Hacking Hacker News - A White Paper by StartUp42


Published on

Created in 2007 by the startup accelerator Y Combinator Hacker News is considered as the online community for hackers interested in startups; it is a place to share news and talk about what is hot and what is not.

Hacker News has also grown into an interesting platform for technology entrepreneurs looking for free feedback and/or engaged users, thanks to its committed and curious
community. Many entrepreneurs have already shared their Hacker News’ success stories on the web.

Yet, many others have not had that luck as with rather shady rules and a ruthless community that don’t accept self-promotion, posting on Hacker News can prove to be
unworkable or even disastrous for newbies.

To avoid this fate we, at StartUp42, have created this white paper to help technology entrepreneurs, be them seasoned Hacker News’ users or new-comers, understand the
platform and enhance their submissions in order to boost their startup visibility. We have gathered data and information from bloggers and entrepreneurs who wrote about it on the
web, and from entrepreneurs we met in real life.

Published in: Technology, Business
  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Hacking Hacker News - A White Paper by StartUp42

  1. 1. Hacking Hacker News a White Paper by January 2014
  2. 2. Created in 2007 by the startup accelerator Y Combinator, Hacker News is considered as the online community for hackers interested in startups; it is a place to share news and talk about what is hot and what is not. Hacker News has also grown into an interesting platform for technology entrepreneurs looking for free feedback and/or engaged users, thanks to its committed and curious community. Many entrepreneurs have already shared their Hacker News’ success stories on the web. Yet, many others have not had that luck as with rather shady rules and a ruthless community that don’t accept self-promotion, posting on Hacker News can prove to be unworkable or even disastrous for newbies. To avoid this fate we, at StartUp42, have created this white paper to help technology entrepreneurs, be them seasoned Hacker News’ users or new-comers, understand the platform and enhance their submissions in order to boost their startup visibility. We have gathered data and information from bloggers and entrepreneurs who wrote about it on the web, and from entrepreneurs we met in real life. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license. You are free to share and adapt it for any purpose as long as you give appropriate credit and you distribute your contributions under the same license.
  3. 3. Table of content 1. 2. ABOUT THIS WHITE PAPER WHAT IS HACKER NEWS? A. Hacker News, a niche community B. Polls, questions, stories, and comments C. Guidelines 3. A. B. C. WHY POST ON HACKER NEWS? WHAT WILL IT GET YOU? A free and qualified surge in views Press coverage Qualified feedback A. B. C. HOW TO GET ON HACKER NEWS FRONT PAGE AND GET MAXIMUM EXPOSURE? You need relevant content Find the perfect time to post, or not Give your submission a little boost 4. DON’T TRY TO CHEAT HACKER NEWS
  4. 4. 1. ABOUT THIS WHITE PAPER About StartUp42 by EPITA Founded by Daniel Jarjoura (@Djarjoura) in January 2013, StartUp42 is a Paris-based startup accelerator, aimed at helping early-stage technology startups go from a good idea to a minimum viable product and the validation of initial market assumptions in 4 months. Backed by EPITA, a leading French computer engineering school, and corporate partners, StartUp42 has already accelerated 14 teams since its creation. Free of charge and open to all, StartUp42’s mission is to boost projects led by hackers, engineers and technical experts. You can follow StartUp42 on Twitter @Startup42_ StartUp42 club partners About the author Aline Mayard Aline is startup enthusiastic at large. Avid traveler, she has been working with French, Middle Eastern and North African startup ecosystems, both within startups and around them. She was notably in charge of growing the community in the early years of Buzzcar, and is currently French Editor at Wamda, the go-to media for startups in the Middle East and North Africa, and is Program Manager for StartUp42. You can follow her on Twitter @aline_myd.
  5. 5. 2. WHAT IS HACKER NEWS? A. Hacker News, a niche community If you are a hacker, you are probably used to spending hours surfing Hacker News, posting, upvoting and commenting. If you are new to the game, words like ‘karma’ or ‘upvoting’ must seem a bit intimating. Here is a quick intro to what Hacker News is, with what goal it was created, and why it matters. Hacker News is a community site on which good hackers crowdsource and rank any story they find interesting. It is mostly focused on hacking and startups, but not only. As the Hacker News’ team put it on their website: “If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.” In many aspects, it is similar to Reddit: a user driven social content site, with a ranking system, allowing its users to share, vote and comment on stories. However Hacker News is setting itself apart from Reddit with its unique niche content focus and the quality of its engagement. Hacker News was created in February 2007 by Paul Graham, the founder of investment fund and startup incubator, Y Combinator, as a place to test the new Arc programming language, which Graham co-developed, but also as an experiment to recreate a community similar to the early days of Reddit, a Y Combinator’s alumni itself, and see if it is possible to keep intact the level of intelligent discourse within a community, he explains in a blog post. It was initially called Startup News or occasionally News.YC as its URL is news.ycombinator, and became known as Hacker News on August 14, 2007. The very design of Hacker News was made so that hackers, and only hackers will feel comfortable using it. Graham clearly said the terminal window’s processes feel of Hacker News was aimed at hackers themselves who are familiar with tabular data. Graham added a few functionalities to ensure that the community will remain coherent and polite, among which are the impossibility to down vote submissions, or ‘hellbanning’. More on that later. In many regards, the experiment has proven successful: the users are respectful, bringing in constructive contribution, and have stick to the original community. Many of its users are also involved with, or interested in, the Y Combinator incubator community. Not only do they organize real life meetups, they also try to give back by developing apps and alternative interface, and curate content by sending free newsletters. According to a graph from February 2013 published on Hacker News, the website receives 200,000 daily visits. Now, at the end of 2013, Y Combinator should be somewhere between the 4,700 and the 5,800 most visited website worldwide, according to Alexa, a global web metrics
  6. 6. provider - it was ranked nearer to the 2,000 back in early 2012-, and 95% its visitors are going to news.ycombinator, i.e. Hacker News. Readers from Hacker News apparently come from all around the globe. According to Alexa, around 50% of the traffic is coming from the U.S., followed by India, 12%, Canada, 4.5%, and then European countries – the U.K. represents 4%, Spain, 2.3%, France, 1,6%, and Germany 1.3% - and Australia, 1.7%, Japan and Singapore, both around 1.5%. South America, Asia, and Africa also account for an interesting share of the readership. This diversity can also be seen among the active Hacker News users. Of the top 100 contributors, based on their karma, 46 are from outside the U.S. analyzed Mark J. Nelson in an interesting blog post that presented the 20 most active users in order to show the diversity of their background. B. Polls, questions, stories, and comments Users can engage on Hacker News in 4 different ways. They can: ­ ­ ­ ­ Submit a poll Submit a question Submit a story through a link Comment a submission Users can upvote submissions, which will give points to a submission. On the front page, stories are ranked by points divided by a power of the time since they were submitted. Comments in comment threads are ranked the same way. Stories on the new page and comments on the comments page are listed chronologically. According to Graham in a TechCrunch article, it takes 100 points to get a story to the top of the front page. Users we’ve talked to said they got on the homepage with 35 points In order to keep the website polite, submissions can never be down voted, although spam submissions can be flagged. For clarity reasons, comments can be down voted, but only by seasoned users that have accumulates sufficient "karma". Karma is calculated by adding points that users gained when their submissions or comments were up voted and by subtracting the number of down votes. To ensure the quality of the website, Hacker News can count on two full time editors and about 30 Y Combinator alumni to edit titles, kill stories if needed, and in extreme cases (e.g. spamming or deliberate trolling) ban users. This editing system has its lot of detractors; they accuse moderators of changing submission titles without warning or explanation, and denounce the practice of hellbanning to ban users. When a user is hellbanned, he is not banned per se, he’s secretly made invisible to all other users. The hellbanned user can still post comments and submit stories, but other users will not see them. This practice has been called "cruel”,  childish" and "unacceptable", all the more as the reasons for its use appear to be arbitrary and capricious, and users generally have little recourse outside of sending
  7. 7. personal emails to Paul Graham with mixed results, according to Wikipedia. C. Guidelines Another way to ensure the overall quality of the platform was to install a few editorial rules. Hacker News users are asked to abide by various guidelines listed on the website. If not respected, a submission can be flagged and a user ban without their knowing. Those guidelines include the following rules: ­ “Please, don't do things to make titles stand out, like using uppercase or exclamation points, or adding a parenthetical remark saying how great an article is.” ­ “Please submit the original source. If a blog post reports on something they found on another site, submit the latter.” ­ “If the original title includes the name of the site, please take it out, because the site name will be displayed after the link anyway.” ­ “If the original title begins with a number or number + gratuitous adjective, we'd appreciate it if you'd crop it. E.g. translate "10 Ways To Do X" to "How To Do X," and "14 Amazing Ys" to "Ys." Exception: when the number is meaningful, e.g. "The 5 Platonic Solids."” More rules can be found online. 3. WHY POST ON HACKER NEWS? WHAT WILL IT GET YOU? A. A free and qualified surge in views For a cool technological startup, having a submission on the top of Hacker News’ front page can lead to a boom in visits. We have gathered a few examples of startups that gained traction when a story on them got to the front page – after they or a fan posted something. It is important to note at this point that getting that kind of traction remains exceptional and that all submissions on Hacker News don’t automatically lead to this kind of numbers. As an example, Panayotis Vryonis said having a post from his blog.vrypan.net climbed to the top positions of the HN frontpage and stayed there for more than a day got him 63,000 visits.
  8. 8. Screen capture from Vrypan’s Google Analytics the day of the Hacker News’ submission This might be a bit unusual, but many other bloggers reported having something around 10,000 and 15,000 visits thanks to Hacker News. Thetaboard reported it got more than 12,000 extra visits with a blog post that stayed on the top position nearly a day, whereas Technicalmarketing.io got close to 11,000 visits, having between 100 and 200 visitors more than usual at the same time on its website for several hours. Screen capture from Thetaboard's analytics the days following the Hacker News’ submission
  9. 9. Screen capture from Technicalmarketing.io’s analytics the day of the Hacker News’ submission This was confirmed by Stanislas Polu, the Founder of Nitrogram, a startup that posts its news on Hacker News on a regular basis. He explained that a Hacker News post ensures an average of 100 to 200 visitors on their website at all time. Screen capture from Nitrogram’s analytics; each annoted peak followed a Hacker News’ submission What’s more interesting is that those readers have a good interaction with the website at the same time because they are right in a startup’s target niche - hackers passionate with startups – and because they are a dedicated community who actually care about what their Hacker News fellows post, and will be curious enough to give their chance to a website that’s recommended. Startup Groove managed to have a post from its corporate blog stay on top of Hacker News’ front page for 30 hours. They got 33,000 visits, which converted to 96 free trial signups, and then to 12 paid accounts after their 14-day free trial, explains Founder Alex Turnbull on their blog. Better conversion rates seem to be witnessed when a direct link to the startup’s home page is climbing up to the front page. On their launch day, startup Pitchpigeon received 8,000 unique visitors, who converted to 250 paid signed up, tells an enthusiastic Founder Jon Yongfook on the corporate blog.
  10. 10. D. Press coverage Sometimes, this Hacker News hype can translate into press coverage, or at least Reddit and blogs’ attention. This happened for Lance Cameron Kidwell. On Labor day 2011, his blog Muddylemon got about 30k unique visitors from Hacker News, leading to his post being #1 on r/programming on Reddit, and getting his blog an additional 100k unique visitors that weekend, he explains on Quora. He insists on the fact that those numbers are “not helpful in anything more than an anecdotal sense,” since some other posts got him no more than 100 visitors, and this happened during Labor Day, a holiday in the U.S. E. Qualified feedback For a young tech startup, Hacker News is also a good way to get qualified feedback both directly from Hacker News’ users who comment on the website – or sometime send emails after visiting the website – or from the analytics they got. All of those examples are purely anecdotal. There are no patterns; one startup can hit a jackpot on one day, and not even make it to the front page on another day. Still, there are some do’s and don’ts that can help systematize the results. 4. HOW TO GET ON HACKER NEWS FRONT PAGE AND GET MAXIMUM EXPOSURE? A. You need relevant content Hacker News is a content platform for a very demanding and specific niche community; your content needs to be interesting to them and up to their standards. The first thing you need to think about before posting on Hacker News is whether the content is relevant to the Hacker News’ community. Among the very popular topics are the shared business experiences. Quality articles in which entrepreneurs share their challenges and what they did to overcome them get a lot of upvotes, analyzed Arthur Querou, a Co-founder of StartUp42 alumni MotionLead and a heavy Hacker News user. Remember the article that Groove published on Hacker News, and which, we said earlier, stayed on top of Hacker News’ front page for 30 hours and brought 33,000 to their website? It was part of a series called “Journey to $100K a Month” that covered lessons they learn from their own experiences, backed up with real numbers. Another type of posts that can pick some traction is an opinionated rant. It can be expected to pick up controversy, and generate traffic, but it can also be quickly flagged. Sharing a new service by posting a simple URL to its website can work but it has to be
  11. 11. revolutionary, life-changing. Querou remembers posts about Tile or Coin having a great momentum on Hacker News. Also, it always helps if the URL is submitted by a star user, like Paul Graham, continues Querou. In any case, submissions have to be somewhat technical to interest the hacker crowd. Once you got the right content, you need to make sure users will want to click on it. As in any case, you need an engaging title. Ask for genuine feedback, advices Jon Yongfook from Pitchpigeon who posted the same article twice but with different titles. He noticed that his first title "Auto-Notify Tech Blogs About Your New App" failed, while his second one "My company's first SaaS app. Thoughts?”, which was more engaging, got a better result. As we said in the previous chapter, this has to be taken as an example as many other factors could have influenced each post’s impact. Second thing to keep in mind: the shorter, the better. The more concise your article will be, the more impactful it will be. Groove’s also had a similar experience when an article from their blog was published twice with a different title with very different success. Groove’s cofounder Turnball noticed that the submission with the longest headline "7 Lessons We Learned Going from Zero to $30k/Month in Under a Year," failed when the one with the shortest title "Lessons Learned Going from Zero to $30k/Month in a Year" ended up staying on the home page for 30 hours. Of course, this difference in success could also have come from the fact that the first submission didn’t respect the guidelines – the guidelines stipulate that the title should not begin with a number - and was probably flagged, when the second one did not. If you did not have luck with your first submission, and you are convinced that it is a problem of title and not of content, both Yongfook and Turnball suggest you try again with a new title. As you cannot publish the same link twice, tweak your URL (add an argument for instance) to your URL so that it will be considered different. Yongfook also recommends you wait a bit before submitting your link again, ideally until you have improved your product a little more or have something to add. At the end of the day, there is only one way to know if your content is Hacker News’ material: to be a heavy user that has first-hand experience in what works and what doesn’t. If you want to make sure you’re not missing what’s posted on your industry or competition, you can use HNWatcher to follow keywords, users, karma, and domains on Hacker News. F. Find the perfect time to post, or not Only about 13% of all submissions make it to the front page, analyzed Nathanael Hevenet who ran a study on when to post a submission on Hacker News (and not always for very long), and only 10% of submissions make it past the 10 minute mark. This is understandable seeing the number of stories, polls or questions submitted each day. To give you an idea, go on the http://news.ycombinator.com/newest page, where all posts are listed chronologically and where your post will appear first, and refresh every two or three minutes and watch how fast it goes by.
  12. 12. At certain times if many users are posting submissions, your post may scroll off without anyone noticing it. At the same time, if few people are submitting posts, this usually means that few people are using the website and that fewer people than usual will vote or see for your submission. Timing on Hacker News is tricky. According to Hevenet’s study, a post submitted during night time in the U.S. will stay longer on the front page – data analytics show that submissions stay the longest on the front page when posted at 8 PM EST (GMT-5); they spend 11 hours on the front page - but will have fewer U.S. readers, while a post submitted during the day time in the U.S. will spend less time on the front page but will have more impact as the America-based readers will be awake, and remember they represent 50% of the readers. Hevenet also noticed that it is during the U.S. morning time that the submissions reached the most the front page. The number of submissions to reach the front page peaks at 18% from 7 to 8 AM EST, which is almost a 40% increase from the all-around average. Of course, it is not so much the time spent on the front page than the number of people who see the submissions that matters. Based on the hourly traffic Hacker News get, Hevenet estimate that 7 AM EST to noon is the best time to post on Hacker News (see below graphic from Havenet’s study) Nitrogram’s Polu concurs. He noticed that posting something during the middle of the day in Europe usually works well because you get the first traction from Europe so when the U.S. wake up, your submission normally already made it to the frontpage. That being said, Polu shared with us that he does not really believe there is a good time to post; it all depends on what is being posted that day. His advice: have a look at the homepage to check the quality of the posts that day. If there are several submissions getting a lot of attention, it might be harder for you to steal the spotlight. Once again, working on a good timing can help, but most of it depends on luck. Once
  13. 13. again, no one can hack Hacker News. G. Give your submission a little boost Many entrepreneurs have been tempted to ask help from their friends to get a handful of initial upvotes quickly. This can be useful but should be done cleverly. It should be a way to help your submission get to the front page and escape the noise, not a way to push it to the top without the approval of the community. “After 6 upvotes you should gain natural traction, if you don't, give up,” wisely explains Swicec, a heavy Hacker News user, in a response to a post from Alexander Taub on his blog Alex Tech Thought. Something that Taub agrees with. Still, Taub offers in his blog post a few tips to get on the front page, some of them controversial: 1. “Send the link (http://news.ycombinator.com/newest) to at least 20 people from different locations that you know will upvote or submit it” asking them to upvote your submission as soon as possible. Taub suggests sending the link to the “newest” page instead of a direct link to your post results because he believes sending a direct link will results in an invalid upvote, and therefore be useless. Except for Polu, all the heavy users I talked agreed. Taub also adds that he has heard that having people with a solid amount of karma upvoting your submission helps, something that Polu and many other users agrees on. Both agree that it is better to ask friends with good karma, but warn that it does not work all the time as Hacker News has ways to know if someone upvotes the same user on a regular basis. They do not agree however on the role karma plays when posting a submission. Taub believes a good karma helps, while Polu says it does not make a difference. Taub explains that you only get one valid upvote per IP address, making it impossible to ask everyone in your office or home to upvote your article, which is why he suggests you should ask friends from different locations. 2. ”Once you hit 5 or 6 upvotes, within the first five to ten minutes, you should get to the first or second page. At this point you are 20-30 minutes in and, if you have written something interesting, you will gain natural traction. If not, there is really nothing anyone can do for you.” If this can work, and is, in some extent, acceptable, creating fake accounts is not only ethically condemnable but also a real risk for your online reputation. “Even if you manipulate and get upvotes, hacker news readers will rip you apart and you’ll wish you never got there,” emphasize Taub on his blog. DON’T TRY TO CHEAT HACKER NEWS Among the Hacker News community, trust and respect are essential. Users will not
  14. 14. tolerate people trying to cheat the system, and not respecting their values. Creating fake accounts or posting fake comments can cause more “bad buzz” than anything. There are a lot of debates on what to do and what not to do to boost a post, and on how HN really works. Hacker News was created by hackers and is keeping its algorithm secret in order to keep hackers from hacking Hacker News. And it’s working. But there is one consensus: what matter is good content that people will love and will want to share with their friends. We will end this white paper with one quote from the Groove team: “We weren’t able to hack HN, but we didn’t have to; by putting effort into publishing high-value content, we were able to get our readers to do much of the heavy lifting for us.”