How Can We Make Forum Content More Discoverable? Part 1

Josh forwarded around a Channel9 thread yesterday where some Niners were talking about how they got sought out help and support. (He’s also currently asking the same question on his blog.)

It’s interesting, but no surprise, that phone support isn’t mentioned in the thread. The Channel9 community is obviously more tech-savvy than most, but in summary, people mention the following channels that they look to for support:

  • Searches on
  • Searches through product team blogs
  • Searches through the forums (MSDN or 3rd party forums)
  • Searches through the newsgroups
  • Searches through the entire web
  • Honorable mentions to product manuals, books, chats, and (gasp) asking a coworker
  • Missing in action: F1 help, Web 2.0 stuff (social bookmarking, wikis, etc.), and picking up the phone

See the common thread? Regardless of source people absolutely depend on great search to get at the content that they need. For developers, if search is broken for a given channel of information, they aren’t going to find that channel extremely valuable.

Yea, yea, Joe, we’re read your post about how important search is before, right? The problem is that search is a huge problem for nearly all of the content above. Let’s just consider content for developers from Microsoft. We have support documentation in the knowledge base, “official” developer documentation in the MSDN Library, articles on the MSDN dev centers, employee blogs, newsgroups, and forums. There’s currently two primary ways to search through this content:

  1. Use the search on each separate channel – You could go each channel individually, and use the built-in search functions to look for what you need. The advantage: you’ll know where your answers are coming from and the format that they’ll be in. The negative piece? The built-in searches tend to be pretty lousy, and you’ll have to go to a bunch of different channels to do all of your searches. Forget it.
  2. Use a search engine that searches through *all* of the content – There are two obvious ways to do this right now. First is the great new MSDN Search ( If you’re a developer, it has a tabbed interface, and searches our primary channels quickly, using as a backend. Pretty slick. Of course, you can also go to Google, Yahoo, or Live and do a “ <search terms>” to search across all of our properties at once. The bad news: all of Microsoft’s content isn’t on Sorry, it wasn’t my decision. J

These aren’t bad solutions—people use them every day, and between combinations of, MSDN, and Google searches, we get nearly 5 million page views from over 1 million people per month on the MSDN Forums. Unfortunately, it’s still not ideal. It’s nearly impossible to find related content once you are on a given channel. For example, if you’re looking at a forums post about using generics in C#, you’re very rarely going to see all of the related blog articles written by Microsofties about the subject—some of which might actually help you with the problem you’re trying to solve.

I have a half-baked idea on how to solve this that I’d like to save until next week. I’d like to hear everybody else’s opinion first. Is searching through Microsoft’s content even a problem? Do you use search? Something else?

Comments (3)

  1. pazu says:

    I do not know why, but for MS-related topics, including dev, Google still outperforms MSDN search. Even when the searched info resides on MSDN web. My experience…

  2. To be totally fair – I started asking the question from MY blog 🙂

    And it’s my question on C9 – the C9 post is a cross-post from my blog 🙂

  3. Mike Wachal says:

    Gee, I didn’t even know about the MSDN Enhanced Search, and I like searching.

    I mentioned this on Joshes blog as well; for me it’s about limiting the search, not covering more properties. I use Google (err, Live) Search all the time, but I always use the to target my search. The pain is having to perform the same search several times and having to remember all the right domains to search.

    I was very excited by the tabbed approach on MSDN Enhanced Search since it is automatically separating the resutls by domain. This is a very similar approach to the installed MSDN Documentation where you have different domains that are searched and shown in different tabs. I think this is the right direction.

    Which gets to the problem, search just isn’t that good. I tried searching for my favorite problem, remote connections to SQL Express, on the MSDE Enhanced site:

    MSDN: Bogus results, although I don’t know the answer is really described anywhere on MSDN in general.

    KB: No results even though I know there is a KB article. (I wrote it.)

    Forums: Too many results. Fact is this question is asked so often in the forums that the results are overwhelming. I thought it interesting that the first hit in the list was actually an unanswered Thread, even though several threads on the topic are answered and it seems should have been weighted to the top.

    Codezone: No results

    Blogs: Yeah, this actually found my blog on the topic and listed it first.

    Google still seems to be the best at finding valuable results, particularly when matched with domain specific searching. I do feel that is getting better though. So to take the next step we need:

    – Better/More accurate search algorithms

    – Search multiple domains at once and results separated by domain vis a vie MSDN Enhanced Search

    – The ability to confiure which domains I want to search and even configure search sets, say I search one set of domains for SQL Express and a different set of domains for VS issues.

    That would do it for me.