The psychology behind Internet users and how your website affects them

Everybody on this site is here to enhance their knowledge on building the perfect community site, whether it be one which has proactive users that constantly take part in related discussions, through to those who want a spot on (who doesn't!). My article is more aimed towards the former.

Lately it seems that the Internet is flooded with SEO techniques and ways to trick google into having the highest possible page rank. This is great and all, but there's no point having a high ranked site when your content isn't keeping those users who visited your site there.

I'll be discussing the psychology behind how users view a website and the different ways you can make your site more active. This can range from encouraging discussion; turning users into your very own set of moderators who abide by your rules and notify others when wrong; to simply making users register upon visiting.

Interested yet? Then read on.

How groups act and how to "control" them

Groups ranging in size from two or three people to millions within a community are being made at different bulletin boards around the Internet. A whole range of psychology theory can be applied to these situations - such as issues covering leadership, alliances and communication patterns to name a few.

One large issue that many community admins face is controlling the amount of off topic chat. Usually forums are created to gather like minded individuals to discuss a given topic, but sometimes members may talk around a topic into something completely unrelated. One site of interest is which leads to any of its front page links becoming amongst the highest viewed sites on the Internet for a period of time. Great! ill just post a link to my site and watch all the users flow in! Sorry, its not that simple as digg only shows links to sites which are technology related. How? It controls this by allowing its members to vote on whether the linked site is related to digg's users or not.

The psychology behind this covers influencing conformity. There are two types of conformity: Normative Influence and Informational influence. The first is more relevant to controlling off topic discussion and covers peer pressure. The reasons include; fear of rejection, wanting approval, simply to be identified as part of a group and to show loyalty. Digg however you want to look at it, uses peer pressure to keep it's links relevant, but it does so in a way that doesn't deter its users.

Everybody wants some kind of approval within society and this can be used to your advantage. There are many different ways of doing this, such as a reputation meter that members can click on to show that the users post was good. A good implementation of this can be found on:
Another idea is used within this very article on TAZ. The article contest promotes members to provide their insight into information that is useful to the site and the TAZ members vote on which is the best article. All of these are ways to control and promote the type of content posted to your community without looking like an evil admin.

Of course the layout of features and different areas of your community can aid in combating off topic discussion. One clean way to stop people replying with a few words is to remove the fast reply box. This small text form at the bottom of a post is usually the culprit for simple replies and by removing it is a quick and simple solution.

Is it all bad?

Controlling or limiting off topic discussion is all well and good but it can also lead to your forums feeling distant. Talking about any topic covers basic social needs and if that isn't catered for, you run the risk of alienating your target user group. It can be seen throughout the web that as members become more personally involved in discussions they begin to obey the sites' rules and community as a whole.

Instead of limiting the amount of off topic discussion you can simply move any of these topics to a suitably named forum, after all that's what moderation is for!

The positioning and name of the off topic forum can also have an effect on the amount of discussion. A general rule of thumb is: the forums that you would like to be the most active should be placed towards the top of the site in immediate view. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, and by putting the off topic forum discussion lower down it also emphasises a hierarchy that is present within the site, having more important forums at the top.

The name of the off topic forum can also control the amount of discussion. By labelling the off topic forum as "General Discussion" it can lead to users joining purely to post there. However if a negative name is given to this off topic forum, it promotes the use of other forums present on the site. Some examples are: "Miscellaneous Topics" and "Obscure Topics".

How to get users to join my forum!

This is what all new community admins are asking and the answer leads on from another question. What is it that people want? What they can't have.

A simple answer, but I'm not just going to leave it there, I'll elaborate. Ever seen someone with an amazing car and wanted to be in their place? Well, that same feeling can be used on your site to promote new visitors to join your community. In a lot of cases each community offers some sort of content which immediately grabs the visitors attention. By limiting the entry to this content you can give off a need to access it, which leads to more member joins.

Overall, to get a new visitor to join your community you have to limit entry to some original content. It also helps if you provide a preview, to entice the viewer into joining. This idea works well for large communities but for smaller ones it can be difficult, especially when your just starting off. In this case, I'd recommend getting friends who you trust to post on the forums. Using this method you can also have these members work as your very own set of guardians (as talked about below).

Get my members to tell others when they're wrong

This is an article in itself. The overall psychology theory covers group dynamics and how friendships are forged between people. Usually if you look on most forums with these "guardian angel" members present they all share something in common. These members are all good friends. Their friendships were most likely made during general banter (off topic discussion, gah!). After using your forums to communicate for some time, these users will feel some connection to the site and become loyal members. The users that actually help to protect and help on your site are those that are pre-programmed from a young age to be philanthropists. I could talk about this subject for days, but i doubt this article would get read if it's too long as a result. Until next time...

Side Note: The end has no end

This has been a fairly brief introduction into some of the psychology behind how users take part in discussion and how to "control" them. If this article is a success (regardless of whether i win or not) in terms of TAZ member interest, I'd be happy to go more in-depth into the psychology, involved specifically within bulletin board communities.