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We all love History Stack Exchange, but there is a whole world of people out there who need answers to their questions and don't even know that this site exists. When they arrive from Google, what will their first impression be? Let's try to look at this site through the eyes of someone who's never seen it before, and see how we stack up against the rest of the 'Net.

The Site Self-Evaluation review queue is open and populated with 10 questions that were asked and answered in the last quarter. Run a few Google searches to see how easy they are to find and compare the answers we have with the information available on other sites.

Rating the questions is only a part of the puzzle, though. Do you see a pattern of questions that should have been closed but are not? Questions or answers that could use an edit? Anything that's going really well? Post an answer below to share your thoughts and discuss these questions and the site's health with your fellow users!

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Here's what I got:

Population disparities between New York City and Boston

Needs Improvement. I like this question a lot. However, a request for a slightly better rewording in the comments went unanswered. Also, I pretty much had to enter the entire title before Google found it (top hit when it did though). But the worst problem is that none of the answers were ever accepted. The best answer of the bunch IMHO was really too short. Given the user's rep, its unclear they are around enough to even accept a good answer if it appears.


Oldest appearance of "brand names" in history?

Satisfactory. Its worded a bit too much like we are playing a trivia game, but otherwise a very good question. It has a good accepted answer, although one which is worded a bit too tentatively for my taste. Its main problem is that I had to add the word "appearance" to get it to show up on a Google search.


When the term "president" was used the first time?

Needs Improvement. An interesting question, with a very good answer. However, there is only the one answer, it has not been accepted, and I couldn't find it on Google even when I search on the exact question title.


How did the Dutch East India Company (VOC) have so much revenue when they only control small part of Indonesia?

Satisfactory (barely). Somehow I missed this one when it was asked. The question itself could use a little cleaning up. As it is, it seems to be asking "How do people make money out of trade routes?", but could probably be tweaked to be more specific to the VOC. It has three pretty good answers, but again none have been accepted. It shows up fifth in the dumbest Google query I could think of on the subject, a pretty darn good performance.


To what extent did the CPC avoid fighting with the Japanese?

Needs Improvement. I could see a tweak or two to the wording, but for the most part the question is great. Best of the bunch by far. It also is the top hit for the first Google search I tried. However, the only answer at present is negatively voted. It looks to be an eminently answerable question, so there is really no excuse for this.


Prominent examples of scientific racism in ancient Greece

Needs Improvement. IMHO the question is too long, with way too much quoted material. Other than that complaint, it is a great concept for a question, and very well written. It is also top hit on my Google search. It has a fairly good answer (lots of upvotes). That's where the good news ends though. There was only the one answer, it is probably too emotionally worded, and for whatever reason the OQ didn't find it acceptable. I'm giving it the NI purely on the lack of an accepted answer. There's a very fine line between this question being excellent instead, but it presently falls over onto the bad side.


How did ruffs become fashionable and then went out of fashion?

Needs Improvement - Judging by my past votes, I personally like this question and its top to answers. However, judging by the other votes they all received, that doesn't appear to have been a common opinion. It was about the 9th hit on merely "ruffs fashion", which I consider pretty darn good. Again, none of the answers have been accepted. Again, I'd have changed my vote to "Excellent" if not for that fact.


What factors led to the 30% devaluation of pound sterling in 1949?

Needs Improvement - Another one I missed while out of town. I like this question, although it is of a dangerous variety, in that it tempts speculative answers that don't rely on consensus historical opinion. The top answer IMHO succumbed to the temptation. The next answer is much better. The question showed up 5th on a simple Google search, which is really pretty good. However, again no accepted answer.


Did the civil wars of 17th century England facilitate an independent spirit in the American colonies?

Needs Improvement - A very well-worded question, although one that is sadly a bit squishy. The sole answer avoided this sandtrap by instead devoting itself to describing the buildup to the American Revolutionary War, as if a question about that was asked instead. It was (probably rightly) not accepted.


What is the significance of roof charms outside of the Forbidden City?

Excellent - A great question. Just the kind of thing SO sites are needed for. I remember researching this myself, and there really was no straightforward answer to be found on the internet (I know I commented otherwise at the time, but that info really had to be coaxed out). The accepted answer could use some tweaking, but is pretty good. Google found it on the 4th hit. Biggest issue is that there's only the one answer.


Final analysis: The Achilles' heel for the stack here in my evaluation seems to be questions with no acceptance. I'm kind of hard on this one, because I know when I'm searching and hit other SE sites, I don't find questions without accepted answers very helpful (although sometimes an extreme amount of upvotes will do instead).

In some cases the lack of an accepted answer may simply be due to the questioners not hanging around to maintain their question, but at least a couple of cases appear to be due to no "acceptable" answer being posted.

  • Definitely agree with your analysis, we still have plenty room for improvement. – called2voyage Jan 14 '14 at 20:58
  • I'm amused at how often we differ on the quality of a question. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 15 '14 at 23:24
  • @MarkC.Wallace - That's why I'm stoked you posted yours again as well. I'm fully aware that I am unusually generous with questions on this stack. I'd probably rail bitterly about a lot of the ones that get closed, if I didn't have the totally unfair diamond next to my name at the moment. I do find it very interesting how our roles reverse when it comes to answers though. :-) – T.E.D. Jan 16 '14 at 1:44
  • Very helpful analysis. You make a good point about accepted answers. I don't much care to accept answers to my own questions since I nearly always hoping for something better. But your insight into what people might think who aren't necessarily used to Stack Exchange is compelling. Hmmmm... – Jon Ericson Feb 7 '14 at 1:45
  • @JonEricson - For myself, I'm very slow to accept answers, but I do usually get around to it eventually. Looking through some of my old questions, the ones without accepts are all either due to no answer being posted I find acceptable, or no answer at all. To take a prominent example, Were there ever actual organizations of pirates? has a wonderful high-voted answer (probably my favorite answer to any question on this stack), that I happen to know is wrong. – T.E.D. Feb 7 '14 at 13:26
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Around the time of the last site eval I posted this question:

Concerns about the future utility of this site

In my opinion, the site has improved 1000% since then. Great job, History.SE!

3

My highly opinionated evaluation.

  1. Prominent examples of scientific racism in ancient Greece The first page of google results overlap with the material presented in the question; consequently I judge that the answers are superior to anything that google provides. I have only a superficial acquaintance with the historiography of racism, but I’m not aware of any source that surpasses this. Underlying this is the point that Mr. Geerkens makes in his answer; that the underlying theory is of questionable value. I think the question is reasonably well formed, well researched and documented, but I think that the OP and the scholar in question have reached conclusions that are not fully supported by the source material. Mr. Geerkens’ answer serves as a useful (albeit strong) debunking. Overall rating: satisfactory
  2. How did ruffs become fashionable and then went out of fashion? The first page of google reveals multiple sources that discuss the topic of the question, and provide theories to answer the question.
    • Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions &c By Rudolph Ackermann, Frederic Shober
    • Fashion Encyclopedia
      The SE answers are inferior to the google answers. The question doesn’t demonstrate any research. Neither answer really addresses the core question; both are supported with some research. I must mark this one “needs improvement”.
  3. When the term “president” was used the first time? Clearly the OP did not do preliminary research; wikipedia offers an answer. That answer is however, wrong, as the SE answer predates the wikipedia answer by several centuries. Bad question, good answer. SE gets marked superior.

  4. Did the civil wars of 17th century England facilitate an independent spirit in the American colonies? I believe this is a bad question - it reads like an essay question on a middle grade history exam. It is intrinsically opinion based. There is no evidence of preliminary research, although I must admit that OP must have done some reading in order to conclude that “it seems like England was endless dealing with battles…”.
    The entire first page of google is filled with references to SE; there doesn’t seem to be a useful answer in the first two pages of google. One of the reasons that I suspect this of being a homework question is that this mirrors the kind of oversimplification that was presented to me in middle school; there is undoubtedly truth in the thesis, but demonstrating that thesis requires scholarship and a page count far above SE expectations. I’m going to reluctantly mark SE superior to the internet on this, entirely due to the efforts of Tom Au to portray complex trends in a few paragraphs.

  5. What is the significance of roof charms outside of the Forbidden City? Excellent question, because it is somewhat difficult to research without background. Google reveals a whole bunch of answers that mention the roof charms, but do not explain them. SE answer disclaims strong authority, but provides an introduction. I would have preferred a little more depth. I’m going to mark this satisfactory.

  6. How did the Dutch East India Company (VOC) have so much revenue when they only control small part of Indonesia? I’m of two minds about this one; I’m in the middle of listening to “A splendid exchange” by Bernstein. Bernstein provides a clear explanation that would answer the question which is far superior to either of the answers presented. OP asks why VOC was able to make a higher profit than the locals; the simple answer is that the VOC had more capital, and had access to markets where the goods were exponentially more valuable. OP asks the question based on reading wikipedia; I infer that OP lacks some of the context/scholarship to understand international trade flows in a partially connected world. Revenue is not proportional to the fraction of Indonesia that the company controls, it is proportional to access to markets and to capital. Comparing the SE answers to google, SE is superior, but only because google is utterly inadequate. The first page of results contains essential the source that OP cites (and if it were sufficient, OP wouldn’t have needed to ask the question) and a bunch of irrelevant material. I’m going to have to reluctantly mark this as satisfactory; I want to mark the question “Needs Improvement” because it does, but I have to admit that the answers are superior to google.
  7. Oldest appearance of “brand names” in history? I don’t like the question; the terms are ill defined. Google provides clear answers for first brand and first trademark, but OP seems to be using the term idiosyncratically. The fact that I don’t like the question isn’t really relevant; OP managed to communicate the idiosyncratic use successfully and SE provided an acceptable answer. This is a distinctive value of SE because google is useless to answer a question where the answer depends on interpretation of an idiosyncratic interpretation. I’ll reluctantly mark this superior.
  8. Population disparities between New York City and Boston This is a flawed question; OP assumes that the importance of a city has something to do with relative population growth. OP provides no research to support that assumption. I also don't like questions where the title is not a question, but that's just unfair of me. Google is not terribly useful; if I were compelled, google does provide tools to restrict searches in time, and I could assemble an answer based on those tools, but it would be time consuming and error prone. SE is clearly superior; Pietr Geerkens deserves the plaudits if only for the phrase “the least biased … I could find”. Because the question is flawed, Mr. Geerkens doesn’t answer it as much as recontextualize the problem. This may be another SE distinctive value. Again I’m going to reluctantly mark this one as superior, because SE has provided value that the internet can’t.

  9. To what extent did the CPC avoid fighting with the Japanese? I hate questions which include acronyms I have to research before I can understand the question. I ignored this question because I didn’t want to research “what is the CPC” and “What era in history” before I could get into the troublesome problem of inferring the motivation of the parties involved. Wikipedia says that the CPC did fight a guerilla war against the Japanese. Wikipedia on the Dixie Missions explains why the CPC didn’t fight the Japanese. That said, OP did cover that research in his question, so I have to shut up and eat crow. I can’t or won’t complain about a question that does preliminary research. SE provides no useful answer to the question. the single answer is downvoted; I’m not expert enough in the subject area to judge why. I’ll have to mark this “needs improvement”.

  10. What factors led to the 30% devaluation of pound sterling in 1949? I’m going to recuse myself from comment on this, since I provided an answer. I will admit that I’m voting this “needs improvement” because there are more parts of the story that are not in the SE answer.

So what's my conclusion?

  • I didn't complain about civility once. That makes me happy. Some of the Q&A were worded strongly, but none of them made my skin crawl. This is a very good thing and makes me happy.

  • SE is superior when the questions are bad. I want all questions to be perfect, but as someone pointed out in meta, perfect questions are very hard. When the OP lacks context or has erroneous assumptions, SE provides value that other resources can't.

  • Despite my whingeing about the questions, I think they're better than the last crop we evaluated. Last time I ranted about questions that should have been closed with extreme predjudice. This time there are a couple of questions that I don't like, but only in the "horses for courses" sense.

  • The only two questions that I rated "needs improvement" probably rely on fairly specialized disciplines of history (fashion history and economic history). I think I can live with that.

  • 1
    Great analysis. Your first conclusion bullet is a very important point that should have occurred to me. We had horrible problems this time last year, and to be honest even worse up to a few months ago, with civility in questions and comments. From my perspective, this is probably down mostly to you, the community, deciding you weren't going to put up with that any more, along with a generous dollop of help from SE community mods. – T.E.D. Jan 16 '14 at 1:35
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    Also, your #8 is one I've been meaning to post an answer to, but just haven't had the time. Personally, I have little problem with a lot of questions that I think you consider "flawed" due to bad assumptions. If it is likely a common (bad) assumption to a person who isn't a history expert, IMHO that just makes the question better, not worse. But of course a good answer to such a question should point these mistaken assumptions out. OTOH, if its a bad assumption that is going to be unique, you probably are right to take issue. – T.E.D. Jan 16 '14 at 1:39
  • Again, a very useful analysis. Needless to say, I'm thrilled that you didn't need to mention civility. And it's awesome that quality is improving. – Jon Ericson Feb 7 '14 at 1:52
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Final Results

Net Score: 0 (Excellent: 4, Satisfactory: 3, Needs Improvement: 4)


Net Score: 0 (Excellent: 3, Satisfactory: 5, Needs Improvement: 3)


Net Score: 0 (Excellent: 2, Satisfactory: 5, Needs Improvement: 2)


Net Score: -1 (Excellent: 2, Satisfactory: 6, Needs Improvement: 3)


Net Score: -2 (Excellent: 3, Satisfactory: 4, Needs Improvement: 5)


Net Score: -2 (Excellent: 2, Satisfactory: 7, Needs Improvement: 4)


Net Score: -2 (Excellent: 2, Satisfactory: 6, Needs Improvement: 4)


Net Score: -3 (Excellent: 2, Satisfactory: 4, Needs Improvement: 5)


Net Score: -6 (Excellent: 1, Satisfactory: 3, Needs Improvement: 7)


Net Score: -9 (Excellent: 0, Satisfactory: 1, Needs Improvement: 9)


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