Forums are a contentious issue in SEO. Many people figure that their heyday is long passed. Many more recognize that they have a role in online social interaction, but that they aren’t very good for marketing. Some hold out that they’re good for SEO, though many of those tend to be black hat marketers, so it’s tricky to assign much value to their position.
As for my personal opinion? Forums can be valuable to some sites, but not to others. It really depends on what your goal is with it, what level your site has reached, and how much leverage you have on your industry. So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of running a forum, the options you have for building one, and some alternatives you might consider.
It can be a great source of content you can curate or reference for your own use. Forum communities can be great sources of insight from people who simply want to share what they know, but don’t have a site of their own. Rather than start their own blog, they simply become an authority on your forum, which builds benefit to your brand. You can also use them as sources and as topic generators for your blog.
If it takes off, your website becomes a community hub and you have some of the most engaged users in your industry. Think about something like the Warrior Forum, one of the largest gray and black hat marketing forums online. Think about Startup Nation, a large community based around navigating the troubles of making a new business. You can be up there with them.
You can use a forum for customer service on top of community. You, your moderators, and people unaffiliated with your brand but familiar with the issues everyone experiences can all share their expertise to help out those who need help. Plus, forums archive solutions to problems for the indefinite future, so people coming in later with the same issues can find solutions on their own.
Membership can be boosted easily by posting members-only content and giveaways. As with any community – a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc – you can boost membership with exclusive content. Giving away exclusive content that can’t be viewed as a guest is about the easiest way to do it.
It can replace blog comments and convert them into a more engaged space. Blog comments are often hard to moderate, and the single-thread style means they can quickly get out of hand with derails. By encouraging people to gather on your forum instead, they can participate, and you can also tell them to take off-topic discussion to the appropriate threads in other locations.
Being the administrator of a high profile forum builds a lot of brand and personal authority. You will be able to put “leader of a community of X industry enthusiasts, veterans, and novices alike” on your resume, and it immediately makes you an influencer in other locations as well. It will happily boost your standing on social media and get you an in with various industry publications for guest contributions.
In certain situations, forums can be monetized. At the most basic level, you can put banner ads or sell advertising space on your forum. Some boards include the ability to put monetized posts in between normal posts. Some also add on more monetization options. Something Awful – a large comedy site with attached web forum – has a number of account upgrades, including one specifically for gaining access to private messages and search functions, one for a new avatar or custom title, and one for access to archived threads stretching all the way back to 2001. Not every forum can get away with such nickel-and-dime tactics, but if you can, it can be quite lucrative.
Forums are not all fun and games. It’s unfortunately very easy to fail running one, and a failed web forum is a legacy that lasts for a long time. Here are the biggest drawbacks:
It’s easy for the forum and blog to be divorced completely. I’ve been part of web forum communities that long since forgot about the website they were attached to. I’ll bring up Something Awful again here, because there’s an ongoing meme that “there’s a front page?” So many people never look at the primary content of the site; they only participate for the forum discussions. This post covers a lot of the importance of forum and blog integration.
Hordes of black hat marketers will swarm it looking for links. I mentioned it offhandedly, but one of the largest pro-forum groups in marketing tends to be the black hats, and that means you’ll probably end up with a lot of marketers looking to participate just long enough to get themselves a link from your domain. Whether or not you allow it will be up to you and your own style of moderation.
It will be a huge target for automated spam, requiring sophisticated methods to stop it. Web forums have long since been “solved” as a target for spam. Captchas can be broken, emails can be auto-verified, and so on. There’s also no easy plugin like Akismet to stop them. You have to either manually approve new users based on some criteria, or you have to be very good at stopping spam when it starts.
It might not be possible to attract a reasonable community. Some industries simply don’t have enough people in the right mindset to want to participate in a community. You’ll be stuck with an empty forum if you’re in one of those niches.
A forum with a tiny community doesn’t look good from the outside. It’s the empty room effect. A forum with little or no participation means a forum that doesn’t look like it’s worth participating in. People will see that no new posts have been made since a month ago, or that only a couple of users are ever logged in, and they’ll decide it isn’t worth the time or the energy to participate themselves. It’s tricky to get those first few truly active users going, particularly if you don’t already have an active community around your site.
It’s a lot of work to manage a forum, keep it up to date, and monitor security. Forums require maintenance, on the part of your web host and on your part. Some forum software might require regular maintenance of PHP and SQL. Others might be as intensive as a WordPress plugin, but with all of the same caveats; letting slip on updates can lead to significant issues on down the line.
Speaking of security, you need to be very conscious of user data security, which necessitates SSL. In addition to the huge legal fallout and brand disaster that accompanies a data breach, data security doesn’t come cheap. SSL for a forum, at least for the authentication, is required. It might convince you to add it to your site as a while, which can have issues of its own.
Forums are notoriously hubs of drama and a rift in membership can kill a site without appropriate moderation. I’ve seen forums die after one particularly touchy but charismatic user got shunned, threw a fit, and left the site along with all of their fans. The infighting, the drama, the subsequent loss of membership, and the remaining pot-stirring fans all contribute to a toxic environment that is not conducive to a community.
To sum it all up: the number one requirement for successfully creating a forum tied to your site, for SEO or for community or for any other purpose, is to have a thriving site to begin with. You really need to have a large, active audience that you can entice into using your forum, and you need to put a lot of work into keeping it active until it gains momentum of its own.
There are a lot of possible options; I’ve compiled the biggest of them. Keep in mind that, in addition to all of these options, you can also have a board system designed for yourself. Many of the currently existing forums with huge communities are running on custom software, though it is often bastardized from one of the open source options below.
phpBB – This is one of the top-tier open source boards with a lot of support and a ton of customization options. In addition to consistent and ongoing development, it has a huge community of active users able to troubleshoot your issues on their own support forums. On top of that, they have mods that can help you do just about anything you could want to do even without having your own coder at your disposal. The only trick is it’s a little hard to set up the first time, particularly if you’re a newcomer to PHP and SQL. Thankfully, maintenance is easy, if frequent, and can be done automatically as long as you don’t have an intensely custom site or there’s a major version update.
vBulletin – Possibly either #1 or #2 most used for forum software worldwide, this option is going to be common and familiar to a ton of people. The one downside, though, is that unlike phpBB, it’s not free. In fact, not only is it not free, it’s also not free to upgrade. vBulletin 5, the current version, costs $250 for a single license, which only includes one month of ticket support. Other support must go through their forums. If you want mobile support as well, you need the $400 license. If you’re on VB4 and want to upgrade to VB5, you need the $210 license. It’s powerful, but expensive. On the plus side, they have a cloud based version that does all the maintenance for you, for $20 per month at the minimum level.
bbPress – This is a lesser known option for forum software, but it’s potentially the best for many bloggers, simply because it’s actually a hardcore WordPress plugin. It combines your administration of WordPress with that of your forum, and it’s pretty quick and easy to get running. On the down side, if you’re not using WordPress, it’s not available as an option for you.
Muut – The primary perk of this particular board software is the complete customization control you have. With something like vBulletin, you’re pretty limited in options for customization, and with phpBB you’re limited to what you can hack together with PHP itself. With Muut you can put together something perfect for your community with an essentially modular design. On the other hand, it’s going to be at least $16 a month ongoing, which can be hefty if you’re not monetizing your site and forum from the get-go.
SimpleMachines – This is another free alternative, which works much like phpBB in that it works with an SQL database and is open source. However, it’s also not as frequently updated or supported, doesn’t have as many mods or extensions, and is generally a bit harder to work with. However, if you’ve had a bad experience with phpBB or prefer to try something a little different, this is a good option for you.
Kunena – This is an option that’s a lot like bbPress, except instead of WordPress, it’s designed for Joomla. If you’re using Joomla as your platform, it’s a wonderful extension that’s easy to set up and use. You don’t need to mess around with hacking code or setting up bridges, either. It’s designed for speed, and best of all, it’s free.
Vanilla – This is another option with the free self-hosted open source board, or the cloud-based “for business” board with a updates and support managed for you. The business version has a 30 day trial, but it doesn’t come cheap. The starter version is $300 per month and shuts down if you have more than 50,000 monthly pageviews.
Finally, one last thing I want to mention is that you don’t always need to create your own forum just to have a forum community. While blog comments can do the job fine, another alternative is to create your own subreddit. You can make your own sub one you’ve participated on the site enough to have amassed enough karma, though the exact number is unknown. It doesn’t earn you branding benefit under your own domain, but it DOES earn you links from a huge site – Reddit – to your domain. Arguably, that’s better.