Google’s Specialized Forum and Discussion Thread Search Results

Sometimes when you perform a search at Google, you may notice that search results shown from some forums might include additional information, such as how many posts are in a thread, how many authors participated, and when the last post was made, like in the following search snippet:

a Google search result from a forum, which shows information about the discussion thread in addition to the content from the thread, such as the number of posters and the date of the last post.

If you’ve seen those types of results and wondered why Google might include that kind of information, you’re not alone. I’ve been wondering as well.

A recent Google patent application provides some details on why Google is showing that kind of information, how they identify discussion threads, and the kinds of information they may potentially show in search results.

Providing Posts to Discussion Threads in Response to a Search Query
Invented by Tomislav Nad and Jonathan Wilson
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20100030753
Published February 4, 2010
Filed: July 31, 2009

According to the patent filing, the kinds of information that might be shown from a discussion thread could include:

  • Times when most of the posts were made on the discussion forum,
  • Authors that posted most of the posts.
  • Number of authors that posted,
  • When the most recent post was made,
  • Number of posts made by the same author, and;
  • Number of replies to posts.

The real question though, is why? Why show a different kind of search result when it involves a “discussion thread?”

We’re told that one advantage of showing this kind of result is that it provides a searcher with an “integrated view of a discussion thread that may include many relevant posts, which might otherwise be shown as scattered web pages in the results provided by the search engine.”

So, rather than separate posts from a discussion thread, and treat them as if they were separate pages in search results, Google is highlighting the fact that a search result is from a discussion from a number of authors and may contain more than one relevant result to a query.

It’s also possible in some instances that Google may also show links to additional discussion threads on the same forum under the first snippet that may also be relevant to what a searcher was looking for.

The patent filing also provides us with a fairly wide definition of what a discussion thread might be, including:

  • A blog that can receive comments from viewers;
  • A threaded discussion in which messages that share a common theme such as a subject,
  • A micro-blog in which “users send brief updates that include text, audio, images, and the like, for publishing.”
  • and the like.

We’re also given some hints about what Google might look for to determine whether or not a page it has found on the web might be a discussion thread.

One of the criteria the search engine may look for is the appearance of certain keywords that appear upon a page, such as “forum,” “subject,” “thread,” “post,” “posted by,” “reply,” and so on.

Another signal that might be used involves looking at the structure of the web page, to see if it is “characteristic of pages that include posts to discussion threads.” Those could include dates and times when posts were made, user names associated with those posts, links back to a forum home page, and similar indications that a page is hosting a discussion.

Conclusion

It’s not unusual to see search results containing maps, images, news, blog results, and other kinds of information taken from many of Google’s vertical searches such as Google Maps and Google News. If you haven’t looked at Google’s specialized search for Groups, you may not have seen that they not only include “Google Groups” (and old usenet group) threads, but also results from forums across the Web, which use the kinds of search snippets described in this patent filing.

One of the most interesting aspects of this patent filing is the definition of “discussion thread,” which looks like it not only would include forums, but could include blogs with comments and microblogs. That could be something to possibly watch out for in the future.

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25 thoughts on “Google’s Specialized Forum and Discussion Thread Search Results”

  1. Hi Bill!

    In essence it would seem, Google want to provide ALL of our content on their own pages.. Google want to actually BE the internet? Jokes aside, If Google are analysing this information it could be a very good way to filter out forum post spam from the search results by only returning posts by ‘established members’, posts with replies.

    OK, on their own it’s not much, but if you start mixing all of the stats together you could probably filter out the majority of spam. I think showing the author who posted the most is a bit pointless from a general search point of view!

  2. Google Enhancing Search Results for Forums ?

    I just noticed that Google is adding a strip of info which includes the number of posts, number of post authors, and the time/date of the last post to the top of search results pointing to forum threads/posts.

    So far I’ve seen it for VBullitin and phpBB3 forums, including Ozzu.

  3. This is a question I’ve asked myself before and you’ve answered it for me clearly. Thank you very much. Google seem to always have a reason behind everything they do. Well, it follows because they’re GOOGLE.

  4. An interesting scoop here might be the way that forums can be used to dominate search in a blackhat manner, it will introduce a new kind of SERP spam.

    Obviously google will need to come up with a way of rating the different forums and the posts that live on them but part of the evolution of this process will no doubt be driven by someone buying an old pr4 domain for $40 and throwing a forum up on there, automate the post process to make it look really busy with some robotic authors and your are away!

  5. Hi mopclub,

    I’m not sure when I first saw Google providing information such as the number of posts in a discussion thread that they linked to, but it does seem to have been something that started happening within the last year or two.

    What I really thought was interesting from the patent filing was the rationale that they provided for giving us that information – providing a single link, possibly with a snippet for the relevant post, and the chance for a searcher to see the entire thread rather than breaking each post to a thread into a separate search result.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    You’re welcome. I’m not sure that every answer we get about why Google might do something that they do is always going to be a good one, but I think you’re right that there is always some kind of motivation behind why they do things the way they do them.

  7. Hi Jimmy,

    There are some potential risks with indexing any pages, and ways that people aiming at manipulating search results might find to attack the algorithms in use. I pointed to Yahoo’s approach for ranking user generated content a couple of comments ago, and it discusses some ways that a search engine might attempt to gauge the quality of content in discussion forums. It wouldn’t be a surprise of Google has been considering some similar approaches, that might analyze the content that they see within forums.

  8. Hi Web Design Horsham,

    We are seeing more information show up in search results that people would have otherwise had to go to the site listed in search results to see. Not sure that Google’s aim is to provide “all” of our content on their pages, but I’ll agree that there may be times when it feels like that.

    I do like that they are providing information about discussion threads that we might visit, including the numbers of posts involved. I’m not sure that it’s extremely helpful to include the name of an author of a post in most instances, either. But, you may be right that may be part of an algorithm that could lead towards understanding and ranking user generated content based in part upon who the person making a post might have been (as well as identifying spam). A little like what Yahoo described recently in a patent filing they came up on ranking user generated content, which I wrote about in this post:

    How Search Engines May Rank User Generated Content

    Interesting how some processes from different search engines can overlap in some interesting ways, isn’t it?

  9. The additional search result will give some new perspective from if the reader is a “heavy researcher” – a person who really goggling to do a research (academia, librarian sort of thing).

    On the other hand most of the time for casual users will annoyed. I have opinion, it’s one of Google way to teach the society (and competitors) that we have to find further to get more result.

  10. Hi ignandy,

    I’m not sure how showing additional information about a forum thread, and the fact that multiple posts and people posting to those threads will annoy people. It might help someone researching, but I’m also not sure that they need to be a heavy researcher to benefit from that information.

  11. I think some novice net users get scared off by any sight of forums and the like, so surely there should be an option to display this information?

  12. Hi William,

    Forums can sometimes be intimidating, but I do like the idea that you know before you click a link in the search results that what you are about to see is a forum discussion.

  13. Another interesting post that shows Google’s increasing understanding of Social Content, and also the relative merits of this content. How, exactly, this understanding is beginning to affect the placement of results in the SERPs is something that all SEOs need to have an increasing understanding of.

    I’m reading this blog with a lot of curiosity, as this understanding is crucial to the company I work for, where we’re involved in a new service that we call ‘Social SEO’

    Keep up the good work.

  14. Hi Michael,

    I’m not so sure. Forums have been around on the Web for many years, as has social content. This particular patent filing isn’t so much about how well a thread in a forum might rank, but rather how best to display that thread as a result in search results.

    Thanks.

  15. i think google just wants to supply as much information as they can supply the surfer with the most amount of data to see if its actually what they need or what they may be looking for.

    R

  16. Hi Rick,

    I think that’s a good presumption. By giving potential visitors an idea that they may be visiting a discussion thread instead of an article or blog post, Google is giving searchers some indication of what they might see before they actually click through. I think it’s helpful that they do.

  17. Thanks for the tip. Time to beef up the discussion threats scattered throughout my sites as an afterthought.

  18. Hi jjray7,

    You’re welcome. It’s possible that an approach like this one might lead to more forum results getting traffic from visitors who might be interested in discussions on specific topics – especially if there’s a chance of participating in those discussions.

  19. I like it that Google differentiates search results by type. It makes it easy for me. Generally, I like forum threads and find them incredibly helpful more often than not and would like them differentiated from other search results listings.

    It would not be hard for Google to filter out low-quality forum threads from search results. Something simply like word-count per OP or average post is a start (avoid the threads like “congratulations”, “welcome”, etc.)

  20. Hi Peter,

    I like how those forum posts are displayed in Google’s search results as well.

    Good point on filtering out some threads from search results. I suspect that some of that filtering is going on, and that the kinds of signals that you mention drive it in part. I would guess that the “reputation” or post counts or some other signals involving members posting in specific threads could even possibly play a role there as well.

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