Honeypots have been catching 3rd party tickets for the better part of a year. As I explained then, I measure success by comparing the send rate for anonymous and registered users. We want to minimize anonymous contacts without reducing contacts from our existing users who benefit from our help. Here are the results so far:

Period user_type contact.visit contact.send rate
Pre- Anonymous 337,057 14,007 (4.16%)
trap Registered 39,872 20,245 (50.77%)
Post- Anonymous 225,624 7,621 (3.38%)
trap Registered 23,583 11,688 (49.56%)

Both before and after we introduced the blurb, about half of registered users followed through with sending. The ~1% decrease seems concerning, but we don’t have a large enough sample size to be too worried. It’s also possible that some registered users really did need help with their Facebook/Yahoo/Google accounts. Small changes aren’t as concerning as dramatic decreases that might indicate we are losing legitimate tickets.

Meanwhile the reduction in anonymous contacts is both statistically significant and the direction we were hoping for. My initial testing (with tiny samples) suggested that we’d see rates between 2.5% and 3%. So 3.38% is a big improvement, but a little higher than I’d hoped. Looking at the rate of 3rd party tickets in the Zendesk confirms there are more of them than expected. I asked our Community Growth Operations Specialists for ideas on what might be producing these tickets.

Kyle suggested our Web Applications site produced more than its fair share. Indeed since we began tracking in September of 2013, there have been 997 tickets from that site and at least1 509 were intended for some other support system (usually Google or Facebook). It’s pretty much the ur-case for helpful answers fooling people into thinking we can solve their problems on unrelated sites.

These folks haven’t read the contact us form very closely since it already says we can’t help them recover their Google account or whatnot. I added the bold bit recently in hopes that it will make the message more noticable and clear. Shortly afterward, someone emailed us their Gmail password. So I decided to test another option: automated responses.

Now there are a few things I think need to be true of automatic emails to avoid being a jerk about it:

  1. They must, with almost dead certainty, be targeted to the right people. It’s tempting to send it everyone who writes to us from WebApps with an account problem. Odds are, we’d be accurate at least half the time. But it really sucks for the other half who are legitimate users that we could help.

  2. The message must politely, but firmly point the user to the specific help channel that has authority over their specific problem. If the problem is with Facebook, we should avoid pointing them to Google.

  3. If, by some remote chance, we send a response in error, it must be possible for the hapless user to reply and get in touch with a human.

Fortunately, Zendesk supports triggers. I set up one for Google and one for Facebook2 that are triggered when the page the user came from indicates the user has Google or Facebook problems. First, it checks that the ticket is new which allows responses through. Then it checks that the request came from http://webapps.stackexchange.com/. Next, it looks for specific referrer URLs that strongly signal the problem is with some other site.

For instance, we get requests from questions such as3:

If we got a thousand tickets from these questions, I’d be shocked if we could address more than one or two. So I feel extremely comfortable sending an automated reply:

Hello,

You may have contacted the wrong party. This email address provides support for the Q&A web sites at stackexchange.com, but we are not in a position to provide customer support for 3rd-party products or services. If you have an issue with a Google product, please contact them directly at:

http://www.google.com/contact/

Sorry about the confusion.

Regards,
Stack Overflow Team

There’s a similar email sent to folks trying to recover their Facebook accounts.

Digging a bit deeper using the Zendesk search API, I also noticed tickets coming from the [gmail], [google-account] and [facebook] tag pages were invariably false alarms. So I added those pages too. But I didn’t add the Ask Question page. Most of those correspondents would benefit from this auto-response, but some should just ask their question and others have Stack Exchange account problems.

In the last four days since I implemented it, the trigger has fire four times (not counting my own tests). One ticket a day won’t really make a notable difference for the people handling team@. But it should make the job a tiny bit more pleasant and be a bit helpful a bit quicker to people who have lost access to their Gmail account.


  1. This doesn’t count tickets that were duplicates. People trying to recover credentials for sites that essentially control their online identity can (understandably) be very anxious for a reply. 

  2. For whatever reason Yahoo users don’t seem to contact us for customer support as much. 

  3. We also get a surprising number of referrers from a deleted question: I have forgotten my old Google username and password, how do I recover my account? My best guess is that some popular site linked to it before deletion.