on GR: Beofett even linked to them in his question. Relinking the same bogus meta discussions that are called into question here is not evidence of unreliability, particularly since neither actually provide evidence of unreliability themselves. If you personally prefer not to trust domain-specific wikis, that's fine, but please don't keep insisting that your personal preference is anything more than that without bringing proof to the table. – user366 Nov 11 '12 at 5:04
2

Yes, an answer clearly appearing in the first few results of a Google search does count as a sufficient basis for a potential General Reference closure. I don't think there needs to be a hard number for how many results have the answer, or which results should count, because it undermines the purpose of having community voting: if enough people agree that the question is easily answered and there's nothing more to add, that's sufficient for General Reference.

Stack Exchange is different from other Q&A sites in that quality information provided by experts and "making the internet a better place" is paramount. Time and again, it's been demonstrated that replicating easily-found information elsewhere on the internet does neither: we don't attract or keep experts who are interested in the questions they can't find elsewhere, and—in the event our answer is worse than the currently easily available resource—we actively make it harder to find answers, making the internet worse for it.

So before you ask your first question on Stack Exchange, one of the principles everyone is asked to agree to is "do your homework":

Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and most of all it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

Among other things, doing a quick Google search by typing your question into Google and seeing what comes up is one of the least things you could do to research your question beforehand, not only for the chance that your question would be answered immediately, but because it provides a place to start looking for information.

You don't, of course, have to do that before asking a question: you could, by chance, stumble into a really interesting and difficult question without doing any research. But if a quick Google search turns up the information and there's nothing more we could add, then there is sufficient basis for a potential GR closure.

So if you've done a quick search and you're not satisfied with the results, no problem; ask us a question and explain what you've tried so far:

  • I did a quick search for information about the cat in Harry Potter, but I'm not convinced what I found is correct because...
  • When I was looking for the answer to this, I found an article on Memory Alpha that said "..." but that seems to contradict...

By providing the background for asking the question here, we can tailor our answers to answer your specific concerns, even if the question prima facie looks like General Reference; in essence, it makes a "too basic" question no longer basic. And we make the internet a better place by addressing a real, specific problem someone has with the obvious information.

This is what we should be shooting for, not trying in vain to poorly replicate the information found elsewhere. We should be relying on the information collected by other members of the worldwide SFF community, not pretending it doesn't exist.

Objections

If you know nothing about the work, you can't be sure the results are reliable

That's fine: Stack Exchange does not need a person to be absolutely sure their question will remain open here. If it did, we would never have any closed questions. If one does a quick Google search, finds the answer and very little to no disagreement, and still isn't convinced, they're more than welcome to ask a new question about it, provided that they:

  • "show their work" and explain why they don't believe the easily-found answers are correct, or
  • are prepared to have their question closed as General Reference.

Google's search results are personalized

Also of the form, "what may be one person's 'first hit' is another's 'shown on page 3'."

This is an overblown concern. Google "personalizes" search results based on four factors:

  • Location: if you search for "bank" and you live in New York, New York-based banks will rank better
  • Algorithmic testing: Google is constantly improving their hundreds of search signals, which may cause results to change
  • Server queried: when searching, Google routes your query to one of its many data centers, which may not have exactly the same index as others
  • Search history: if you've searched a bunch for one term and then search for a term that could be related, Google will bias the results based on the first term

Location doesn't matter unless you happen to live at Hogwarts or in Middle-earth; if you happen to be in a situation like that, I'd ask a local your question instead of us. The changes Google makes to its algorithms are small and mostly unnoticeable. A algorithmic-based discrepancy or—much more benign, a data center discrepancy—would not produce wildly different results between two people in the time it takes to evaluate a question for GR.

So the only other issue is the results based on search history. This bias would actually work in favor of something using Google to find answers before asking a question. If you're searching for information and are trying a couple of different keywords, Google will figure out—so to speak—what you're trying to search for, even if you're not getting the terms exactly right.

But all these search biases can be mitigated by browsing in your browser's privacy mode. If Google's black magic in this regard is too untrustworthy, we could simply modify the rule to something like:

Is the answer clearly appearing in the first few results of a Google search when your browser's privacy mode is turned on?

The wikia/domain-specific wikis are, in general, of poor quality/hard to follow

Also of the form, "Who gets to decide which canonical resources count for which works?"

Not liking the quality the domain-specific wikis is a personal preference and does not affect a "search Google first" GR philosophy. If, say, you search for who the cat is in Prisoner of Azkhaban and the results all converge on "Crookshanks", whether Wikia appears in the search results is immaterial, because the answer is corroborated by other results.

Other Stack Exchange sites, like Stack Overflow, don't respect any "Google it first" rule

Also of the form, "General Reference is capricious, arbitrary, and even SE thinks it's a failure".

I'm sympathetic to this, but we're given the hand we're dealt with. If you think no question is too simple and don't think we should close questions as General Reference at all, then we need to get rid of the General Reference close reason.

If, on the other hand, you think we should have a General Reference close reason, just that "Google it first" shouldn't count on the basis that other SE sites don't have that rule, you're comparing apples to oranges, because the other sites don't have a General Reference close reason, save English.SE. I'd bet a sawbuck if they ever got one, "Google it first" would be one of the first rules put in place.

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    RE specifically "Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question?" - This is what downvote is for, not VTC. It even says exactly that in the tooltip when you hover the mouse over it. – Izkata Nov 6 '12 at 21:54
  • @Izkata The reasons one might vote and one might vote to close are not mutually exclusive, and that's not exactly what the downvote button tooltip says. A quick Google search proving an answer immediately and clearly demonstrates the question is, in fact, too basic. But you can make a basic question not basic by showing your work and explaining how the basic answer is insufficient. – user366 Nov 6 '12 at 22:00
  • @Izkata: Isn't not having "thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question" one of the reasons the General Reference close reason exists in the first place? – Wipqozn Nov 6 '12 at 22:48
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    @Wipqozn No, General Reference is for questions that are better looked for in another place. For example, Wikipedia has plots summaries (if you know the episode well enough to find it), and IMDB has actors/etc. – Izkata Nov 7 '12 at 2:10
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    @Izkata if you simplify it as "GR is for questions that are better looked for in another place", wouldn't most questions on Star Wars be better looked for in wookiepedia, or questions on Star Wars better looked for in Memory Alpha, or questions about Harry Potter better looked for on Pottermore? Which again devolves into adding additional qualifiers to account for "notability" and "accessibility". The point being: you can't simplify what GR is for into a single, brief statement of intent. – Beofett Nov 12 '12 at 14:02
  • @Beofett I tend to include that as part of "better" - if it could be considered unreliable (like the HP wikia, or users who don't know how reliable Memory Alpha is due to it not being a "standard source"), then it isn't better – Izkata Nov 12 '12 at 18:59

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