First, let me establish some credibility.
In the past year a few of my posts made it to the front page of Hacker News, including:
- I Tried to Virtually Stalk Mark Zuckerberg
- Git Tips
- What is the best part about being a Software Engineer?
Prior to my first Hacker News (HN) breakthrough, my articles have been popular on other social media sites (i.e. Reddit), so I knew my content was decent. Yet every one of my submission to HN would disappear into the abyss.
I am pretty sure I am not alone in this situation, so I wanted to share some of the tips that has worked for me.
1. Write Quality Content
This may seem like common sense, but there is just no substitute for it. Quality Content is what matters. No tips or tricks will replace writing something interesting or helpful.
My first post to make it to the front page of Hacker News – I Tried to Virtually Stalk Mark Zuckerberg – was definitely one of the best articles that I’ve ever written. I started working on it in late December of 2015 and did not publish it until April of 2016. So it took me about 4 months to put it together.
I took my time to scrape the data, analyze it, and present my findings in an easy-to-digest way. I worked on it (an hour here and there) for many days. Eventually I disappeared into a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon and finally published and submitted the article to Hacker News later that night. And that is when the magic happened.
My post took off and within an hour it was the number one post on Hacker News. I don’t think I slept much that night.
That is not to say that all posts that make it to the front page of Hacker News need to take that long (or longer) to write. What is the best part about being a Software Engineer for example, took me only a few hours to put together.
The point is try to write something that you would read yourself, if you were to see it on Hacker News.
2. Experiment with Submission Time
I didn’t just tell the story of my Mark Zuckerberg article to brag. I think there is something special that happened there, by accident, that made a lot of difference. Did you catch it?
I submitted the article around 9 pm Pacific Standard Time on a Sunday night and I believe that it tipped the odds in my favor.
About a month after the submission I came across this article – Best Time to Post (to HN)? It’s Irrelevant. While the article concludes that the time of submission to Hacker News is “irrelevant”, I tend to disagree.
The number of submissions goes down during weekends and after the business hours (US). The number of readers is likely to go down as well, but there are still a lot of people reading Hacker News all over the world.
In my experience, all else being equal, submitting during the off hours has increased my odds.
This is not to say that late submissions on a Sunday night should be a hard rule. However, I do think that it is important to experiment with different times to see what works best for your content.
3. Aim for a Wider Audience
Hacker News is a community of developers, with no particular specialization. Therefore, articles that are somewhat business or technology related and can benefit a wider audience do better on Hacker News.
For example, Mark Zuckerberg is a person that a lot of people find interesting. Git is a technology that almost every developer is forced to use.
To contrast, an article about Angular JS would only benefit a subset of Front End community.
4. First 30 Minutes Decide Everything
First 30 minutes that your article appears on https://news.ycombinator.com/newest is your chance to shine. In that time, you article needs to get at least 4 upvotes from different users on different IPs, that saw your article at https://news.ycombinator.com/newest ( and not via a direct link – source) in order for Hacker News to start showing it to the larger audience.
You must do everything in your power to get as many people as possible to read (and hopefully like) your article.
Your headline is the only thing visible on Hacker News and it must pique reader’s interest.
I’ve tried submitting my Git Tips with it’s original title of “19 tips for everyday Git use” and it wasn’t good enough. Shortening the title to “Git Tips” did the trick.
Warning Hacker News can and will moderate your headline if it does not align well with the content of the article.
There are hundreds of thousands of articles dedicated to writing catchy headlines.
One tip that works for me is to research headlines for related and successful articles via Hacker News History Search.
Improve Other Signals
We are all so overwhelmed with information, that we don’t have enough attention for everything we see online. That is why we are forced to look for “signals” (shortcuts) to indicate that some information may be important.
On Hacker news such signals come in 5 forms:
- Position on the First Page (irrelevant for new articles)
- Number of upvotes
- Number of comments
- Rate of upvotes (i.e. 200 upovtes / in 2 hour)
- Rate of comments (i.e. 200 comments / in 10 hour)
The more positive signals your article has, the more people are likely to click on it.
Fuel The Discussion
If somebody comments on your article consider joining the discussion. Your response will increase the comment count and may entice others to participate in the discussion.
That being said, at times I found it more useful to just post my article and stay out of the discussion all together. I try to contribute to the discussion only if I have something meaningful to add.
Share Your Post with Followers and Friends
While Hacker News appears to be smart enough not to count upvotes that came from a direct HN link, those upvotes would still serve as positive signals to your potential readers.
5. Don’t be Afraid to Re-Submit
Last but not least, Hacker News has no limit on how many times an article can be submitted. If your article did not take off on the first try, don’t be afraid to re-submit.
It may feel a bit too “self promotional” to keep re-posting your article. I would encourage you to fight that feeling. Since you invested your time into writing a good, helpful article, there is not shame it trying put it in front of the people who will benefit from it.
If anything, once your article finally makes it to the front page of Hacker News, many people will thank you for it.