Search First!

I’ve been a messageboard user for well over a decade. Dating back to the late 1990’s. I love messageboards or forums as they are also called. They are a wealth of information and community. They are the precursor to modern day social networks even though messageboards are still around and thriving. But they are often not talked about on tech blogs because they aren’t new and exciting. They aren’t run by silicon valley startups with millions of dollars in venture capital or angel investors. Most of the time a messageboard community is run by a single individual who does it as a hobby and will elect certain other community members to act as forum moderators. While there are a few successful generic message forums, they mostly tend to be niche communities that focus on a given subject, such as filmmaking, religion, e-cigarettes and so on. They then break that subject down into individual forums and sub forums as a way of organizing and categorizing content.

Successful messageboards suffer from one particular problem more than anything. Repeating topics. As messageboards are often used to ask questions and get answers, community veterans find themselves answering the same questions over and over again. They get sick of it and start yelling “search first” in the comments.

I have been a member of more forums than I can count. I have also been an administer of a handful of messageboards. From my experience, people yelling “search first” tends to produce a negative effect on the members being yelled at. It makes them feel unwelcome in the community. Most of the time that message is given to new members, some of which have never used a messageboard previously. It can be a real turn off.

But what’s an even bigger turn off is that messageboards are anti-search to begin with. On one hand you have members yelling “search first” and on the other you have messageboard software that does everything in its power to prevent you from searching.

The software often buries the search form on another page which has a ton of check boxes and text areas which can immediately confuse a new user. Then after entering a term they may be returned with an error that tells them they must enter more than three characters. Upon entering more than three characters they are then returned with another error, that they must wait 30 seconds before submitting a new query. Some forums even rub salt in an open wound by making them fill out a captcha (those crazy unreadable letter/number images) before submitting their query.

Imagine if Google had all of these restrictions. Would you ever bother searching for anything? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to hit the “new post” button and ask your question in the way that you want to ask it? I bet it would.

The Solution
Forum search needs to be dead simple, limitless, powerful and looking you in the face the whole time you visit that community. Like a big long search field at the top of the forum, stacked right where all the sticky posts are. It needs to return results in real time as a member types. It needs to be limitless in the minimum number of characters or how many searches can be performed in a given period of time. Last of all, it should NOT be a process that requires a captcha.

We no longer live in an internet that is starving for resources. Today we have virtual servers, cloud hosting and nearly limitless bandwidth, even on the least expensive hosting providers. Database sharding and smarter software on more powerful machines makes search queries less painful than they used to be. Couple that with most users today being on broadband connections and there is no justifiable reason to fear extra database queries on an already niche community.

The logic is pretty simple. If you have a small community with a small amount of active users then you will have less search queries to begin with. If you have a larger community then you should probably view yourself as startup and find ways to monetize your community to pay for the extra resources you need.

Upon doing these things I think we’ll find that people will be more inclined to search first and as a result, annoy vetrans less and create a more welcoming environment.

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