The Evolution of Internet Forums
The earliest Internet forums were like newsgroups, where people posted comments on someone else's reply. The modern ones, like you know, are more sophisticated and offer a large variety of features.
Forums are one of the best places online for sharing information, exchanging thoughts, discussing problems, getting help and troubleshooting advice. These are the only places where even extremists can communicate with each other without any bloodshed. From a social point of view, forums are very useful for building a community of people interested in a particular domain. Business owners can also deploy forums where their employees can have discussions about work and the challenges that they are facing. So, if you don't know anything about forums, read this Buzzle article to know how to choose a forum software.
Selecting a forum software is not very tough if you know what you are looking for. It all depends on what you need. It's like comparing Windows with Mac OS. Each has its own upsides and downsides. There isn't a single best forum software. So, before choosing a forum software, you should ask yourself the following questions.
▶ Can it import the contents from my previous forum?
If you are already running a forum and simply want to migrate to a new forum having better performance and more features, then this is the most important question that you should ask to the support staff of the new forum software. Many developers help their clients to migrate to their software. Some software can also import data and settings from different versions of software from different companies.
Good luck to you, if you are ignoring this point!
If you are an IT pro, then you should try to find about the complications involved in migrating from one forum software to the other. You should also research what others using the same platform as yours are using for deploying forums. If you are lucky, then you might find solutions to all of your future problems.
▶ How well does it support customizations?
Almost all popular forum software allow you to customize the way the forum looks. It involves changing background color, font customizations, adding a custom logo, changing footer links, etc. Some software also support emoticons and custom URL structure by default. You should also check if it allows users to customize their profiles with images and GIF avatars, quotes, links, etc. Forum users are very emotional about their profiles and avatars. You better take this seriously.
▶ What type of comments system is best for your community? Threaded or flat?
In forums, the discussions are in the form of posts (comments). So, you need to have some kind of system in place which can differentiate between replies to the topic, or replies to some particular post. There are 2 major kinds of comment systems in place for achieving this:
i.Threaded Comments: In this system, the replies are sorted according to their time of posting and indenting. For e.g.: If User A replies to a comment posted by User B, then his comment will appear just below the comment of User B, slightly indented towards the right irrespective to its posting time. This system is very efficient for smaller communities where people post short replies. Things can soon get messy if a lot of people post long replies to a single comment.
ii.Flat Comments: It sorts comments according to their posting time, and also allows the users to quote someone's reply while replying back. This is especially good for very large communities. Its main downside is that original commenter won't know if someone has replied to his comment, but this is usually ignored because in large communities people usually check all the pages of a thread while looking for the required information.
▶ Does it permit the users to subscribe to a particular thread?
The forum software should prompt the commenter if he wants to be notified of all comments to the thread by email. Many users find this very useful as it allows them to stay updated with all of information right in their mailbox.
▶ Does it support social media integration and single sign-on?
You should check if the users of your forum would like to share the comments that they post via social networks. You can also reduce the hassle of signing up to your forum by enabling single sign-on (signing-in using social accounts) if your software supports it.
▶ How good is it for SEO?
All the latest forum software allow the content to be indexed by search engines. They are all search engine-friendly. It's just that some are very good for SEO and some are just okay. You can find this information by reading the reviews of forum software.
▶ Does it have support for gamification?
Gamification is the greatest way of encouraging people to post good comments and participate in the community. The software should have options for assigning badges, promoting the users' ability to include links/GIFs in signature, etc.
▶ What kind of permissions and roles can you set?
You should also be able to set permissions for which user is able to view which content. For e.g.: You might want to let the web crawlers index your content but not let a user browse through the content without signing up. You should also be able to put bans in place and give more privileges to some users based on their role and reputation in the community.
▶ Does it have a mobile-friendly design?
These days, people browse the web more often from their mobiles and tablets than using their laptops and desktop computers. It would be better if your forum has a mobile-friendly, i.e., responsive design. Responsive designs can adjust themselves to any screen size and resolutions, thus improving the user experience greatly.
▶ Does it have any form of built-in web analytics?
You can always use traditional web analytics tools like Google Analytics and Clicky, but the data provided by them is not relevant for a forum admin. Many forum software like Vanilla have an built-in analytics tool not only providing data in the form of page views, visits, visits per user, and time on site, but also in the form of number of new users, active users, contributing users, discussions, comments and users per discussions. These insights are highly valuable while formulating a new growth strategy.
▶ Does it support tagging users?
All forum software support personal messages. The latest ones enable users to tag others, just like Twitter. This can be a very useful feature if you are planning to make a community for troubleshooting problems.
▶ Where are the ad slots?
If you plan to earn some money from the forum, then you should always look for those software which have ad slots in prominent spots and support scripts from popular advertising networks. The code should also be easily customizable to add scripts in various other places.
▶ What are the moderation tools like?
The forum software should support inline moderation tools. The moderators should be able to ban and warn users. They should also be able to edit/delete and set some thread/discussions as sticky. A good forum software should also allow the users to report a comment as spammy/racist/inflammatory.
▶ What protection does it have against spam bots?
Just like a website, a forum can also get easily flooded with spam comments. Many software come with in-built anti-spam features which can detect spam. It should also allow the admin to block sign-ups from a range of flagged IP addresses and email ids. Many communities add no-follow attribute to all external links. This helps them in maintaining their ranking in search engines, even if someone replies with a link to a bad website. The software should also have some comment limit in place for new members along with proper flood control.
These are not all but some of the most important questions whose answers will help you in selecting a forum software especially tailored for your needs.