For startups like us and indie game developers alike, self publicising is one of the more difficult aspects of operating but often is very rewarding when it works. Therefore it was with great disappointment that we recently received this email from a reasonably well known startup incubator:
I'm starting a new group on Facebook for Startup founders/co-founders like us.
It's purely for submitting links to your stories on Hacker News and Reddit - and getting the group to upvote it. This will help your startup get more attention, more frequently.
I regularly have posts on the front page of either site for 4-6 hours. With this group I think we can support each other and capture more attention.
Add me on Facebook: redacted and then send me a message so I don't forget to include you.
If you want to touch base about this initiaive on Skype or Twitter, add me there as well: redacted and redacted.
I hope you'll join me and the other startup founders/co-founders,
HackerNews is a popular and well known source of news for tech enthusiasts. If you hit the front page on HackerNews, you will often receive over ten thousand unique visitors to your website. Reddit is an even bigger general interest news site, a front page hit on Reddit can garner tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of new visitors. New submissions are made by the users of the sites. Users can generally submit anything they want and reaching the front page of these sites is dependant on if the other users of the site upvote the submission or not. With regards to self publicising these websites are often invaluable.
For startups and other similar small operations such as indie game developers the benefits of hitting these front pages is huge. You gain brand recognition, and large amounts of traffic that could translate into advertisement clicks or even sales.
Unfortunately for the incubator that has emailed us, they have misread us as people who would be interested in gaming HackerNews for exposure. We have spoken at HN:London before and love to attend the HN:London events when we can. A concerted effort to detract from HackerNews' quality for personal gain really doesn't sit well with us ethically.
Is cheating these websites rife?
Probably. More recently IGN submissions have been banned from Reddit for suspicion of cheating votes and it wasn't all that long ago that The Atlantic submissions were also banned.
For commercial organisations where there is a strong correlation between the amount of traffic and the amount of money they make, often the temptation to attempt to game these sites is too great to resist.
For startups, the motivation might not be purely financial. Submitting your exciting new product/game/idea to these news sites - observing no one noticing it - and watching it quickly fade into the dark void of nothingness is very frustrating (a frustration which every startup will probably be well accustomed to!). By engaging in the cheating of news sites for personal gain you are actually contributing to the problem that you were initially frustrated at. It's a bit of a catch-22.
If cheating these sites is a relatively risk-free activity with relatively high potential rewards, it makes sense that the cheating of these sites would evolve into more organised efforts (like the email we received) and that these and other similar tactics will become more widespread.
The costs of gaming HackerNews/Reddit is a general degradation of quality of submissions read by the audience. People who do not wish to game these sites also suffer. Gamed submissions create noise at the expense of exposure from people unwilling to engage in cheating.
If it becomes more widespread and accepted as the email we received seems to be suggesting, perhaps in the future you wont be able to make these front pages without cheating. Comparable perhaps (but not quite as glamorous) as the fact that you can't win the Toure de France unless you take drugs.
A possible solution
All users on both HackerNews and Reddit have a score. Users earn more points on this score if other users vote their submissions up, and users lose points if users vote the submissions down.
Perhaps it would be beneficial to have another score for each user, which is hidden. A 'trust' score. If you upvote a submission, and a lot of other people upvote it your trust score increases. If you upvote a submission that a majority of people downvote, you lose trust. The amount of trust you lose and gain on each submission can be weighted by other voters trust scores.
The submissions on the front pages can then be determined by taking into account the total trust scores of the users who voted on a particular submissions. 5 upvotes on a submission from users with a high trust score will be more likely to rank on a front page than a submission with 20 votes from users with marginal trust scores. This will lead to more problems, hopefully the sum of which will be less than the problem it's trying to solve. With some tweaking and experimentation it might be possible to arrive at a better solution.
This additional metric doesn't need to be the sole determining factors, perhaps it could simply supplement the ranking algorithm with more clues. In a world where search engine rankings have really gone leaps and bounds with helping supress cheating of the system, isn't it about time we started making a concerted effort to prevent cheating on news sites such as HackerNews and Reddit in a more sophisticated and automatic way? Perhaps the 'trust' score is useless and someone more versed in maths could show me why, but it's always good to think of new ideas and ways the current system can be improved upon.
Running a startup is a struggle
Especially at first, running a startup and self publicising your own product/idea/game can be a frustrating struggle. Exposure on these websites should not be considered a validator of your ideas - you may well have an excellent game/idea but simply be posting it at the wrong time, be drowned out by people gaming the submissions or just not appeal to a wide enough audience. Lack of success in this media should not alone deter you from your efforts, or sway you into stepping into tactics that start to go beyond your ethical comfort zone.
As always, for long term sucess the most important factor is working hard to create a good product.