Today, Google relaunched several of their help forums, moving them from Google Groups to a new help-specific platform. The English and Polish Google Webmaster Help group have made the move to this new format, with the other languages soon to follow.
Below, more details about how this change will benefit site owners and a bit of history about the start and evolution of the Google Webmaster Help group.
Historically, all official Google discussion forums have operated on Google Groups. While it made sense for Google to use its own products, Groups was initially built for old school email list-style discussions, and didn’t have functionality tailored for a help forum.
The new help forums are built on a platform designed specifically for posting questions and getting answers. They have improved searching functionality, “top contributor” designations, ratings, user levels, and the ability to mark questions as answered. This last feature should make a big difference, both for Googlers and others who want to make the most of their time by zeroing directly in on unanswered questions, as well as for those looking for answers.
How the Google Webmaster Help group began
In the title of this post, I said this this was version 2 of the Google Webmaster Help group, but it’s really version 3. The group originally launched in June 2005 as the Google Sitemaps group. The first few posts were about the Python Sitemap Generator and the Sitemap protocol syntax and there wasn’t a lot of Googler participation. Google Sitemaps itself also launched in June 2005 and the team started out pretty small. The charter was focused on XML Sitemaps, and didn’t have the larger scope it has now of helping webmasters will all crawling, indexing, and ranking related issues.
I had just started working on the team in those days and we found the discussions on the groups to be really valuable in knowing what issues people were having and heping us prioritize what to work on. We didn’t have a blog yet, so we used the group to communicate updates like this one. (I think this may have been my first post to the group.)
Expanding beyond Google Sitemaps
In August of 2006, Google Sitemaps officially expanded its charter and became Webmaster Central. Google Sitemaps became Webmaster Tools, the Google Sitemaps blog became the Google Webmaster Central blog (again, with expanded focus), we launched the webmaster help center, and the Sitemaps group became a subcategory of a larger Google Group that included categories for lots of other site owner issues.
Some great things came out of that revamp. The new categorization made it easier for people to find exactly what they were looking for and we were able to take advantage of other features, such as the ability to display a Googler icon next to our names when we posted. Rather than a faceless “Google Employee”, you got to see each of us separately. That poor “Google Employee” really had a split personality!
Expansion of languages and people
Lots of great things happened during this period. The groups expanded from 2 languages (English and German) to 16 as Googlers from around the globe (in particular from Dublin) started getting involved. Maile Ohye (in Mountain View) moved to the team to help with Sitemaps support and coding (and eventually took on a lot more) and we created a webmaster trends analyst position, intended specifically to help out site owners. This brought the additions of Jonathan Simon, Susan Moska (both in Kirkland), and John Mueller (in Zurich) to the team.
The bionic posters program was launched to show recognition to active and friendly posters, and acknowledged that the groups worked as well as they did because members, not just Googlers, were helping each other out.
A lot of people helping out in the various language groups were all new to that kind of thing and we got a lot of help from those who were experienced with the Google Groups support ropes, such as Jaime.
What about the new forum?
To use the new forum, you’ll have to register and set up a profile, even if you had one before on the old system. Susan told me that the transition seems to be going smoothly, but that it’s a work in progress and they welcome feedback. Sasch Mayer, one of the “bionic posters” wrote that this is a “much-needed technological upgrade” and that “indeed, given the ever-growing number of Googlers regularly frequenting the group, Webmaster Help can now safely be counted as the best place to get your website questions answered by Google’s own staff.”
I admit to being a bit partial to the Google Webmaster Help forums since I helped them grow and worked closely with the great people who staff them. But it also makes me happy that Microsoft Live Search and Yahoo also staff forums, where site owner questions are regularly answered. I know first hand how difficult it is to provide technical support for the entire web and every improvement like today’s by Google makes a big difference towards that goal.