I’ve had a couple of times this week when I have been contacted by customers, and they have not been happy, as they have had issues trying to get support from Microsoft. I fully understand the frustration, as most of us seem to have to work with at least one Microsoft product in our daily lives, and we will invariably run into issues at some point or another. This has nothing to do with technical proficiency, experience with the product or anything like that, it has more to do with the sheer amount of new information that we have to absorb every day. Think about it – 5 years ago, there were very few blogs, no such thing as Twitter and Facebook, no Cloud, and a host of other changes that seem to come at an ever-quickening pace. There are constantly more sites, content, ideas and opinions out there for us to navigate, regardless of where we work.
My hope for this post is to try to make a bit of sense of what is out there in a fairly generic pattern, so whatever field you happen to be in, you will be able to look up helpful sites and be able to get an answer to your question, which is really why most people visit these kinds of sites. I’m not going to go into the more esoteric sites and tools, as there are literally hundreds of these coming out each week. I just want to describe the more common types of venues, and describe what each one of them is best at giving you as far as information.
First, a good place to start is the Company website, in our case, this is www.microsoft.com. Most companies will have a website, and this is usually a good place to start to see what is offered. These sites are good for getting product info, such as hardware requirements, cost of the products, if there are sites that host Forums, etc. These sites are good for finding overview information, but not the best place to find specific information about a problem you may be having.
Search Engines are a great source of both help and frustration. If you happen to hit the right search phrase, you can find just about anything, but if you don’t know what you are searching for you can search forever and have to sift through hundreds of irrelevant pages and still have a great chance of not finding the right piece of information. There is a great deal of interest these days in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) from a corporate standpoint, as this is how most people will find information for the company’s products. For instance, 80% of the people who visit the MSDN Forums arrive via a search engine, so you can see how knowledge of this is essential to any company these days. My tips for searching for things are to use the more specific words first, and to try and find the most specific term possible for what you are looking for. The more you can narrow down the search term to something unique, the better chance you have of not getting 4 million results for your search. So, if you are looking for a SQL initialization string, for example, simply searching on “String” will likely not be terribly helpful. For this phrase, I’d use the whole phrase in quotes which will give you results that have all the terms.
Blogs are another good source of information, and they can either be company-sponsored or 3rd party. In this case, my blog is “company sponsored”, as it is in a Microsoft site and I work for Microsoft. 3rd party blogs would be those authored by MVPs or others who do not work for the parent company and are not hosted on a company website. Blogs are great sources of information for getting an overview of something, and for finding a more lengthy treatment of a specific problem. As an example, this post is very general about “finding help”, but it is not going to solve the specific issue you are having right now with the product you are using. Blogs are usually easy to find by using a search engine like Bing, as they will contain relevant keywords that you will type in the search box.
Forums are another good place to find help, most places these days have them somewhere on their online properties. The Microsoft Forums are located at http://social.msdn.microsoft.com (MSDN, for Developers) and http://social.technet.microsoft.com (TechNet, for IT Pros), and these are an excellent source of answers to specific questions, and the content that has been generated there is all searchable. See the post earlier in my blog about “How to post effectively in Forums” to increase your chances of getting an answer to your question. There are also 3rd party Forums on just about everything under the sun, from barbequing to cars to games, and so on.
Videos are an ever-increasing source of information about topics as well, sites like YouTube have literally millions of videos, and not all of them are people doing stupid things or stupid pet tricks. Use the search functionality on the site you choose to see if there is something appropriate for what you are trying to find, chances are there are. If I told you there were over 5000 videos that showed up when you search on “SQL Server”, would you believe me? You should, because there are.
These are just the basics, there are usually tons of ways to find information, but you need to know where to look, and hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas on where to look for things.