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For instance, if I asked for the cheapest place (online) to buy genuine paracord in the UK, would that be considered off topic?

I'm in two minds about it really. On the negative side we don't want it turning into a site primarily where the questions are about the cheapest place to buy x, y and z. It does potentially open up to spam a bit more (though I wonder if such questions could be automatically "protected" as some are in SO to prevent answers from low-rep users.)

On the positive side though it's a question I'm sure we all face with gear when we're looking to purchase, and recommendations could well be very useful to many in this circumstance.

Thoughts?

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Shopping recommendation questions are discouraged across the Stack Exchange network:

These questions may seem tolerable at first glance. Isn’t it our mandate to help our fellow ewoksusers? But consider the voluminous amount of information you need to even begin properly answering a shopping question:

What is your budget?
Where do you live?
What are your preferences?
Which alternatives will you consider?
When do you want to buy?

Let’s say the question asker provided all that information. Fat chance, I know, but let’s pretend for a moment they did — and we were able to provide the perfect, ideal shopping recommendation to them. Even if that was the case, technology moves so rapidly that the best shopping recommendations will be utterly obsolete within a year! What’s the point of a bunch of labor intensive questions that provide only temporary benefit to a limited (some might say Too Localized) audience? There isn’t any.

Now, this speaks more about choosing the specific products to purchase, but the argument extends to finding locations as well. What is the "best" place to buy something? For me it may be a store I can walk to, for you it may be the cheapest place within a couple hours' drive, and for someone else it may be an online store with a good return policy.

Aside from the fact that it's hard to define the best place to buy something, metrics like "cheapest" are also almost guaranteed to be too localized and change over time. The answer written today may not even be accurate anymore a few months or even weeks from now.

The best way to handle gear-related questions is to make them about the process of choosing the right items rather than recommendations of specific models. For example, "what should I look for in a rock-climbing rope?" vs "What's the best rope to buy for rock-climbing?". The former will teach the original asker and future visitors about different kinds of ropes and what makes them great or not so great for rock climbing. The latter will just list a few recommendations that may be difficult to track down or superseded by better products in the future.

If there are any specific products that absolutely have to be suggested, questions worded like the former example will attract those anyway, but they will emerge naturally and in the context of a better overall answer. Then, armed with the information needed to make an informed choice the asker can go to their favourite stores or sites and do their own price comparison or evaluate the stores based on whatever parameters they personally consider important.

  • Agreed, I guess the "best" is too localised for it to be useful on a wider scale. In terms of choosing the right items, I was really thinking for common items (like paracord) that are widely used / sought after so it wouldn't have to be about the actual of finding the item. Still, I guess the loose definition of "best" would still be too vague! – berry120 Jan 30 '12 at 10:49

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