Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham initially built hacker News (HN) as a demonstration of Arc, a new programming language he had been working to develop. Little did he know, it would turn into a massive network of individuals inside and outside of the Y Combinator group. Graham’s initial idea was to create a system for startups to innovate and collaborate the way they wanted to. With an estimated 2.6M+ page views and 300K+ unique visitors on a given weekday, HN has quickly become a massive, community-driven engine for not only startup entrepreneurs, but also for techies of all levels to get their technology news.
This massive, vibrant community provides an outstanding opportunity to show off your latest product, relevant news, and get honest feedback.
In this post, I’ll cover various fun facts about HN, along with tactics on how to use HN to your advantage. This post is not a “Best Practice” guide, as best practices are always evolving, so I don’t believe in immediately outdating my content. Furthermore, I’m not claiming to be an expert on HN practices; the thoughts in this post are my various opinions on how you can make the site work for you, and not allow it to work against you.
The exact formula is unknown; however, all content on HN is believed to be driven by a unique algorithm that takes into account points, age, and penalties — which allows the best material to be towards the top of the front page.
Generally speaking, the best content is on the first page of HN; however, some of the most significant content that I’ve seen has been in the “ask” area, even if it only has a few votes. Content in this particular area persists at the top for a more extended period
The big thing is that, as a reader, you would likely (and should) want to reduce time spent on the site, while still seeing the interesting content — otherwise, it’s a huge time suck, and you will generally follow link after link learning about amazing new content.
To get around this, I encourage you to try using the “points” filter parameter as so: http://news.ycombinator.com/over?points=100 to see posts which have points over some threshold.
Once you log into HN, you will immediately have the ability to upvote and then, at some level of Karma which is currently unknown (but based on activity around comments/submissions), have the ability to downvote.
Browse the “new” page on occasion to see new articles to upvote — helping push them up the list and hopefully to the front page (if it’s good content).
HN users generally like comments which are exciting and include facts, even if they’re somewhat off topic to the discussion at hand. There is nothing wrong with going off on a tangent about something as comments are threaded, mainly if it’s a technical point that you would like to make.
It’s important to note that users have very different skills, different areas of expertise and work in many kinds of environments (startups, technology, large companies, open-source, etc.), so you have pretty good odds of getting a reputable source to respond when asking a question in the thread.
Remember, users, are often submitting or discussing topics they’ve worked on for a long time, and put a lot of emotional and intellectual energy into. In my honest opinion, it’s the wrong move to rip apart something cruelly. It’s okay to point out areas for improvement, but remember, a lot of things which end up being excellent products later in their life start with humble beginnings, and stomping on something early on might cause someone to give up instead of continuing to evolve it. On that note, always provide constructive criticism and be please be cautious about how you approach a comment.
Especially once you start interacting more regularly on HN, I would ensure that your profile contains some contact information — either a URL or an email address. I can’t count the number of times that I have had the opportunity to connect with someone on HN who has been able to help me out. Additionally, HN serves as a fantastic resource for recruiting so you may find your next job or your next best hire while playing around on the site.
If your goal is to amass Karma, you need to be the first to post URLs to accessible content like information about AWS outages (for example, the recent AWS S3 outage that tore apart the internet for nearly an entire day). Additionally, you need to get upvotes shortly after posting to get on the front page and thus get more upvotes, as the ranking function is based primarily on votes and time decay.
On the same note, if you submit several times and don’t get a ton of upvotes, don’t only give up. My best luck at gaining Karma on HN has been submitting in the morning on Eastern time. This allows for your post to be visible for a more extended period, allowing for more upvotes. Tuesdays and Thursdays tend to be the best day to submit; however, submitting on a slow news day can sometimes work to your advantage, too.
Generally speaking, you should use the title from the article itself to not confuse readers, unless of course, it is unclear and out of context (like many blog headlines are for SEO purposes).
If your goal is promoting your content, consider contributing a custom blog post that is related to your content, but don’t be too “salesy,” as it doesn’t sit well with the community.
In summation, to accrue karma quickly, post exciting content at correct times of the day and have a good headline (given that users generally scan the headlines) and make sure that your servers are capable of dealing with a decent uptick in traffic should your post start to gain momentum. Plenty of sites have been known to go down when they hit the front page of HN.
Remember, HN is an active and influential community. You can easily make it work for you, but at the same time, you can make it work against if you don’t follow proper HN etiquette. Use your words wisely and contribute meaningful content at all times. When in doubt, read the HN FAQ.
Please remember that this is not a “Best Practice” guide on how to use HN; however, I hope the suggestions above provide you with a good explanation of the best ways to utilize HN to your advantage.
If you have any additions that you would like to see, comments on the article, or specific questions, please leave feedback in the comment section below. You can also follow me on Twitter — @nickparsons.