August 04 2014 10:45AM
This isn't my usual type of post by any means, and I ultimately can't tell someone how to run their own website, but I feel like an outlet with a lot of reach and viewership should probably be called out if people are oblivious to a serious issue involving them. So today, let's talk about HFBoards and link bias.
What is HFBoards?
HFBoards is the biggest hockey message board on the internet, by a significant margin*. It has 130,000 members, over a million threads, and nearly 60 million posts, which actually makes it one of the biggest forums ever created on any topic. It's no GaiaOnline or 4Chan, but it's certainly up there.
The HF in HFBoards stands for "Hockey's Future", a prospect information site of decent notoriety. The two sites spent years as brother and sister sites on different domains, but the boards have since been moved under a subdomain of Hockey's Future.
HFBoards is owned by CraveOnline Media, LLC, a male-oriented content publishing network that owns several sites, and itself a subsidiary of EvolveMedia, LLC. They are not a small group of hockey fans at the top by any means, nor have they been for the bulk of their near fifteen year existence.
* Reddit's /r/hockey sub-section has more members, but isn't really a message board.
What is the problem?
The policy has not changed from its previous incarnation. Readers can link to any content they please; only content creators must seek Partnership if they wish to self promote.
I'm one of those people who searches themselves on the Internet. People call the move egomaniacal, but truthfully, I just want to see what kind of reach my content has and get feedback that I'm not usually getting. HFBoards is one of the places that I check; people occasionally talk about my articles, not to mention the fact that used to be very active on there (and still pop in every now and then).
Yesterday, I went on a search to see if anybody linked to any recent posts here on TheLeafsNation.com. By "went on a search", I mean I typed "theleafsnation" into their search box. The most recent post I found about us was in a thread titled "Under the Shannyscope", which linked to this article (which I haven't yet read and don't have an opinion on as such).
At least, it used to. The link was edited out, and a staff member, who once claimed to have been the one to discover Nikolai Kulemin and that Jeremy Williams was going to be an elite sniper, had this to say:
tl;dr - If a site isn't MSM, or signed up to the HFBoards Partner Program, it is against the rules to post about them.
Why is this bad?
This rule made a bit of sense in an earlier incarnation, where posters weren't allowed to link to their own websites. This stopped users from coming onto the site for the express purpose of promotion, and getting overly annoying with their links. It was to stop people like sixteen year old me from flooding them with bad content in exchange for a few extra clicks, especially if your site was a message board. Truthfully, I was guilty of this in the past, and that was one of the reasons I was once banned from the site.
The Partner Program offered what seemed like a fair compromise. It was free, and once your site was vetted by the staff, you gained the ability to promote yourself as long as you linked back to HFBoards. Of course, if you weren't a member or were but never promoted yourself, your readers were more than welcome to cite you as a means of creating discussion, and nobody batted an eyelash. This allowed quality content to get exposure to more hockey fans, and created better discussion on a venue that needed it. The entire system was win-win.
The new rule gets rid of the reader element. It doesn't matter what your affiliation with the linked website is anymore; you're simply not allowed to post it unless it's on an authorized list. This is ridiculous.
First and foremost, it creates an automatic conclusion on which sites are "quality content" which ones aren't. If you don't have the the seal of approval, you're automatically considered unreliable and invalid by a resource that, like it or not, is used by 130,000 registered readers and likely a solid million more. As well, HFBoards gears to a bit of a younger demographic that is still learning the ins and outs of the NHL; most people I know that have registered created their accounts in their teenage years, a trend which continues to this day.
It doesn't matter if your content is on TSN.ca or superdupermegafunhockeyblog.blogspot.ca (if it doesn't exist, here's your chance to start it). Good content is good content, and bad is bad. It's undeniable that the mainstream outlet has the higher chance of getting read, but "likeliness to be read" isn't a measure of quality. If someone stumbles upon your post and likes it, and thinks others will too, it shouldn't be written off because it's not on a list.
Maybe it's a credentials thing? Probably not. By my count, five writers on TheLeafsNation.com have had credentials for professional hockey games at some point. Tons of other blogs could say the same thing. OilersNation has two former NHLers on the writer's list. Not NHL media, players. Under these rules, they're not credible.
Using myself as an example - I've spent three years as a member of the American Hockey League media. I've had NHL Credentials for the last Winter Classic. If I write a Marlies story on here, it's done using the very same process as a member of a mainstream outlet; I've been in the press box or the practice facility to watch the team (more so than almost any member of the media in the past couple of years, I'd guess). I'm talking to the same players and staff that a traditional outlet has access to. If a reader likes it and spreads it around, does my domain name make it invalid?
No, as long as I convince the Nations Network staff to plaster HF's link on every single page and then ask for permission to post my stuff, all so I can go back to posting in the Leafs Lounge once a month while someone else links to my articles occasionally. Gotcha.
Another issue that may not get brought up by anybody else? Plagiarism. I can't say for certain that this has happened yet, or that it will, but if you can't link to content, or say where you got it from, at what point do users just start copying it without attribution? Whether it's a chart, a paragraph, a photoshopped picture of Sidney Crosby falling off a trampoline, or a quote, this becomes a potential inevitability.
The policy, from the perspective of creating hockey content, is archaic. The advent of social media and blogging has made the sports reporting and discussion experience very inclusive and based around crowd-creation. The blogosphere has become less about competition and more about collaboration. Everybody wants to learn - both to make their own content better, and to get a better understanding of the sport they love.
Meanwhile, HFBoards looks to close themselves off, rather than open themselves up.
Why do they do it?
This is where being owned by an Internet company kicks in. The staff themselves may not even fully realize this as they enforce it, but it's hard to see this as a quality control move. If it was about quality content, threads would be locked and posts would be removed on a case by case basis.
If I were a betting man (aka, this is my speculation), this probably is a Search Engine Optimization move.
As I mentioned before, the only way to become a member of the partner program is have your site approved, and to provide a backlink to HFBoards, specifically a prominent one that says "forums" or "message board". This is partially a traffic thing, as most site operators will tell you, outbound sidebar links aren't exactly traffic goldmines. What it does do, however, is gives the site a boost in most search engine algorithms. A site that's full of hockey keywords with an outgoing link to a keyword will help out that link when people search hockey (keyword).
It's a smart way to keep their stranglehold on "hockey forum" and "hockey message board" searches. Or, if you choose to link to, say, the Leafs section on TheLeafsNation, "leafs forum", "leafs message board", and so on and so forth.
Not only are they likely trying to encourage more people to opt into doing this with this new rule, they're trying to keep the quality of their outgoing links up. By keeping it to mainstream media, they're making it so they're only giving link value to sites that would beat them in search engine results anyway. There's no helping of a "little guy" (who actually just wants to encourage discussion, not win at Google), because the little guy is competition.
Case in point: Youtube Videos are okay, while posts from Blogspot-based sites aren't. In both cases, the content creator isn't getting the traffic and main revenue; that heads to Google, who owns both sites. The difference? Individual profiles on blogspot have different ranking power, whereas all Youtube channels work under the same primary branch.
Oh, and there's that. The move to the hockeysfuture domain looked like a needless destruction of what HFBoards.com established over the years, but ultimately, the the goal is to boost viewership of their prospect site, which is beginning to lose its relevance of old as it becomes easier to follow prospects via the internet.
I'm sure the moderators are sick of deleting "Crosby to Leafs, according to muchlegittradetracker.wordpress.com" posts, but I'm not sure that's not what this move is about. It seems as if it's making sure the rich get richer, while the poor and middle class were merely looking to have a conversation.
The Official Response, So Far
In (much) shorter words, Steve and myself went into the thread in question and brought up a couple of our concerns. Most other members agreed with us, though one felt that the policy was a good way to keep out bad content.
Eventually, Mess returned to the thread, and left the following message:
I am going to close this thread. It was only intended to help educate the posters as to HF site rules. /Closed
Strong words. About an hour later, the entire thing was deleted, as if it never happened.