by: Roger Dooley

A survey of technical professionals shows a startling level of reliance on Web communities by IT professionals. The report from King Research includes these key findings:

93% claim that they do their jobs more efficiently and save time by using IT communities to solve system administration problems.
100% of IT professionals who participate in online communities report benefiting professionally and 85% report benefiting personally from this use.
98% of participants believe that the information in online communities is typically accurate, although many clarified the importance of validating online sources.
[From The Value of Online Communities - emphasis added]

I suppose these results shouldn’t be a big surprise, although the percentages are indeed striking. The growth in online communities has placed a vast amount of technical content on the web, and has allowed individuals with obscure skills and specialties to interact with others regardless of geographic location. I’ve been part of WebmasterWorld, the Web’s biggest community for all manner of web development, search engine optimization, and web marketing professionals for seven years, and the quality of information available always amazes me. In addition, the speed of response to a question is usually superb. A newbie can stumble in, ask a question, and find that it has been answered by some of the top professionals in the field.

That’s really the magic of good communities. The sharing of information, the willingness of one community member to help another member, even a brand new one, give these communities a huge value. Why do busy professionals take the time to help solve someone else’s problem? Some may do it from pure altruism, others because they like to demonstrate their expertise. Some may be fishing for business. Most often, though, it’s because they know the next day THEY may be looking for help. An expert PHP coder may be clueless about designing with CSS or webmaster business issues. While a few community members may be pure “takers” - posing endless questions while offering no help of their own, the vast majority end up participating in the two-way exchange of assistance that occurs in vibrant communities.

The Google - Community Effect

A key factor in the effectiveness of using online communities to solve problems is Google. More than any other search engine, Google has been effective at indexing the “deep” content found in online communities. Google has become the tech manual of first resort. Even a superb paper manual may contain a few hundred pages of information, and has no hope of answering the many thousands of weird issues that may come up when a product is in actual use. When these issues end up being discussed in online communities, primarily discussion forums, that content is easily accessible to users everywhere. Many of these are the ultimate long-tail searches - multi-word error messages and codes, product names, etc. These are the kind of searches that will rarely, if ever, be repeated but serve to pop up an obscure forum thread from a year earlier in which several posters hashed out the problem until a solution was reached.

An excellent example occurred a few months ago when I was testing a Verizon XV6700 smart phone. The salesperson had told me that it was “tetherable,” i.e., I could connect my laptop to it via the USB connector and use it as a broadband modem. In a typical frustrating tech experience, I connected it and was unable to connect. After an unfruitful trial and error session - real men don’t read manuals, right? - I actually did pull out the paper manual and found nothing of use. I then spent an extended session online in Verizon’s support area and came up dry. In desperation, I called the Verizon store where I had picked up the phone a few hours earlier, and the salesman informed me that he had misinformed me - the unit did not offer tetherability, but I could bring it. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place, and went to Google. One of the top results was a forum thread in which a smart techie detailed how to hack the registry of Windows Mobile to make it work. In minutes, I had everything working. (I ended up returning the phone anyway, and have been waiting in vain for its successor, the Verizon XV6800, to be released.)

Part of the Google effect in community building is that it brings a constant flow of visitors to the community. Most don’t stay - they get their answer and leave. But those with an ongoing interest in the topic may visit more than once, and become participating members. In my experience, many visitors are astonished to find a big group of like-minded people - they had no idea that such a community even existed, and wouldn’t have found it without Google.

For some reason, MSN in particular and even Yahoo don’t seem as effective in spidering and indexing community content. Is this a conscious strategy? Do they assume that most community content is random chit-chat unworthy of their attention? If so, they are missing the point entirely - communities are amazing repositories of specialized information. It’s not just IT professionals who rely on them - communities exist for every profession, every hobby, and every special interest. And people are looking for answers, whether it’s how to prune a hydrangea or the best way to structure a trust. When I’m looking for a specialized answer, Google is definitely my weapon of choice. There are many reasons why Google is actually gaining ground in the Web search market, and I have no doubt that their ability to help solve obscure problems is one of them.

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