The Forum is Dead

Bob Leggitt | Monday 4 November 2013
When I wrote Is the Forum Dying? back at the beginning of 2012, I didn’t really know how long it would be before I was adding a follow-up with a rather more assertive and assured title. But the time has now arrived. The forum is dead, and I’m going to explain why. Not, however, from the viewpoint of the user or visitor (which was the angle I took last time), but from the viewpoint of the person in whose hands the future of all forums ultimately rests: the administrator…

One of the perceived advantages of opening a forum over setting up a personal site or blog, is UGC: User Generated Content. Esssentially, when you open a forum, other people write your website content (or at least most of it) for you. That’s always been a big attraction for the would-be administrator. It’s like: “Okay, so all I do is open a site, and other people come and write the content, and then I put ads on the site, and I get all the revenue?…” Cool! Money for old rope – let’s do it!

But this overlooks the great disadvantages of UGC. Content provided by random individuals has to be moderated (okay, so no one told Twitter that, but for most applications it does), and moderating content takes time. In fact, once you budget for the huge hammering of spam with which forums are plagued, policing the site can take almost as long as writing the content yourself. Of course, bigger-thinking administrators will plan to simply make the policing of the site user-generated too. Enter the moderator(s)…

Moderators are usually unpaid members of the forum who opt to take on the responsibility of policing it, mainly for the kudos it gives them. Looking important matters more to the moderators than the displeasure and grind of reading through and potentially editing or removing what basically amounts to somewhere between 60% and 100% tedious, mentally-knackering rubbish (depending on the site). The administrator uses people's natural desire to display some kind of elevated significance or importance, to get them to do his/her dirty work for free.

So that’s still a plan then, isn’t it? Set up a forum, get members of the public to do literally all the work, and sit back as the ad revenue floods in?… Well, this is what I’ve been investigating in recent weeks, and I’ve seen some very surprising – perhaps even shocking results. Get a load of this…
  • A one-month-old personal blog I set up on that most SEO-unfriendly of sites Tumblr, statistically got 25 times more unique visitors per post, per day, than a long-established forum dealing with the same subject. The forum in question is in fact the biggest in the world dealing with that particular subject matter.
  • For relevant Google search terms, single posts on my new personal Tumblr blog almost immediately outranked entire threads comprising hundreds - sometimes thousands - of posts on the forum!
  • Links TO my personal blog, which I inserted into my signature on the forum in question, actually appeared to have a NEGATIVE impact on my blog in the search engines, which rectified itself once I removed the links!
  • In a survey of 20 posts (of 100 words plus) from the forum, I found that for liable search terms, almost all were buried so deep down in Google’s results as to be virtually invisible, and six of them had not been indexed at all.
Startling stuff, all of which assembles into a picture of very poor status for the forum, as compared with a brand new personal blog – which itself shouldn’t really have any significant status. In fact, it appeared from the signature backlinks saga that the forum was actually damagingly low in status. So why would that be?…

Well, whilst forums may have thousands, sometimes millions of posts, the vast majority of the content is typically utter rubbish. Ill-informed, badly-written, misspelled, even completely illiterate, wild speculation, often going round in circles with the same repetitive comments being made month on month, year on year. Given the sophistication of Google’s latest search algorithms, which are able to read and analyse posts for quality and originality, as well as measuring interest in them more accurately than ever before, a forum comprising 95% low-quality and/or secondhand (basically nicked) material, will inevitably be categorised by the search engines under the heading of “No One Cares”. And that’s exactly what my investigation showed.

It’s at this point that you start to realise just how steep a mountain a new forum would have to climb in order to establish itself. Even if it’s able to somehow tear people away from heavily populated networking facilities like Google Plus, Facebook and Twitter, and build a small userbase, the likelihood of it finding its feet on the search engines (which is where the real key to prosperity lies) is now so remote that it’s really not worth the bother. Last year I actually watched someone set up a new forum. It was a guy with a big Twitter following (of real people) and endorsement from a very well recognised celebrity of his genre. To say the forum didn’t take off is an understatement. It’s had fewer than ten posts this year, and there’s nothing of any actual value on there at all. Despite the celeb connection and a high level of promotion on the networking sites, people just weren’t interested. Those who wanted to interact, wanted to do it directly on the networking sites, and those who wanted to read, wanted properly researched, credible material in a digestible format. The forum fell between the two stools.

The fact that conventional forums are dead is evidenced less in the diminishing activity found on long-established boards, and more in the almost complete pointlessness of trying to set up a new one. User generated content is still an incredibly big thing, but there isn’t going to be another Wikipedia, and if you can write, it’s probably much more economical to create your own content than spend half your life trying to moderate other people’s. It’s not how many posts you have, but how many of them actually matter. One post that really does matter can be worth 50,000 posts that don’t – in terms of both the visits it attracts and the revenue it can potentially generate. Why waste months policing the 50,000 posts that don’t matter when you can spend a few hours creating the one that does?

Search engines are only going to get better and more perceptive, and that’s bad news for most user-generated content. The content doesn’t just have to be there – it now also has to be good, and that’s set to become more determinedly the case as time goes on. Anyone with plans for UGC sites must now put quality at the forefront of their considerations, so any notion of a site with random members posting pretty much anything they like hits the buffers at square one. On that basis, the conventional Internet forum, is dead.

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