Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

Ok, maybe that’s not really true. But at least I caught your attention, didn’t I?

Honestly, it’s not really that far from the truth though. Today forums have become a big part of my everyday life. As you have seen previously on Playing With Wire, we love Open Source-software. In the Open Source-world, forums are equivalent to what phone-support is in the commercial-software world.

When you work as a system administrator, it frequently happens that you run into problems. The software doesn’t start after an update, you receive an error that you cannot really interpret in an error-log, or any other problem that you cannot solve. The thing that comes to your rescue is the forums.

My favorite Linux-distribution is Gentoo Linux, and one of the many reasons why I love it is because of their support forum. This forum has an impressive quick reply-time. Some of my posts got replied to within minutes, and this all for the total expense of $0.

So why am I writing this post? How does this relate to a startup? Well, it’s quite simple – we like forums. Web-based forums can help several users with the same problem. Rather than having to answer every question multiple times, one thread can give the answer to tons of users. In addition this, users can also contribute by helping other users. Somehow it’s the human nature to help other people because of the simple reason that we feel good about it (this is not a political statement in any way, trust me).

I must however acknowledge that forums will never completely replace phone or e-mail support, since in some certain situations, it’s simply more efficient/convenient to use phones or e-mail. My point is that if your company provides a forum where they deal with support issues, you can save costs as well as help your customers both save money and time (who hasn’t spent hours on hold to get through to a support line?).

Below I’ve listed 4 important things to keep in mind before you add a forum to your site:

  1. Select the right software. They say the best things in life are free, so why pay for something you can get for free? The most widespread forum-softwares out there are Open Source. Look at SourceForge or Freshmeat before you start spending money for software. However, keep in mind that there’re tons of people working on their spare time to bring you that software, so if you’re using their software in your business, please consider donating some money back to their project.
  2. Select a good design. Selecting a good design doesn’t simply mean that it should look good. Of course, this is essential, but it doesn’t matter if it looks good, if it looks completely different than the rest of your site.
  3. Integrate. Over and over again I see companies that have their forums on some external site where you can barely tell if it’s the official forum, or some unofficial forum. Make sure you integrate your forum into your site, make it look like it belongs there, both with graphics and layout.
  4. Answer the questions. This should go without saying. There’s nothing more annoying and frustrating than to visit a forum with little or no activity. A forum with many unanswered questions is worse than no forum at all. If you’re thinking about implementing a forum, make sure you devote the necessary time it takes to run the forum as well.

Since we’re talking about forums in today’s post, today’s link is to (as far as I know), the most well-known forum software out there phpBB. There’s also tons of other good forum-softwares out there, that come embedded in various CMSes, but phpBB is probably the most famous stand-alone forum-software.

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Introducing YippieMove '09. Easy email transfers. Now open for all destinations.

SearchMash is an interesting new search engine. It turns out that it’s actually just a shell on top of Google’s search engine. It’s a pretty cool shell though. One thing you can do is to hit space repeatedly to see more and more results, without reloading. Ajax goodness. Another thing you get is image search results alongside with your normal results.

This article is about one of the least conspicuous features, which none the less might be the most important one.

You can rearrange results.

Doesn’t sound like much but lets think about it. What might rearranging the results be good for? Right now the features list says the rearranging is just for fun. This is coupled with a hint that there are ‘plans’ for the future.

Here’s the future.

Rearrangement is an intuitive way for search users to ‘fix’ their search results. For example, say that Jane searches for ‘Google’ but the top hit is ‘Microsoft.’ Microsoft has a big marketing department. Marketing or not, ‘Microsoft’ is not the result Jane was looking for. She scans down and finds ‘Google’ in the second result. Traditionally, this would be the end of the story. But with this technology, what Jane would do is to simply drag ‘Google’ to the top. She does this not because of some spiritual search for perfection. She does it because the next time she performs the same search, she wants the most relevant result on top. The search engine memorizes her rearrangement action and the next time Jane searches for Google, she gets the result she wants on top.

That’s nice and all but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If a large number of users rearrange their search results in the same manner, the search engine can take note. If a lot of people are placing ‘Google’ on top of ‘Microsoft’ when searching for Google, the search engine might eventually say, “Hey, that’s kind of funny. Maybe Google is actually the most relevant entry. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and make Google the top entry for everyone.”

There it is. The spam result just got downgraded, the search engine’s index became better, and every person searching with the engine in the future thinks the search engine is just terrific, not realizing the betterment was caused by humans rather than technology.

There is in fact nothing surprising about this development. Sites like digg have been touting swarm functionality as their thing for a long time. The philosophy is that when many users get together and do a small bit of work each, a lot of work gets done. Ultimately even huge tasks can be undertaken in this way.

The only thing that is surprising about user sorting, and Google’s secret testing of it with Searchmash, is that it took so long. To sort the whole internet by search terms is the quintessential swarm task. It can be massively parallelized – lots of people can sort their own little bit of the internet. Each step of sorting isn’t a lot of work. In this case the sorting is even rewarding for the user – they get personalized search results with their own sort order in the future. They don’t need to be altruistic. They just have to do their own little thing and in the end everyone benefits.

Swarm ranking is the next step up from Google’s page rank. The first internet search engine to feature page rank and swarm rank simultaneously will win this round by a significant margin.

If only our startup had a couple of million dollars.

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