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There have been a number of questions on Meta regarding shopping questions. They deal with why they are unacceptable or how to phrase the question. However, there is a grey area as to what is actually considered a shopping question.

A simple definition would be if the question deals with software or hardware you don't already own, and it isn't to solve a problem with something you already own, it's a shopping question. However, we seem to make a lot of exceptions to this simplistic rule. For example:

  1. Anything needed to make an existing system operational (drivers, diagnostic utilities, etc.), seems to always be on-topic. Is this correct?

  2. Software requests that deal with non-critical system issues, or enhancement to the computer infrastructure (hardware/OS), tend to get a pass. This is especially true if they are focused on a narrow issue (I need a utility to adjust the system clock). Software of this nature that has more of an "application" flavor, like backup software (which also deals with user files), is sometimes deemed off-topic. How do the rules apply in this area?

  3. In the area of using the computer as a tool to do something, software to perform a general activity (I need an image editor), is clearly off topic. Software for a specific, narrow task or problem, (I need a way to attach a sticky note to a text file), will usually not be rejected. Is that a shopping request?

Might the expected size of the answer list be a driving factor? If there is a "right answer" (a single item or a couple of widely recognized alternatives), that has a different flavor than a popularity contest of endless choices, and discussions of which is the best.

  • Software recommendation questions are not on topic, hardware shopping questions are not on topic, if a question results in an answer with a link "hey you should buy this" its likely an answer to a question that isn't on topic. In most cases a tool already exists within the operating system, if its not a tool built-into the operating system, the question can still be answered by saying "its not a feature but ...." – Ramhound Jan 2 '15 at 21:07
  • @Ramhound - The question is what constitutes a request for a "software recommendation". Historically, not every question that asks for a software recommendation is considered off-topic. I've never seen "what driver do I need to download", or "what utility do I need to test whether my CPU is functioning", or "what program do I need to reformat my drive for Windows after removing Linux" rejected as off-topic. So how do we distinguish what software requests are off-topic shopping requests? – fixer1234 Jan 2 '15 at 21:40
  • All of them, if not very specific, at least are attracting spam. An it's sometimes hard to decide if to flag or not to flag as spam if you have a recommendation question with mixed content of some answers pointing to sources we would accept, link only answers and real Drive-By spam. – bummi Jan 3 '15 at 0:27
  • Just curious about the downvotes. Do they mean that shopping questions are bad, getting clarification is bad, or the question is poorly constructed? – fixer1234 Jan 4 '15 at 2:16
  • A downvote on a meta website simply means we don't agree. For instance I don't agree that there is a gray area. From the accepted answer, you don't seem to fully understand, what makes this topic overall not on topic ( since your examples themselfs would have not been on topic ) – Ramhound Jan 4 '15 at 20:20
  • @Ramhound - that's basically what I found confusing. Theoretically, none of this stuff should be on-topic, as you say. However, much of it gets a pass, and there seems to be something of a subject matter "bias" (maybe human nature given the SU membership). Also, questions that could have been written "Solve this problem" often get a pass even though they're written "find me software" if the problem is narrowly focused. The grey area was the difference between theory and historical practice. – fixer1234 Jan 4 '15 at 20:37
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A "shopping question"—if you want to call it like that—is anything where there is a possibly unlimited set of answers, all of which would be rather based on personal, subjective preference than any technical and objective criteria.

I'm talking about software only here, because the issue with hardware is completely different (outdated answers, too specific to the OP's situation at the time of asking, etc.).

Anything needed to make an existing system operational (drivers, diagnostic utilities, etc.), seems to always be on-topic. Is this correct?

No. If you're seeking a specific driver for your device XYZ, then the problem with the question is maybe a different one, in the sense that it can only be answered by a link to some file on some vendor's homepage, which we all know will not last forever. A question about what diagnostic utility to use would also be considered a product recommendation question unless phrased in such a way that it deals with the actual problem at hand that needs to be solved.

Software requests that deal with non-critical system issues, or enhancement to the computer infrastructure (hardware/OS), tend to get a pass. This is especially true if they are focused on a narrow issue (I need a utility to adjust the system clock).

I guess that the example question you gave would be considered off topic for similar reasons. (What can't you accomplish with your built-in OS settings? What's the real problem to be solved? Don't ask about a tool to do something, ask about how to get something done, etc.)

In the area of using the computer as a tool to do something, software to perform a general activity (I need an image editor), is clearly off topic.

Phrased in that way, yes. If at all, such a question would be too broad anyway. We aim at solving specific problems, and looking for the best editor for your holiday pictures isn't a problem.

Software for a specific, narrow task or problem, (I need a way to attach a sticky note to a text file), will usually not be rejected. Is that a shopping request?

That's where the grey area is. We don't allow product recommendation questions because they attract many answers which are often of low quality (just a link, "I like XYZ", etc.). With specific enough requests—as well as a list of objective criteria by which answers could be validated—one could argue that this problem will not occur. That's how Software Recommendations works.

It's where I personally would let questions pass if they're seeking an app to do something. Especially when it's blatantly obvious that the answer will be a piece of software. And when the question can hardly be rephrased into "How do I solve this problem?". Those questions are sometimes closed by the community, of course. And perhaps they're right to do so. It's not a rule set in stone.

Basically, if you can imagine a question attracting too many opinionated or low-quality answers, then that's where it should be closed as a product recommendation.

  • As you explain. I normally vote to close a question if it leads to more than two answers in which software is recommended. This normally is an indication that the question will likely just result in people suggesting everything under the sun. If a question leads to a single question suggesting multiple software products, thats normally an indication the question is worth keeping around, so it can be use as "hey look at this question" here is a possible duplicate question baseline. Its not a perfect system. But lets face it there are better communities to get software recommendations. – Ramhound Jan 3 '15 at 4:13

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