Finding Treasure in Boards and Forums

Most people turn to the web as a primary information source these days, but there's a lot of great stuff in traditional forums and bulletin board systems—if you know where to look.

You may be familiar with our Search Engine Watch forums, our community of people interested in discussing search engines and search marketing with one another. There are literally thousands of other online forums dedicated to specialized topics, ranging the gamut from astronomy to zymurgy.

Forums can be a great source of information, especially if you're looking for anecdotal information or commentary from experts in a particular field. Watch out, though: Forums also attract lots of people who think they're experts but in reality are just blowhards or fools.

Forums trace their ancestry to bulletin board systems (BBS), which existed for years before the web made its tentative debut in 1990. The first generally recognized BBS was created by Randy Suess and Ward Christensen in 1978. The CBBS (Computer Bulletin Board System) got its start during the Great Chicago Snowstorm of that year.

Suess and Christensen were members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists' Exchange. Christensen had written a program that allowed first generation personal computers to hook up to one another via modem connections. The idea behind CBBS was to create a computerized answering machine and message center which would allow CACHE members to call in with their then-new modems and leave announcements for upcoming meetings.

BBS systems quickly morphed into the familiar forums and boards we see today. BBS: The Documentary offers some fantastic history and links to other resources if you're interested in reading more about the evolution of these systems.

Many forums exist in "gated communities," where you're free to browse, but must be a member to participate. These communities include oldtimers such as the Delphi Forums, and others at large sites such as About, MSN Groups and Yahoo Groups.

Google Groups also has user created content, but it's something of a unique beast. Up until last year, Google Groups was one of the most complete archives of the venerable Usenet, with more than 1 billion posts going back to 1981. In December 2004, Google allowed users to add their own groups, blurring the line between Usenet and Google Groups, a move that made the service less useful and harder to use, in my opinion.

Other forums abound on the web, either associated with a web site, like the search engine watch forums, or as stand-alone communities harking back to the days of the original bulletin board systems.While most search engines crawl forums, they traditionally haven't (and still don't) offer specialized tools or interfaces for limiting your search to forum content.

One exception Lycos Discussion Search, which covers forums, mailing lists and other web communities. Search results include links to messages in communities across the web, but you can also limit your results to Yahoo Groups, MSN Groups, or sites with .org extensions.

Lycos Discussion Search is quite good at allowing you to do keyword searches and then pointing you to relevant forums, but once you visit a forum you'll have to spend time poking around to see if it's worth investigating.

BoardTracker, a relatively new service from Pidgin Technologies in Tel Aviv, goes beyond Lycos Discussion search by offering a number of useful tools. "It scans threads in a 'smart' way extracting only message content while ignoring all surrounding page content including ads, images and links," according to BoardTracker developer Ron Kass.

A basic search allows you to search across the more than 11,000 threads indexed by the service, or you can limit your search to a particular category; you can also browse forum posts by category, something Lycos doesn't offer.

BoardTracker is also up-to-date: scanning and indexing is continuous, so new threads are searchable often within minutes of being posted on a forum.

Once you've found a particular forum of interest, you can also create alerts that send you email or an instant message when a post matching your search terms appears in a forum.

BoardTracker also offers the ability to aggregate your favorite threads from numerous forums in one place, in an area called "My Threads."

Searching and browsing on BoardTracker is free for anyone. To get alerts or forum tracking, you'll need to sign up for a free membership. The service also offers several premium services, including a "spam shrinker" and additional search functionality for a fee.

If you run a forum and would like it to be included in BoardTracker, see the add a board page for more information.

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