Weighing in on a site’s re-design

One of the sites I regularly visit has had a rather interesting set of discussions going on over the last couple of weeks.  To be fair, it’s been ongoing for a few months, but it’s really picked up steam in the last few.  That site is Techsideline.com (TSL).  It’s an unofficial sports-centric site for Virginia Tech fans.  I won’t go into the history of the site, but suffice it to say, it’s been around since 1997 (interestingly enough, going live on my birthday – March 12, 1996).

Will Stewart is the founder, and over the years, it’s been my default go-to for any major sports-related news about VT.  The main feature of the site (I think) has been the message boards, allowing a community of dispersed fans to come together and share our thoughts on the state of the program.  The subscriber’s-only material featuring in-depth thoughts, reviews, break-downs, etc is excellent, and to me, worth the price of admission.

On January 11, 2012, Will debuted a major re-design of the site.  To say that the re-design was met with hostility would be an understatement of epic proportions.  Many of the “old dogs” absolutely hated the new forums.  Enough disliked it that Will’s page-views dropped by 30%, and he received many emails from disgruntled folks that said they were leaving because they no longer liked the site – they refused to “upgrade” to the newer forums.  Subsequently, his ad revenues have dropped.

The “old” site used what’s known as “threaded” (or what I call “nested”) forums.  This was a hand-coded solution from way back in the day, before forum software such as PHPbb and vBulletin were available.  To bring the site forward, he upgraded to vBulletin – a solid choice given the number of users and the additional professional support provided by vB.  The problem lies in the fact that nearly every major bulletin package out there now uses “linear” format.  Linear is as it’s name suggests, a linear flow of discussions.

The major difference between the two is that threaded formats tend to be more like emails – subject & message, and can be displayed as a “stair-step” view.  This lends itself to quick “one-liners” where the subject is the message and then that’s it.  Linear encourages more in-depth discussions, and if you want to “reply” to someone else’s post, you usually hit “reply with quote” to start a “sub-discussion”.  The newest posts are always at the end of the individual topic.

So after ten years, it’s easy to see why the shift from threaded to linear would be met with such derision.  Will managed to get a plugin on VB to display a “threaded view” (Threaded Overlay, actually) to appease those sticks in the mud, but it doesn’t seem to be helping with his site traffic and such.  Now, Will & his staff are trying to gain feedback on what to do.  They’re toying with the notion of just sucking it up and moving ahead as is, bringing back the old stuff in a limited format, or scrapping everything and bringing back the old format entirely.  The vast majority (or at least the most vocal) seem to prefer the old format.