• Need help? Don't ask on a forum!


    Forums have become increasingly popular places for people to get help and support with their problems. Tory austerity policies and resulting cuts to legal aid and lack of funding have pushed consumers to rely on internet forums. However, before you dive in, there are a few things you should know. Certain types of advice, such as debt counselling, are regulated activities, yet forums are not authorised to carry them out. See Debt Advice and Regulation.

    WHY FORUMS RANK AT THE TOP OF SEARCH RESULTS

    Search engines such as Google often rank forum posts right at the top when searching for a common phrase. This is the result of indexing what others post and also what most people would also be looking for. Ranking is an automated process carried out by "robots", i.e. software algorithms. It has nothing to do with the actual content being ranked. As a result, people are often directed to one of the many forums dealing with the particular subject matter as opposed to more reliable resources.

    This is a consequence of keyword based indexing, where the repetitive nature of forums means there is a higher keyword density than on other types of site. Such is the nature of forums that the same content is posted time and time again.

    Unlike reliable resources, forum content is posted by the users themselves, in their own words, as opposed to people with specialist knowledge, copywriters or editors. This means the terms and phrases used on forum posts are often the same potential forum users would search for.

    REPETITIVE POSTING

    In most cases, it would be more appropriate to just post a link to the relevant resource, either internal or external. In fact, this is the only way to ensure people get consistent advice, by providing everyone with the same information, even when their circumstances may be different, legislation and process apply equally to all.

    Directing people to a "sticky" or an article goes against the grain of the forum which is intended for people to post questions and answers and usually, only admins and mods are able to post ďstickiesĒ, those special threads that stay at the top of the listings and are intended for information rather than discussion. Pointing people in the direction of the appropriate resource can be the best help offered to them, however, external links make the user leave the site and, if they find what they're looking for on there, they may not come back. This is not what forum owners want, especially if they are seeking to monetise the site in any way.

    ADVICE v DISCUSSION?

    Forums were originally intended as discussion platforms where people shared their own experiences and little tips and tricks, they were not intended as sources of advice. However, these days many forums have a handful of regular contributors in addition to the ďstaffĒ (mods and site team) and most regular users just pop in to ask a question and then go away till they get an answer or have another question to ask, they donít stick around to contribute to other peopleís threads which was the original intention when forums were set up.

    Many of the popular forums are now more like online advisory services open 24/7, which people increasing turn to as funding for organisations such as law clinics and CABs dries up. Professionals such as law firms are often out of reach of people of modest means and they've left with nowhere to turn but the forums.

    The original discussion model encourages member interaction Forums as advisory platforms run by a handful of regular posters

    LOOK WHO'S POSTING NOW!

    Anyone can join an open forum and start posting right away. Although some forums have a few authorised or verified reps, these are the minority and are only there to act on behalf of the company or organisation they represent.
    Many people join forums because that gives them a platform to express themselves and show off their knowledge, however flawed or insufficient. Some members post with an air of authority that leaves you believing they are authorities in the subject. A few go as far as to make up experience and qualifications, knowing that no-one is going to ask to see proof.

    In fact, itís not even possible to be sure that the person who posts under a username is always the same one. Although itís against the rules on many sites to share your login details, itís not exactly impossible to do so, and admins often set up generic logins or allow known posters to share logins.

    ARE FORUMS TOTALLY USELESS?

    No, not at all! They house a wealth of knowledge, but you need to know how to sort the wheat from the chaff and check that what has been posted is accurate, relevant to your situation and up to date. Look at how various forums approach the same thing and then try other resources.

    DOES THIS MEAN YOU SHOULD NEVER POST ON A FORUM?

    Absolutely not! By all means feel free to respond to someoneís query if you know the answer or start a discussion thread, but donít take whatís posted on a forum as gospel. If you have an issue of your own, chances are, it has already been addressed on one or more of the most popular forums, unless itís a rather unique or uncommon issue, in which case you probably wonít find many members who can answer your question anyway.

    If a similar issue has been posted about, search and read relevant threads from beginning to end to see how things pan out and what process was followed. Do your own homework and check various resources. This involves a lot more work than just posting a question and waiting for an answer but itís the only way to maximise your chances of getting the right information and avoid being misled.

    INFORMATION OVERLOAD

    If you have tried the approach above, you'll find there is a lot of reading to do and a lot to go through. This is one of the downsides of the forum approach: what could be said in a couple of posts often takes up dozens of them. Forums are supposed to encourage participation and discussion, and that means people mucking in and often off topic posts too. This is part and parcel of forums since they are intended for members to interact. There will often be posts that just wish posters good luck or congratulate them. You may enjoy the attention if you are the poster in question, but this has the effect of cluttering up threads and making it hard to extract the relevant information from them.

    DEAD ENDS

    Nothing's more frustrating than reading a long thread, only to find there's no more posts and the story is still far from concluded. This happens very often for a number of reasons, it could be that:
    • The original poster went to another forum.
    • The original poster found another resource or got proper legal advice or help from other sources.
    • The original poster resolved their issue and didn't bother updating their thread. It does happen a lot, and people often simply forget that they'd posted on a certain forum.
    • The original poster didn't find the forum helpful and may have said so but their posts may have been removed by admins.
    • The original poster may have been banned without showing up as such. On many sites, you cannot identify banned users. They hide them because it sends out the wrong message.

    SO WHAT'S THE ALTERNATIVE?

    An approach based around self-help where a compilation of resources is provided for the benefit of users. People still have the option to ask questions and these are treated as FAQs, i.e. Frequently Asked Questions, and suitable answers to them compiled. That way people get the benefit of being pointed in the right direction without being side tracked. If people want to interact, they can still do so, but we'd be looking at the original idea of sharing experiences rather than getting advice.

    There's a big difference between someone saying: "when I faced a similar situation, what i did was..." and having the owners/admins/mods/regulars telling everyone what to do when they have never been in the same situation. The first example is sharing experiences, the second is giving advice. Pointing people in the right direction is not advice, telling them what to do, often without backing up their statements with appropriate sources, is advice.

    DO YOU ENJOY POSTING?

    If you enjoy posting on forums, please free to start your own discussion here: Forum Wars Discussion Area.

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