Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

How to make the Hacker News homepage

Getting to the Hacker News homepage is easy right? You just write some trashy article, stick a few adsense tags on it, post the link, fire up your sockpuppets or tweet your buddies to upvote your posting and you’re good to go.

Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Wrong.

This will have two effects. The first - and most immediate - is that you will likely be getting a lot of less than positive feedback, your posting might get flagged and you will likely lose respect in the eyes of the HN population, which is a pity because once you’ve found this community you will only realize how valuable it is in the longer term. To see HN as ‘just another link dump’ or a place to game is really missing the point. The second possible effect is that your domain will be banned.

That said, every now and then you may write something which you think is important enough that you would very much like to have relevant feedback from the community on it and it’s always a sad occasion when good stuff falls through the cracks and dies without ever having been seen by more than a few people.

So how to avoid that?

Here is my method, that I’ve figured out over the years with the help of other HN’ers that faced the same problem and who gave hints that helped a bit. Please note that this method is anything but ‘fool proof’, there is no such thing if you want to play by the rules and I feel that not playing by the rules by any substantial amount of people would destroy the value of HN in a hurry so all the information here can do is improve your chances, it won’t guarantee you anything. Check my posting history on HN for an idea of whether or not you think it’s worth following these tips, and think about where you found the link to this article.

The rest of this article assumes that you are the creator of the item that gets posted, I take it that you know the house rules of ‘no editorializing in titles’ for stuff that you submit from elsewhere, in fact if all you’re doing is submitting a mediocre article don’t bother with any of this, use this when it matters to you, so when you’ve put a bunch of work in to something or if it is really important.

  • initial upvotes while on the new page

    Currently the initial number of votes you have to have before your article makes it to the homepage is around 4 to 5, it’s rare to see anything with less than 4 upvotes on the homepage. So, if your article does not have those 4 to 5 upvotes before it scrolls off the new page your article is essentially lost.

  • Timing Is Everything

    For starters, the most important factor for posts that are for a niche audience (a subset of HN, possibly a smaller one) is timing. If you post your article in the dead of night it will have scrolled off the ‘new’ page long before it gets the number of upvotes required to make it - even if only briefly - to the homepage.
    Once you are on the homepage though usually the upvotes will come because as more people are exposed to your article (and assuming they like what they see) there will be a positive feedback loop that will cause your article to rise a bit further.
    The best time to post is 8:30 EST. The reason why is that at this time the majority of the spammers seems to be sleeping, the people that post everything from their favorite tech blog are still sipping their lattes but enough people on both side of the Atlantic are scanning the new page for their ‘morning fix’ that you stand a chance of being noticed, even if your article is not posted on TechCrunch.

  • The Title Of Your Article

    The title of your article should match the content. While link-baity titles may work, they can also work against you, HN’ers that upvote your article as a rule are pretty critical about what they read (the audience here is very smart) and will usually not upvote an article until after they’ve read it (which is the way it should work everywhere, but on plenty of websites that offer the ‘vote on a link’ feature people will vote based on the title). So if the page they land on after clicking on the title is not one that matches their expectations then you can just about forget that upvote.
    Title length also seems to matter, but I have to admit I wouldn’t think of ‘tuning’ my titles to fit the curve here, but the observation is an interesting one:

    number of articlesaverage pointstitle length
    15658.7930 5

    I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that table.

  • The Article

    Write well! Try to get your grammar and spelling to be as good as you possibly can make them, if there is one thing that casts doubt on anything you produce it is a sloppy delivery. If your English is less than perfect and you’re a non-native speaker/writer HN is quite forgiving but it’s definitely going to hurt your chances if your article is hard to read.
    This goes for any content you produce!
    Of course, it won’t hurt if your article is about an interesting subject that would fit the ‘interests hackers/starter-uppers’ criterion and actually makes a novel and worthwhile observation.
    If you post a ‘rate my startup’ post, make sure the post is a ‘linked’ post and put any explanatory text in the first comment of the thread.
    Like that you avoid the penalty for ‘self posts’.

  • Show Your Research

    If you’re going to make some kind of claim, back it up! Just like wikipedia, HN likes to be able to think for itself and would pick an article with sources and data over one without if they draw the same conclusions, remember that you are essentially writing for the few people that scan the ‘new’ page for interesting content. The better you make it the bigger the chance.

  • Be Nice to other HN’ers, engage in discussion, help out when you can

    Being nice helps because that means that when your article is waiting for those crucial few votes people will likely spend more time to see if your article ‘passes muster’, if your account is 30 seconds old or if you’ve been a jerk then likely it will be ignored, in the first case that shouldn’t happen, but the reality is that it works like that, in the second case people tend to reciprocate your behavior, if you’re nice they’ll be nice to you.
    When you are active in discussions try to contribute, that will help to show you know your stuff (assuming that you do!) and it will put some authority behind the stuff that you write. Helping people out on HN and giving advice is another way to do that.

  • So, that’s it, that’s all I can give you. I hope this helps you to get your article about that new programming language you wrote or about your start-up experience (or your ‘rate my startup’ post) in front of enough people that you felt it was worth writing it. Remember, no guarantees!

    Finally, a call to everybody to please scan the new page and the second and third pages after that for stuff falling through the cracks, there is an awful lot of that lately.

    mail me at jacques@mattheij.com , twitter feed at http://twitter.com/jmattheij