Firstly I’m so pleased to see you using Discourse!
I will try to post some feedback as I use the forum but here is my first question/feedback - why are topics being closed one month after their last reply?
One of the best things about forums is the timeless nature and long-term value of threads, meaning threads can help people many many years after they have been posted. Locking them after a month makes it more difficult for people to jump into conversations and can either end up withe them creating duplicate (and unnecessary) threads on the same or similar topic (which is also bad for SEO) and also make the barrier to posting higher, resulting in more frustration in posting and therefore less participation.
I think thread closures on a forum like this should probably reflect versions and how long a thread might be relevant (how long each major webmin/virtualmin install is current may be a good measure here). I have often found threads (on the old forum) posted 5 years ago that were still relevant and the natural place to continue a discussion.
With all that said, I would suggest changing this setting to 3 years at the minimum or even leaving it off for now, and when you find ‘outdated’ threads being posted in use that information to decide what an appropriate cut off time might be
It is to prevent people from reviving ancient threads with unrelated issues, which was extremely common before. Folks would see a sort of similar problem discussed long after the original had been resolved (either via fixing a bug or just by having the solution posted), and having it revived led to crazily long threads about several different issues, impossible to follow, and impossible to drop in on, answer quickly and then move on to other topics.
Starting a new topic is free. If a problem remains and it was not sufficiently discussed to resolution in the past, it is fine to start the conversation again.
It may be reflective of my own bias: I hate conversations that go off the rails and change topics multiple times. I simply can’t follow. I get confused and give up. I’m trying to skim and answer as many questions as I can in the very limited time I have to spend on the forums…if a topic has thirty replies, I’m probably not gonna have time to help. If it has thirty replies and five different problems, I’m definitely not gonna be able to help. Thus, we close topics after 30 days.
I’m willing to discuss the length of topic life…not willing to disable it. And, definitely not gonna make it years long. Unless there’s some other way to keep people focused on one problem per topic, I don’t know what else to do.
You’re assuming it’s more common for these old zombie threads to actually be the same or similar. They almost never are; people search for an error, find a thread that looks maybe similar, and don’t bother to read the whole conversation before responding with “I have the same problem, how do I fix it?” when their problem is actually completely different and they assumed that because it looked the same to them they don’t need to provide any details of how they got to the problem they do have.
And, I don’t care about SEO. I care about solving people’s problems and making the software better.
Firstly I want to say I hear your pain, I have been managing online communities for a long time (with several the largest in their respective sectors) so I definitely see where you are coming from. Hopefully some of my experience will be of interest or help to you (after all, I only want what’s best for you and Virtualmin).
This is indeed an issue… but, you are now using one of the best forum platforms around - and it has excellent support for:
The flagging of off-topic posts
Community moderation (people at trust level 3 can help with certain things)
Great support for mod teams
Therefore maybe the following could be worth considering?
Put up some forum guidelines (eg, please make sure threads remain on topic)
Put together a mod team of volunteers
The guidelines would not only help users in general, but also mods and those at Trust level 3 (who are more likely to be helping maintain the forum).
I think there could be many people who would like to help moderate the forum in order to try and ‘give something back’, and here I would suggest a larger team to help spread the load. The important thing is to make the guidelines simple so that moderators can easily follow them and help out when and as they get time.
I totally understand this. You are a very busy team and ideally you want more focused threads, especially those where people are seeking help.
So maybe it could be an idea to create dedicated sections for thread types. Discourse has good support for this and a quick suggestion is something like this:
Virtualmin (set as category - cannot be posted in - but visiting it will show all of the threads in its sections as listed below)
And repeat this for Cloudmin, Webmin and any other product which is a standalone product (or one that someone may use exclusively). People could visit the main category to see all of the threads, or just a sub-category to see just those threads.
This would enable you to change the auto-lock time per thread (and where I would guess questions would be locked with the shortest time-frame, follow by discussions and then announcements - tho again, the latter two could be left open much longer). This means you could prioritise the threads you take part in too, perhaps checking on the questions section most frequently and the discussions sections when you feel like catching up on them
One thing I have learned is that there aren’t any hard and fast rules that apply universally because each community is different, and you’ll only really know what works best for you after experimentation.
I suspect part of the reason for this is because it was more of a chore to post new threads on the old forum, but that’s less of an issue here, and so I would say keep an open mind and try not letting the old forum activity influence you too much (obviously much will be relevant, but just keeping in mind that platforms can influence activity too).
That’s actually the reason to care about SEO Joe - because it:
Helps ensure people can quickly and easily find an answer to their question if that question has already been posted - as a quick google search is more like to result in an answer
Prevent duplicate threads
Mean there is less work for you because the threads here are helping ensure people get an answer without having to post their question (so means less threads for you to read/respond to making better use of your and your teams time).
SEO friendly threads (non-dupes, properly title threads etc) really do offer huge benefits to a forum, especially one like this.
Does that make sense Joe? Ultimately you have to decide what you feel is best for you and your community here, but hopefully you’ll think some of the above are worth considering - and remember that it’s not only ok to experiment, it’s actually necessary to help set the forum up so that it works for you as well and as efficiently as it can.
I guess I wasn’t clear on this one: If we’re funneling everyone with an Apache problem to a single very highly ranked Apache thread in our forum, it sucks. It’s literally the worst possible situation. We want people to find their actual problem when they search, not the single thread that has 200 replies covering a dozen different problems (which is what happened in the past) and ranks highly because it talks about everything. SEO is great if it gets people to their actual specific problem, but in my experience that’s not what happens…people search for a problem with the same keywords but simply isn’t the same, but because they don’t understand the problem well enough to know that, they revive the thread and force the thread to also be about their new problem.
SEO doesn’t mean that anymore Joe, it’s more about ensuring your threads are properly indexed for their actual content - not to cook the results so that any vaguely connected search is funnelled through here (search engines are a lot smarter than they used to be so have wised up to a lot of that now - but they still need help).
That’s what good SEO is all about
This is unlikely to happen nowadays. Search engines are a lot smarter than they were and generally threads that are too broad, duplicates, poorly titled, etc, do not rank well. This is also going to be more prevalent over time as search engines become even smarter.
This is where guidelines and moderation comes in, specifically, thread titles - they need to be a fairly accurate summary of the thread, i.e what the user should expect to find in it and how search engines should index it (so they know when to send people to it in future) and each thread remaining on-topic (so that the title remains an accurate reflection of its title) are two of the most important things. (Other things like high quality replies/less spammy posts etc are important too.)
I personally think my suggestion above about Categories with sub-categories, allowing you to lock question-type sections sooner, may be the sweet-spot for you and the community here… but ultimately you know the forum and community best and I’m sure you’ll find what works best for you over time. I hope my insight has been helpful to you in some way though
Please feel free to lock or delete this thread as I don’t want to take up too much of your time - I know how busy you can get as I’ve see you on the forums in the past! Thanks again for taking the time to reply too.
But, this assertion is incompatible with your initial claim that by closing threads we’re hurting SEO!
Both of these things cannot be true:
Search engines can tell the difference between subtly different problems that have a lot of the same keywords.
Search engines punish us for having “duplicate” content that is different problems but has a lot of the same keywords.
Either they’re really good at understanding this or they aren’t. I think it’s somewhere in the middle…but, I’m not willing to accept having the forum be full of a handful of constantly revived zombie threads, sometimes years or decades old, in exchange for the hope that it will prevent Google punishing us for “duplicates”. I’m not gonna try to guess what search engines are going to think of our several thousand different (and maybe a few dupes) Virtualmin+Apache problems…I can’t, and it changes all the time. And, even if the second is more true than the first, we already have thousands of “dupes” by that measure. We can’t solve it. I’m not gonna delete thousands of posts to avoid duplicate-seeming content.
But, I think your idea for more effectively cultivating moderators and empowering them to help us keep the place neat and tidy is a great one. We had moderators on the old forum, but they were never very active except some spam deletions. The new forum has much better spam filtering (Akismet, plus just plain better tools for handling abusive users), but also much better human moderation capabilities. And, our two users with the highest ranking do contribute lots of reports (and I’m grateful to them for it).
But, one thing I don’t think it has is the ability to split a comment off into its own topic, which is what we need to exist for me to be willing to disable the auto-lock feature. Thread hijacking makes me too grouchy to tolerate it, even at the possible expense of other benefits. But maybe there’s a plugin or something for that…I’ll look into it.
Haha, I knew you were gonna say that (but was trying to keep my post short).
I’m not sure how subtle the differences need to be for them to form a meaningful opinion, but most now will be able to determine if a thread is too broad, i.e where most posts do not reflect the title and that the thread doesn’t really have a strong anchor.
It’s more about the same topic being posted multiple times. What I meant by that was that by closing threads users will inevitably need to post the same topic in another thread if the original thread was the exact same problem but the solution in it did not help them.
You may have noticed on Stack Overflow that questions get lots of ‘answers’ and you often find comments saying that the marked solution didn’t help them but another one did.
It doesn’t have to be that on this forum, as you can vary that time depending on category/thread-type etc (as per my suggestion). And it’s not just about whether Google punishes you or not, it’s about improving the experience for your users too - if they have to wade through lots of different threads before finding an answer it will be time consuming and frustrating, though I appreciate it can be all about balance.
I would probably look at it more from a user’s perspective. Personally I think how a forum works for a user should trump most other things, however I understand that the forums need to be manageable for the forum teams too - so there’s always a compromise, and only you can decide where that line is drawn. My advice would be to make decisions based on making the forum as easy and pleasant for the user first and foremost if at all possible.
I would personally archive the old forum rather than import it here (or if it’s already here, put it in an archived forum, perhaps per category if need be) like you said, a lot of those threads are a mess and it would take up too much of your time. I am actually in the process of doing similar on a forum with millions of posts.
Moderating is a hard, thankless task unfortunately. I have no idea how healthy Virtualmin is financially, but if you can, paid support staff may be a good option for you, perhaps in conjunction with volunteers too - I am sure there are lots who would like to help, and my guess is, on this forum, you will probably find they may want to do it sporadically. For instance in my own case and with my available time it would probably be that if I come here to post a question, I would like to spend some time to moderate* while I am here too, perhaps while waiting for an answer.
*What I mean by moderate is more about general housekeeping, i.e going through threads and editing titles so that they are more descriptive etc. (People at TL3 can do this btw, but I advise you post some guidelines for what you want them to do or not do. Also unfortunately, TL3 may not be of that much help here as it is based on continual activity, so what you might find more helpful is to identify users who you ‘trust’ and make them TL4 (‘leaders’) they have less powers than mods, but can still do a lot.
No need for a plugin, it’s built in
Go to a thread, click on the spanner (towards top right) click on select posts, then choose what you would like to do with them
Never! I have never left behind a forums old threads through 15 years and five different forum/CMS tools (OpenACS, Joomla plus a bridged in forum, Drupal 6, Drupal 7, and now Discourse).
And, I don’t want to add more categories. It’s just too much for casual users. New users already post in the wrong category about half the time. Sometimes I think to move it to the right one.
You’re right! That is so not intuitive. I’ve looked for that feature a bunch of times…but, since it exists, I’ll give a try to not auto-closing topics so quickly. Thanks for pointing this out! I’ve even googled this question a couple of times, and tied poking around a bunch and never stumbled on the right incantations to make it happen. This was one of the big things bugging me about Discourse (which is already much better than we have any right to expect free software to be).
SEO on a forum like this is nearly worthless. Most of the time the problem is answered before the SEO even ranks high enough to be found. By the time you find it in the search engines, it’s closed and either answers the question you have because it’s a short, to the point thread or as Joe mentioned earlier it’s a long, multi-topic thread that you can’t makes heads or tails out of.
Well you don’t have to leave them behind, just archive them seriously tho, I would weigh up whether they are worth keeping active depending on how useful that might be. Given everything you’ve said and what I’ve seen of the old forums… I might be inclined to archive them and use this as an opportunity to start afresh. (Although I am assuming that you’d want to make some changes to the forum - perhaps some like those I suggested - otherwise maybe there isn’t much pointing archiving the old threads).
If Categories are done right it should be ‘okay’. For example, here, I would remove the category descriptions - the titles themselves should be self-explanatory and the descriptions just make the drop downs too busy/confusing. Generally the forum should feel natural and intuitive to use, and you can’t get much clearer than a category title. (Having said that, there will always be people who put things in the wrong category - but that’s where moderation and housekeeping comes in, also, categories are not just useful for posting, they are useful for browsing too.)
Of course some of these things may need to tie in to the main site too, so it all depends on what your vision is for the forum and how you want it to tie into the main site, etc.
Discourse is pretty different from most go the other platforms, but you do get used to it after a while
SEO is good if you want threads to work for you over and over and over again. If you just want a ‘chat’ style forum, where people should post their questions regardless of whether they’ve already been asked/answered, then yes, SEO does not matter.
Haha they are definitely not perfect but we will have to agree to disagree. I manage a number of technical forums and people often comment at how as if by magic whenever they search for a problem they get directed to the forum as the first/top result.
This is very much down to our relentless focus on ensuring our standards (inc SEO standards) remain high.
Either way it’s up to you how you manage your site and ultimately up to Joe and the team here what they want for their forum here. I just wanted to share my thoughts as I feel they might prove helpful (because I respect Joe and the team here very much and want the forum and Virtualmin to succeed).
In theory, yes. But not always. When searching for a particular phrase (such as an unusual error message truncated to omit server-specific information), nine times out of ten it will tell me there are no results for the phrase in quotes, and instead provide results for the phrase without quotes.
More often than not, the first ten or so pages of those results will be merely close to my search phrase; but there on the eleventh or so page will be the exact phrase I searched for: which means that the message that there were no results for that phrase in quotes was wrong.
Search engine algorithms are to an extent an AI-driven popularity contest, which is fine for most queries. So is correction in most cases. If I search for “frisky cat food,” chances are that I meant to search for “friskies cat food.” But there needs to be some option for exact searches when precision is vital, such as most coding and configuration-related searches.
Google Verbatim is close to good, but no cigar. For example, search for
You see the difference? The original search was for the phrase with a semicolon before “localhost.localdomain,” but the results include those for the same phrase with a comma in that position. That’s not a trivial error. That semicolon could very well be the reason why the user’s mail isn’t working. But Google, even using quotes and Verbatim, considers it unimportant and ignores it.
There also needs to be an option to use Verbatim by default because as imperfect as it is, it’s still better than Google without Verbatim.
I’m not just picking on Google, mind you. As I said in the post I deleted because it was too angry in tone, all search engines suck when what you want are the results for exactly what you searched for. All of them. Every last one.
It seems to me that it would be a pretty easy option to offer: Just disable all the AI that attempts to “help” users find what they’re looking for, and let the results be what they are. But alas, there is no search engine I know of that offers that option.