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November 06, 2006

Search Tip #2: Archivable Forums

While not the easiest or most popular method of searching for information, using internet forums is a widely unknown, but extremely useful internet search source. Similar to blogs, forums are a public, ever-changing database of information in which users are permitted to post comments, questions, ideas, and opinions in a group discussion. Forums are usually focused around a single product/topic area, and are then organized further by breaking this topic into it's most logical sub-sections. Users are able to create "Threads", which are topic headings for their "posts". Other users can then reply to the initial thread post (usually the topic starter) with their opinions, thoughts, questions and answers. Several well-known forum examples include:

Apple's Support Forum
Microsoft's Support Forum
[Hard]Forum - a technology equipment focused forum

The above 3 forums all relate to 3 different product areas, but general serve the same purpose - to provide a location for users to discuss the forum topic. Apple's and Microsoft's forums provide an area for users or non-users of their products to discuss what they like, don't like, want to know, or problems experienced with and about each of their products. [Hard]Forum is a larger database, and it's focus is significantly broader, covering all different areas of electronics, from overclocking CPU's to how to buy replacement "feet" for their computer mouse.

The benefit of the live-forum is that unlike other relatively static information databases (e.g. Wikipedia), a forum is constantly changing, with up to 100-200 new threads added a day (even more in popular forums). It is possible to post a question about an issue one might be having with their MacBook iSight camera, and within a day or two recieve a response from someone who experienced a similar issue and was able to resolve it. Some forums have started including a symbol such as a yellow star to highlight forum question posts that have already recieved answers so that searchers know where to find a question & answer at the same location. Forums provide a way for a community of users to benefit from one another's knowledge, and solve problems themselves without paying for Best Buy's Geek Squad to do it for an exorbitant fee.

Users who are searching the internet for information will benefit from the search feature common in most forums. By searching a forum, users can scan the archive of conversations for threads and topics that pertain to the subject matter they are interested in. If one wanted to find an answer for why their MacBook iSight camera wasn't functioning, they could search it on any forum and would likely hit at least 2-3 conversations of other users with similar problems (and hopefully answers). Forums can also be beneficial for companies, as IT help desk associates can search through the forums for questions and provide answers for their customers who are struggling with a problem their product is exhibiting. Forum's indicate new users from experienced or even professional users by tracking the amount of posts they create. Typically a user with 5,000+ posts is a moderator on the forum, helping to answer questions and guide new users around.

Another variation of public forums is a service-fee based forum, such as Experts Exchange. This is a IT help forum where users can pay $100/yr to be granted access to post questions, and typically will recieve answers from a certified IT consultant within 24 hours. The added benefit this provides is that the conversations are all archived and available to any paying user - so one doesn't necessarily need to post a question, rather they could simply search for key words in the archive, and a similar problem and solution will likely appear, providing instant answers to extremely frustrating problems. While it feels unlikely that a simple forum like this could offer answers to "all the technology problems out there", it is not so far-fetched. Typically hardware and software programs exhibit similar problems across the board - so if one user has a problem with the MacBook iSight, it's likely 100-200 other users do as well. All it would take is one forum post and answer to solve those 200 other users issues.

Several problems exist with forums. First off, this can be a very tedious method of finding a question answer, and occasionally can yield no results - not something many users having technology related issues want to experience. Additionally, in public forums where any user can post a comment, question, or answer there is the problem of having people who may not actually know the answer to a problem offering solutions that end up causing more harm than help. While posts with pure malicious intent rarely exit, non-intended "bad advice" certainly exists. However, so long as a user goes into a forum with this expectation, they can usually easily weed out professional, intelligent answers from others.

With a bit of practice and the use of legitmate, professionally monitored forums, users can certainly obtain a plethora of useful information that could provide answers to more questions than I can even think of!

Posted by rentsche at November 6, 2006 08:54 PM

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