Guestbooks, message boards, chatrooms and all things interactive: a lesson in online quality control

by Jason SalasMonday, October 01, 2001

If you manage a highly-trafficked site, your interactives are key applications to your success...don't let them be what kills you in the market


Perhaps you’ve heard of a company called Yahoo. It’s only the largest and most respected search engine on the Web. And in a marketplace where literally hundreds of new sites in direct competition with it popup every few months, Yahoo has maintained its position as the world’s top online search service, because of one simple business principle: quality control in its operations.

In an age where advanced technologies and process automation make practically any activity that can be conducted over the Internet and/or Web fully automated, free from human supervision, Yahoo has been legendary in relying on simple human ingenuity (and sweat) to make its index of sites as precise as possible.

First, Yahoo’s main focus is relying on sites suggested by online users, organizing them categorically according to their content to make up its search index.  Pages are then evaluated for their validity, and if genuine (i.e., not being entered as “The world’s best online source for financial advice and planning”, only to trick the search engine into displaying an unwanted smut material site) are added to Yahoo’s index of pages. The secret to Yahoo’s success is that it’s not a computer the qualifying the information, but a team of human beings…something mind-boggling in today’s environment of 1’s and 0’s. What results is arguably the Web’s most accurate listing of pages. Amazon.com uses a similar process for posting user-generated book reviews, in which their site producers, editors, and interns filter through the content manually for content that may be of an unwanted nature.  This is in sharp contrast to the almost universal method of populating a search engine...by relying on user-generated page URLs.  Needless to say, this is prone to error and deception.

Interactive online applications such as chatrooms, guestbooks, and message boards are great from a user’s perspective because it gives them something to do while on a Web site. This embraces the true genius of the World Wide Web in not just information delivery one-sided, being pushed onto the consumer without reciprocation. And the companies that have intelligently woven interactive features directly into the core competencies of their site (for example, a software company that makes its technicians available in videoconference chatrooms 24 hours a day) are really doing it right. And from a Web developer’s standpoint, implementing interactives are great tools…they build traffic, are easy to set up, and are generally low-to-no maintenance once up and running.

But therein lies the problem.

Recently, a local radio station announced that it would make a grand announcement of a programming change for its rock-oriented station. Apparently, much of this was due to the fact that its own message board service contained several libelous comments posted by members of the site’s online community, citing their displeasure in some of the songs on the station’s playlist, and many in extreme fashion. Comments that apparently ranged from, according to a DJ, “constructive criticism to the just downright rude.” He did touch on a very key concept, though: that change is inevitable.  And this is extremely important.

And last year the moderately-popular, pseudo-media Auntie Charo Web site was forced into removing its “Ginen Hamyo” guestbook, after legal intervention on behalf of Norbert Perez and Debbie Bordallo forced the site to cease operations after several days and a barrage of damaging comments were posted from a variety of people obviously not too fond of Guam’s “Royal Couple.”

In both cases, the free-rein nature of the message boards combined with the anonymity of the Web allowed people to post pretty much anything - in any vernacular - causing outrageously vulgar and alarmingly violent sentiments to be posted. And when people who took offense to comments “yelled” back the problem escalated, snowballing into an online war of words, not really staying on the intended discussions anymore but being annoying and making a general mess.

This implies poor quality control…yet at the same time, it’s unavoidable. If you manage a site that has a large return audience and utilize interactives on your site, such conditions are inevitable. The three industries on Guam that manage the most highly-trafficked sites: news media companies, Internet service providers, and radio stations all make liberal uses of interactives and undoubtedly have run into this problem in the course of their online lives.

When I worked at IT&E, an important part of all our meetings for our Product Engineering and Web R&D groups for Talaya Internet Services was how to prevent people from posting nasty, offensive, hurtful, or otherwise damaging remarks to our site, which just wasn’t appropriate. Of chief importance in our minds was building a consistently high return userbase by developing features that they could use all the time, but not get us into hot water by people posting all sorts of junk. So we developed fun interactives like Virtual Postcards and our Classifieds Corner with cuss-proof algorithms built into them to rule out the used of vulgarity. But in lieu of coupling the programmatically-constructed security methods with appropriate monitoring techniques, people found a way around them. They always do. And we got lots of bad comments sent to us about how we could let such filth make its way onto - and stay on - our site. Most of the time, we didn’t even know it was there.

For KUAM.COM, our philosophy is to develop services that people can use all the time, like our Community Sounding Board, Community Commentary, Familiar Faces, MyInteractive Poll, i94-FM Island Greetings, and many others, in addition to countless avenues on our site by which we encourage people to send us feedback and let us know what they think of our online efforts. However, when putting the resultant information up online we take a different approach, utilizing more human effort than computerized automation.

For example, in our weekly Sounding Boards, we can ask people to write their feelings about what their favorite flavor of ice cream is, and we’ll still get at least 10% of the comments lashing out at GovGuam; some creatively linking the Gutierrez Administration to a particular flavor of ice cream, some just outright bashing the Governor himself. So, we have mandated since Day 1 since launching the new KUAM.COM that we practice quality control in all our interactives. We manually review each and every message, comment, and posting prior to putting it permanently on the Web. If we run across anything that we feel isn’t in the best interest of the discussion at hand, or violates our Terms of Service, we reject the message. Sure, this way takes longer and isn’t completely automatic, but what results are better and more productive content, which fosters growth, builds audience loyalty, and thus strengthens an online community.

It’s not about who’s got the more savvy developers, or which company is more community-centric…it’s more about applying proper planning and having the foresight to expect this kind of thing to happen sooner or later, and then implementing the right tools and processes to deal with it when it inevitably does happen. And that isn’t to say that here at KUAM.COM we’re without flaw ourselves...we’ve had to make lots of changes over the last two years, go back on our plans, change direction, and be extremely flexible to accommodate what our users want to see, and provide that information to them in a manner that’s both convenient and entertaining for them.

It’s not about who’s got the more savvy developers, or which company is more community-centric…it’s more about applying proper planning and having the foresight to expect this kind of thing to happen sooner or later, and then implementing the right tools and processes to deal with it when it inevitably does happen.
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