21
$\begingroup$

Apologies if this has been addressed on Meta before (it's a little hard to know the right keywords to search for Meta questions with).

Question: Has there been any systematic attempt to try to figure out where the majority of new users asking off-topic questions are coming to MO from?

By "off-topic questions" I'm primarily referring to the intro college or even high school level questions, which are often straight from a textbook and are presumably homework questions. These regularly show up at the top of the new question feed, although they are always closed in short order.

And by "where are they coming from" I mean, do we think people are typing "math question answer site" into Google and then finding MO near the top of the search results? Or what?

As a point of contrast, I would suppose that most graduate students in math learn about MO from word of mouth (either from their advisor, or fellow grad students, et cetera). But this supposition is also just based on personal anecdata.

$\endgroup$
14
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I will add that some info about sources of traffic (in general) can be found in the site analytics, which are available to users with high enough reputation (and moderators). Some stats about traffic were given in this answer in February 2014: Traffic from the list of hot network questions. $\endgroup$ May 24 at 4:44
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ From site analytics, one can see that by far most traffic comes from Google -- however there is no useful information given regarding search terms. A fraction of that comes from duckduckgo and Math.SE, each. The other sources of traffic are much smaller. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    May 24 at 12:33
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I just tried searching on Google for math problem sites, but curiously enough MO did not come up in the first page at all; the top hits were sites like www.do-my-homework-for-me.com (yep, such sites really exist), presumably because they pay Google for a top ranking. $\endgroup$ May 24 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ It seems that moderators also have access to a page with search keywords, but several posts on Meta Stack Exchange say that the data shown there are rather useless. I have looked also at the info shown at Alexa, but I do not see some useful information there, either. $\endgroup$ May 25 at 8:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak On that list of search keywords, I just see: "(not provided): 1777449 visits, (not set) 253729 visits, curve similarity: 1350 visits" -- and that's all. -- Not very helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    May 25 at 8:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ When googling for math problem sites or math homework sites, indeed it seems one needs to search pretty long until one comes across MO. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    May 25 at 8:28
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ If I google math stackexchange then mathoverflow is in the first page of results. So maybe people no stackexchange has lots of question/answer sites and tries to google one doing math and runs in to both MSE and MO. $\endgroup$ May 25 at 15:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A few hours ago I saw an off-topic question where the asker mentioned that someone on Stack Overflow suggested them to post here. Unfortunately the question is gone and I cannot locate it, not even in the deleted queue (was it self-deleted, maybe? Migrated to math.se?). $\endgroup$ May 25 at 16:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni Probably you mean this question?: mathoverflow.net/questions/393693/… $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    May 25 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl Yes, many thanks for tracking it down! $\endgroup$ May 25 at 21:28
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ As an anecdotal data point, I found out about MathOverflow as a graduate student from the "hot network questions" box on Mathematics Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$
    – user7868
    May 27 at 4:10
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ While I've never asked a question while this confusion persisted, for quite a while (this was many years ago now) I didn't even realize there was a difference between Mathoverflow and Mathematics Stack Exchange. To me they were both the stack exchange website dealing with mathematics. The way I'd usually end up on either of the sites is searching for particular maths questions/subjects through google and end up on one of the sites. $\endgroup$
    – Potato44
    May 28 at 7:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @user7868: Posters who find MO through HNQ’s should be easy to recognise, I guess: if they have reasonably established accounts elsewhere on the network, they’re presumably pretty likely to have found us that way, and if not, pretty unlikely? $\endgroup$ May 28 at 21:53
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I expect askers of highly off-topic questions ("solve my homework/exam please help" style with embedded picture such as this one) post simultaneously at many sites without paying attention to guidelines. This doesn't answer the question, but suggests they might attempt to find as many possible sites to do so. $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    May 30 at 14:23
8
$\begingroup$

Though I haven't technically asked a single off-topic question yet, I theoretically could have, because, due to my familiarity with Wikipedia policies forbidding original research (from whose mathematical reference desk I eventually found my way here, and onto the related Math.SE site), I misinterpreted the wording describing site policies as meaning that the asking of research level questions is forbidden, rather than expected, where the relevant phrase was being misunderstood as referring to yet-unanswered questions, such as, say, the Riemann Hypothesis, possibly as a minimal attempt to ward off potential quacks. Of course, luckily for me, my questions were well-received: but that's most likely the result of pure chance, rather than the direct byproduct of correct comprehension, from my part, of the site's actual rules. I also had no real clue, whatsoever, of the proper relation between MO and MSE, deeming them simply as being two equally-frequented Q&A websites for addressing this particular topic, similarly to, say, Code Guru and Code Project. It took me weeks, if not months, to finally understand what the phrase actually meant all along.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your description of your experience! I don’t quite follow your explanation of how you misunderstood the MO policies — could you quote the bit that you misunderstood? (Or at least a short excerpt, if there were too many such to quote all.) $\endgroup$ Jun 2 at 13:13
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: I basically mistook research level for original research. $\endgroup$
    – Lucian
    Jun 2 at 13:34
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Lucian The term "original research" on Wikipedia has a special Wikipedian meaning that doesn't apply elsewhere, and is their innovation. It didn't arise from the everyday meaning of the term as everyone else uses it, but, as you say, was coined when some terminology was needed to try to smooth over relations with certain people with particular obsessions, hobby-horses, bees in their bonnet, etc. So really the fault lies with Wikipedia for using the term "research" in this way, not MathOverflow for using it with its usual meaning (to be clear, I like Wikipedia and edit it from time to time). $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 11:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (Also, in case the tone of my comment gets misread, I am not the downvoter of your answer, I upvoted it.) $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 11:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @RobertFurber: It seemed logical to me not to ask questions about something whilst it is still in its research phase, since there would be no point in inquiring about an answer whilst the data has not yet been properly gathered, weighed, and sorted, and before a clear conclusion could therefore naturally emerge. $\endgroup$
    – Lucian
    Jun 3 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ I regard this as an argument in favour of my suggestion here: meta.mathoverflow.net/questions/5011/… -- the guideline should be that before asking on MO you should find n questions where you understand the question and the accepted answer. (I suggested n=10, but Tim Campion said n=2 or n=3 would be better.) $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 8:40
7
$\begingroup$

When I type "ask a math question" into Google (incognito mode), MathOverflow is the second link. Of course, Google tailors results to my past search history, but I would wager that this is a significant source of new users. SE spends a lot of time and energy on search engine optimization, so this is no surprise.

Then, users are presented with this screen: MO landing page

Can you spot the two places where it is stated that MO is for research-level questions?

  • In the placeholder of the question title, in a muted font.
  • Tucked away in the sidebar that no one reads, in a small font.

On the other hand, the site's logo, "mathoverflow", is prominent. StackOverflow is well-known and users know that it is a website for asking questions. The math just cements the idea that this is a website for math questions.

And of course, simply stating "research-level" is insufficient. As a mathematician, I constantly must explain to acquaintances that yes, there is still research to be done in mathematics, that not everything has been found. I would not be surprised if many people read that landing page, read the word "research", and didn't understand that it refers to academic research. They could very well interpret it as "research of an answer to a question", or simply ignore the word...

Given all that, is it really a surprise that users don't notice that this website is for postgraduate-level math?

$\endgroup$
4
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's interesting and useful. I got similar results in private mode with a variety of browsers. The precise search term "ask a math question" seems to be important; I did not find MO with various other terms like "math problem" or "math help". Also, searching Bing for "ask a math question" did not find MO. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 8:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It is worth pointing out that Tim Campion recently escalated to SE the request for some changes in the text of the modal window shown in your screenshot: What should the modal window for first-time askers say? (The final proposal is in the accepted answer.) $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 8:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MartinSleziak That's interesting, but I'm skeptical. As Internet users, we are trained to close modals (which usually contain ads, cookie/tracking-related boilerplate, newsletter registration forms, or similar useless information) as quickly as possible to get to the useful content. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 9:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's right to be skeptical - but still I think that it is worth trying. In my 2021 feature request I have mentioned some data from other sites. This was follow-up to the previous feature request from 2017. One of the moderators said back in 2018 that they are planning to do this - it took more than two years. (I understand that some MO users might see advantages to having such questions here - but I did not recall objections to these changes.) $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 9:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .