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A Review of Tech Support Forums

Author: Ted Grabowski (Tegrat)

I have used all the reviewed sites both as as logged in member and as a guest; I'm not very good at answering so I have not commented much on any site. I am more like a seeker of answers than a pro who knows how to do stuff.

Forum Selection

Some of the sites cover a lot of different topics, but they have webdev or tech related topics. The results are based on those webdev topics. The ratings may not reflect other topic areas.

There could never be a definitive ratings list for all forums, there are just to many and thousands that are an annex on some sites. The reviews are just sites I have used and I know enough about them that I can rate them.

So if you thinks there are others that should be here let Cd& know you want to do an article. Here is the list of the forums I looked at.

Forum List
  1. Codeguru: A conventional forum based on vBulletin. It is part of the Developer.com network. MS-centric... mostly vb and .net activity; not a great source for LAMP stack or even WAMP.
  2. Coding Forums: A conventional forum based on vBulletin. Web centric... covers most important web technologies. Some very experience folks are great when they are online. A little spotty at times when the big dogs are not around.
  3. Experts Exchange: A custom coded fee based Q/A that covers a wide range of tech topics (probably too many ... a bunch are just empty shells). This site is large, complex and competitive. It has been around a long time; through good and bad periods.
  4. HTMLforums: A narrowly focused conventional forum based on vBulletin. Narrow focus is on web technologies. Relatively few ads. A lot of the active members are long-term, and knowledgeable.
  5. Quora: A custom coded hybrid (Not sure you call it a Q/A or a forum) with some out of place "social networking" type features. The UI sucks and is not very intuitive. Hard to find your way around if you are trying to answer questions. No real help facility, and I am still looking for a FAQ.
  6. SEO Chat: Part of the Devshed, forum network. The forum seems to be an after thought, but for developers concerned about SEO and marketing the topics are good.
  7. Sitepoint: A conventional forum based on a very nice customized version of vBulletin. Unlike most forums, this one is actually nice to look at.
  8. Spiceworks: A strange place. Can't decide if it wants to be Facebook, Stack Overflow, or some kind of portal. Very chaotic, intrusive and and not a warm comfortable place.
  9. Stack Overflow: A very large custom coded Q/A that is part of an even larger complex network of Q/A sites that try (and fail badly) to be a social networking site. The reliability of "answers" is questionable, because thing get voted up based on friends promoting friends. Search is fast and accurate, but the threads returned do not necessarily have correct answers.
  10. Yahoo! Answers: A custom coded extension of the yahoo portal that covers a wide range of both tech and non-tech topics. Typical of Yahoo it is okay but nothing special.

Evaluation Criteria

I have set 10 arbitrary elements of the web sites for rating each of the elements has a maximum value of 10. The overall rating will be based on the total of all 10 elements.

Rating Elements
  • Action: This is an evaluation on the amount of activity on a site. The more activity there is the higher the rating, because it is a waste of time to use a site where nothing is getting posted. I am only looking at webdev related topics for this score.
  • Range of Topics: This is about the number of web related topics, not necessarily the total number of topics. Diversity is the key here. A couple of client side topics won't get a good score.
  • Interface:This is an evaluation of things like navigation, look and feel, the number and kind of ads, and ease of use. Presentation plays a part but ugly does not lose much if the site is clean functionally. Popups, animations and sound will definitely hurt the score. I'm on these sites for information; not entertainment.
  • Searchability: Users should be able to get commonly asked stuff answered from a search, so this is an evaluation of the quality of the search results, and the search interface. I don't care how fancy the advance search and filters are. If the search cannot return some good threads I learn from for a simple search term then the search is crap.
  • Number of Active Members: Having thousands of members is of little value if only a handful are participating and giving answers. This measure looks at the number of quality postings for questions of varying degree of difficulty, and how many different members are actually posting helpful comments. The keywords are quality and helpful
  • Quality of Community: A forum should do more than just answer question. They should be a place of education where people feel comfortable discussing topics and exposing weaknesses without worry about ridicule. Heated debate is fine and so is criticism; as long as they are educational. Negatives are arrogance, insults, and lack of respect.
  • Quality of Questions: Questions that can be answered by a 10 year old will not produce the kind of high quality answers that a web developer can use. People who hang around sites where there are mostly easy questions for them to answer, probably don't have great skills to offer. So a site with tough questions will get a higher score as long as they get handled and answered.
  • Quality of Answers: This is easy. Are the answers right; are they clear; do they have value for those researching a similar problem? The big negatives are long posts with big words and bullshit that have zero value; and post consisting of code that does not work or links to junk.
  • Spam Levels: If a site has a lot of spam it indicates that the owners of the site have quit caring, and probably the members are not doing much to discourage spammers. Spammers will attempt to post where that can. If it stays up a long time then the site will end up full of crap. If the site allows members to post their own links and does not have limits the forum will start to look like a carnival midway filled with logos and referer links. You can't always prevent spam postings; the measure is how long it stays in the threads.
  • Additional Features: These are bonus points. To get a good score here the site has to offer more than just simple answers to questions. Articles, tools, feeds, tutorials, and good member profiles are all positives. There are also negative "features" like a charge for membership, excessive ads, worthless or out of place "features", poor documentation/help, and a crappy/missing privacy policy.

By the Numbers
Site Actn Topics UI Search Members Comm. Qs Ans Spam Feat.
CodeGuru 4 2 6 3 6 4 3 3 9 3
The limited web related topics and poor quality of both the questions and the answers hurt the ranking. It has been swallowed up by Developer.com network so it does not have much future except to be overrun with ads.
CodingForums 7 8 6 4 7 5 6 8 7 3
The best of the conventional forums; makes the top 5. It would do better if the search produced rellevant results, and maybe a couple of value added features would help.
Experts Exchange 8 7 6 7 8 9 6 9 9 3
This would be number one, but gets killed on features because they are the only one on the list that charges for subscription, and the interface is still a little too slow and quirky. They have quality answers and the community is outstanding, but every other site in the review is free.
HTML Forums 6 5 6 5 5 7 7 7 8 4
This is the definition of average. Middle range numbers accross the board. This is a long establish, consistent forum with a solid involved community. Just hope they do not get swallowed up by one of the preditory networks, because that would probably ruin the site; as it has others.
Quora 9 8 3 10 9 5 5 5 8 5
I can't figure out why some people really like this site. It has a disorganized and chaotic interface. It is filled with stupid questions, and there is no help or guidance. However the search is great and if you are looking for social networking with Q/A maybe this works.
SEO Chat 3 5 7 2 6 3 5 5 8 8
Part of the Devshed network, so like most network forums it is not a great place for Q/A, but the saving grace here are some great SEO tools that are mature and reliable.
Sitepoint 6 5 7 4 7 4 6 7 8 5
Other then a very nice UI this site has little offer, the search sucks and the community seems rather inward looking. The responses are adequate, but it is not a site where you feel like just hanging around.
Spiceworks 6 5 6 5 5 4 7 8 9 2
All the "features" are really a negative, and the community seems rather self important and defensive. There seems little effort to welcome outsiders, and they seem to think what they are doing is important... it's not. The site seems set up to serve site management rather than visitors. Sort of like Digg without a soul.
Stack Overflow 10 10 4 10 9 4 8 5 10 3
I absolutely hate this site, but based on an objective analysis it comes up number one. Crap; I was hoping I could beat up on it. The search is the best of the reviewed forums. It is very active, and there is a lot of member participation. On the downside the UI is freaky. Answering is like standing on a riverbank trying to snag logs as they float by. The community sucks. It is filled with little cliques, of nasty individuals who think they are brainiacs. A lot of questions never get a decent answer.
Yahoo Answers 8 8 6 6 8 6 3 3 5 9
The wide open format is both a strength and weakness. On the plus side it nicely integrates with the portal and attracts a lot of casual members. On the down side, the open format allows a lot of spammy crap to get posted. From the look of the questions and lame answers, a lot of the participation is by 10 year olds.

Logic of the Ratings

I don't claim to be a technical expert, and from the look of the big sites, there is a lot of technical expertise behind them. The ratings are not about technical quality and programming.

I am a user. I am the guy that sites are trying to attract. I care about how easy things are to use; how quickly I can ask or answer a question; how good the answer is; and whether using the site is a chore or a pleasant experienced. I am not interested in learning how to use a site, and I expect things to be intuitive and obvious. So the ratings are from a user's viewpoint. It does not matter if I am asking or answering; the usability issues are the same.

I won't pay to use these kind of sites, but I hate all the crappy ads. The solution is an ad blocker. If that means some of them disappear because the ad money dries up; tough! I don't care about their costs. Find a better revenue source or go down the crapper. I'm not paying, and I'm not going to put up with a lot of junk ads. Sell something to make money instead of getting in my face with crappy ads, or expecting me to pay for stuff that is free all over the web.

Overall Ranking
1 (73/100) Stack Overflow
2 (72/100) Experts Exchange
3 (67/100) Quora
4 (62/100) Yahoo Answers
5 (61/100) Coding Forums
6 (60/100) HTML Forums
7 (59/100) Sitepoint
8 (57/100) Spiceworks
9 (52/100) SEO Chat
10 (43/100) Codeguru

If you don't like the results you could always offer a bribe, but Cd& might not like that. Do your own review. Whine that my results are wrong. Disregard the results from an "unqualified" troll. Who cares? I did a good enough job to get published, and you are just reading and whining; or doing some babbling on your own site where you don't have to deal with an editor who keeps changing things.

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