2.5.12

How to Fix Forums

BY JEFF ROBERTSON

The easiest way to find a solution to virtually any problem these days is to type the problem into Google. Get a weird Outlook error message? Google it. Keurig coffee machine stops working? Google it. It works for almost anything.

The problem I have seen over the last few years is that the ratio of askers to answerers is not very conducive to finding solutions. Many times, you can find plenty of forums where someone has the exact same problem you do. The big issue is finding someone who actually knows how to fix it. Sure, the answer is probably out there, but it might be result number 6, 8, 12, 35, etc. in your search.

I believe this issue is twofold. First, forum software does not do a good job of aggregating like posts. For example, most good issue tracking software (take JIRA as an example) has an excellent system for associating one issue with another - related issues, duplicate issues, dependent issues, etc. Almost without fail, people will end up posting the same issue a couple of times because they either didn't find the existing issue or they didn't look for it. When this happens, administrators can easily mark the item as a duplicate with a link to the existing issue. Anyone who happens to find the duplicate item later will see that it is closed to comments, and they have a quick link to the canonical issue.

In general forums, very few people have a reason or ability to easily link to a duplicate issue. If the answer isn't on the current page, they simply move on to the next search result which is often on a different website. I do this all the time, unfortunately.

Search engines cause the second problem. With the current search engine algorithms, results are determined by how closely the terms match and how well respected the host website is (inbound links, age, amount of content and a thousand other factors). This often means that a large forum site with 10 people posting the exact same error message will rank above a lesser known site with one person asking a question and the other person answering it.

The solution to this problem is twofold as well. First, forum software has to get smarter. (And not the vague kind of IBM-commercial "smarter"… the specific kind you can actually implement.) Many forums already have the ability to vote up an answer. This is a great start. To expand upon this, it would be fairly simple to keep a record of which forum posts each user views. When a user votes up an answer, the system checks the other posts the user recently viewed with similar keywords and presents the user with a dialog "does this post also answer these questions?" Users could then vote on whether the current post also answers other posts. With enough votes, the other, unanswered post could be marked as "answered" with a link to the answered thread. Implementing such a system across multiple sites could present quite a few challenges since ad-revenue-dependent publishers wouldn't want to link to competing websites, but within huge forums it could still provide value.

Secondly, search engines need to know which forum threads have been answered. (Yes, users can search for the word "answered" along with their question, but this is quite problematic.) One possible answer is found in the semantic web movement. Simply including tags to indicate whether a particular post is a question, additional information or a solution would let search engines better present answers to users instead of just lists of the same question over and over. Forum software could even allow users to tag the post as they post. A user could mark whether they were asking the question, clarifying the question, attempting to answer (which would have to be validated with user votes before actually being marked as the answer), or asking a "me too" type question.

When I ask Google "how many nautical miles in a mile?" it just gives me the answer instead of giving me search results. If I ask Google "how do I fix error 553 on my satellite receiver?", it should be able to give me the same experience.

Jeff Robertson
written by JEFF ROBERTSON

Jeff Robertson is a digital marketer and an online development expert with experience stretching back to dial-up. He is partner and Chief Technology Officer at Carbon8, where he helps bridge the gap between the technical and marketing worlds, as well as oversees technical infrastructure.

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