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The Difficulties of Self Publicising

by Tom | 21st, September 2012

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:

Hey Tom,

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,

- redacted

The rewards

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

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.

Now follow us and share this



RandomExile 12.2k rep

As someone who has tried to promote legitimate projects on places like Reddit, I really support your idea of a "trust"-based system. One of the most frustrating things about Reddit is the practice of downvoting others' posts just to make yours more prominent by comparison. I applaud your ethical stance, and just as many people are loyal to GOG for their no-DRM and customer-oriented policies, Scirra is a team people will be proud to join.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 7:05:21 PM
HowieRaisin 4,969 rep

That's a well-thought-out treatise.

It is a shame that there are so many ways to artificially inflate exposure and generate interest. At the same time, a discerning reader can also tell when the object of such attention doesn't live up to the hype. As you point out, lots of smoke and mirrors isn't a substitute for quality and merit.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 7:06:56 PM
arikrak 1,386 rep

I submitted this to Hacker News, and not because of any upvoting deal~
Some sites, such as Quora, use algorithms to rank submissions and comments. They also avoid anonymity to the most part, so people can notice if there's a conflict of interest with a comment or submission. This probably increases the quality on Quora, though they do have large group biases.
I don't know if rewarding "correct" votes like that is such a good idea, since it can just encourage even more manipulative voting, and scare people from submitting controversial content. But taking relationships into account would be probably be a good idea, so if people are just up-voted by one group, their weight would go down.
The problem on sites like HackerNews (as opposed to Quora) is regular readers don't normally feel it's worth the bother to go back to the main page and upvote something, so submitters often rely on people who know them to upvote something (which can help Ycombinator startups).

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 7:13:19 PM
murilokleine 2,655 rep

Great article Tom, people should know that there's almost no easy way to reach recognition... Just like said in the article, don't give up, work harder, make it yourself.. the satisfaction of being noticed by your own work is the greatest thing you'll ever feel... I've been there, not with games, but with graphic design and illustrations, I went back to random-digital-artist in no time, but you know, that's good, keeps you humble... and besides, I'm already hard working on my next big thing, hopefully some people will notice it, if not, expertise and knowledge were acquired for the next entry :)

PS. sorry about the bad English

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 7:17:06 PM
TELLES0808 23.0k rep

Man, I can tell you how hard is, and when you're not famous or have a group behind, it become insanely hard. I saw many games without ever touch their official websites, because of poor exposure too.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 7:41:04 PM
Kyatric 73.8k rep

I don't really agree with the "trust" idea.
I tend to agree with @arikrak about the possibility of more manipulation ensuing.

Consider a "trustworthy" manipulating group down-voting a post I find legit and upvote in good faith.
I end up with "untrust" whereas the group even gets more trust and the post still drowns no matter what.

I don't think it is a good solution. Unfortunately, I don't have alternative solution to propose.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 8:44:35 PM
ludodesign 30.7k rep

Interesting post. Good ways to show to many people what you working in.

Running a startup is a complex, hard and beatiful.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 10:19:34 PM
noboard 2,700 rep

Nice article, it is a shame people remove all meaning from things in order to further their personal goals.

On the subject of self promotion, one thing I can suggest is write and article about your game/app and a bit about yourself, doesn't have to be professional just something that will help a professional site create an article about your work. Then send this to any site that you think may be interested in your product. The fact you've made it easy for them to fill some column inches may help you work get written about. Spread out sending your work out and don't get downhearted if people don't reply.

Thanks to Construct2 I hope to be trying out my own advice soon :)

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 10:25:18 PM
EyeHawk 7,762 rep

Thanks for the post Tom. I guess this is a question of what you're willing to do to get to the top. Like in Star Wars, if you embrace the "dark side" and do bad things you'll get quick wins early, but end up losing in the long run. Conversely if you act with integrity it's a harder road to travel, but you will win in the end with persistence and some good ideas.

Friday, September 21, 2012 at 10:29:41 PM
Wink 11.3k rep

Good for you Tom, and Ashely for taking the high road. It might be a longer, harder path to take but it is the right one. You guys got a great business model, and a growing community. Not to mention the best product in the world :D Just stick to your business ethics, and you will do just fine.

Tom did anyone ever tell you that your a very inspirational writer when your down?

Now cheer up! Anyone that cares about there product as much as you guys do is destine for success :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 12:02:27 AM
jwjb 4,919 rep

@Tom, great post and enjoyed reading your proposed solution and I think having a 'trust' score would be a good first start, but I think it should be made public.

I do like what has accomplished and they seem to police themselves rather well which Jeff Atwood has talked about in a lot of great detail on

In the end, no matter how a system is set-up there will always be those, hopefully the minor few, who will try and game it to their advantage so it is great to hear how you and the team stand-up for what's right which is sure to stand you in good stead in the long-run as you continue to build trust and a loyal following in the gaming community.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 1:21:23 AM
GenkiGenga 14.2k rep

It is a good post,

That is my conclusion as well. Keep working until you get noticed.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 5:33:46 AM
Zeth 3,406 rep

Especially for indie developers, it is hard to get any exposure/promotion for their stuff at all. Valve had a good idea with it's Steam Greenlight thingy, but sad part is the whole rating system (Possible sollution for that specific case would be "get rid of downvote button" either players want it on steam or not.) I personally would most likely avoid sites like reddit or HN and let the community worry about the PR.

The whole problem is the rating system. No matter how well designed it might be, I don't think there is a way to make it 100% idiot-proof. And by that I mean that it can easily be exploited/abused by people which may lead up to really good games being downvoted by vast majority of people who don't agree/like the very idea of a certain element/game mechanics. After all Indie games are more about the experimenting rather than just following the mainstream.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 9:31:18 AM
Paradox 41.5k rep

Even with many more opportunities for social promotion, the Internet was easier to promote with 10 years ago. If you don't use tricks, you can't keep up. My site used to have millions of visitors a month. Now I promote more for much less return. (if you were online 10 years ago, odds are you visited it, VisualParadox)

I was temped to post a joke about selling a "thumbs up" for their comments, but with this crowd, I may get a bunch of thumbs down. ;-)

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 10:14:53 AM
keepee 4,683 rep

Hidden or not, I think a trust score, which effects your future submissions exposure, will give people a good reason to never express disagreement with the general consensus of reddit. Worsening the circlejerk.

Trust score would especially suck for the people who are only really compelled to vote on something when they disagree with how it's already been voted.

Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 12:05:02 PM

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