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Forum applications are server programs that create discussion-based websites. Many are free or open-source PHP codebase applications that use a MySQL database. They are small but complex webapps that generally come in at under 4MB for the zipped installer file. A 'forum' is the word we commonly use, though bulletin board was more popular at one time; and a forum now is usually a container for several different 'boards', which are the actual main-topic start pages.
Forums, like most PHP - MySQL server applications, are easy to install remotely via FTP and browser. They can be managed by browser, and can usually be expanded and upgraded by the use of plugins. There are many similarities with other server-based website programs, such as the way they are browser-managed, the backend admin, the template-based layout, and the extension process - adding plugins to get more features. (Functions are mostly a core capability, features are non-critical functionality that is often added on in the form of plugins.)
Most server software like this is designed to run on a LAMP server (the standard Linux-Apache type of server that the web is based on). However, some are designed for a Windows / IIS server, which is the next in popularity, based on Microsoft code. A forum application can be installed in three different ways: as a standalone application, sometimes sharing webspace with another website application such as a blog or CMS; as a bridged application, connected into a CMS and sharing the same database, but not actually being part of the other application; or as a CMS plugin, an integral part of a CMS.
The criteria we could use to judge forums might include admin usability; security; appearance and style; features and functions; visitor usability; ACL; SEO; robustness and reliability; and several other areas, since this type of server application generates a complex dynamic website featuring extended visitor interaction.
Because forums are similar in outline form and technical operation to other website main applications such as blog and CMS software (most use a text-based code and a MySQL database), it is easy to compare them. Unfortunately forums do not come out well from this comparison as many CMS and blog applications are light years ahead in on-page assets, SEO, and especially admin usability. Forum software has a long way to go to catch up.
It also needs to be remembered that forums are the most vulnerable to attack of all server software. Unfortunately, some forums have a poor record in this area. Security has to be the ultimate criterion because of this, and it is the reason why a fine-looking new or relatively unknown forum cannot really be trusted for two or three years - there may be many exploits of it in that time. Ultimately, the choice of forum software to use must hinge on security as much as anything else.
Who this review is for
About the word 'forums'
SMF is a good choice in freeware forums. That doesn't mean it's problem-free, but it does its job, all round, better than most.
The Simple Machines Forum is the benchmark for these programs because it is widely known and appreciated and with a long history; it is one of the most frequently installed; and most forum users will be familiar with it. It's easy to install remotely via FTP and browser. The usual MySQL database parameters need to be input - username, password etc - and installation is smooth and quick.
Documentation is improving and offers real solutions to issues now. And of course, the Support forum is excellent :-)
Templates of some kind are the basis for the page layout in all dynamic web applications; in this project they are called Themes. Three default ones are supplied as standard, and you can get up and running with one of these easily.
Unless you go the commercial route though, you'll find that SMF templates, in common with all other default and free forum templates I've seen, are severely deficient in modern web requirements, when compared to other applications like blogs and CMS. As regards on-page assets, the situation is not just sparse - it's non-existent. The very least that any user would require now are additional optional menu positions; and of course other module positions for Adsense / PPC, banner positions, news, announcements, top pages, new content and so forth. A module is the usual word for a block of content displayed separately from the main page subject, and can include anything from an image slideshow to a news section. Forums as a whole don't comply here for some unfathomable reason, and SMF is no different. Luckily, though, users now have the option of using a plugin called SimplePortal that installs on-page modules of the same type a CMS uses, and this is a big step forward.
The plugin system as a whole, and the installation procedure in particular, is very good in SMF. There is nothing any webapp developer could teach the SMF people about plugins - the entire system here is excellent. There is even a pre-install test run that tells you if a new plugin is likely to cause problems, and what those might be. The SMF plugin system scores 9 out of 10 and is a joy to use compared to some webserver software. Plugin numbers have about doubled in the last year or so, with around 1,000 available now.
SEO (aka search engine optimizing) is the process of increasing website earnings by increasing traffic and improving the website. It is of course the cornerstone of web success now as without search engines and social media promotion, you can't get optimum traffic - and you can't make best use of visits unless the site works properly. The SEO situation here is not brilliant, however. The core application is poor in this respect (though that is par for the course, with dynamic apps), and it's not much better with plugins installed. In any case there are only about 5 or 6 SEO-related plugins. This situation is common to all free forum programs so it's a universal problem. The authors don't seem to have caught on to the fact that it doesn't matter how good your website is, if there are no visitors it's not much use. Visitor traffic depends on success in the search engines; search success depends on SEO. And good SEO in a website application (after clean code) starts with short, flat, relevant URLs and unique per-page metadata.
In both these areas SMF is limited, though the URLs are at least acceptable when the correct plugin is used. The metadata is a different story. You can only have boilerplate meta and that's that. Unique per-page metadata is important to search success, so the authors either don't know this or discount website traffic as unimportant. Also, session IDs are unfortunately used occasionally, when the application identifies a user-agent wrongly, and this is a huge negative for SEO. If you want search success, you have to lose the SIDs. All these things can be processed server-side and should not print ("be seen on the page").
The admin usability rating is OK for SMF. It is limited by the use of the commonly-seen text-based (as against panel-based) backend management apparatus. This method is a limiting factor, and the admin system needs to be more streamlined and task-oriented.
There is only one glitch in the install and admin procedures worth mentioning; the common situation which all forums seem to suffer from, that there is no working board after installation. Trying to set up the first board, on a new forum program, by a new forum owner, will be the most difficult task faced in connection with forums. This seems common to all forums, and of course should be fixed, but it seems as if usability is never a priority. Usability for a webserver app is of course usability for the owner; site usability is a different matter.
ACL - Access Control Levels (or Lists) - refers to who can do what and where. This aspect is good on SMF, and is all that the vast majority of owners will need. Granular ACL (fully detailed control) always makes an application very much harder to use, and thankfully they have stopped short of going down that road.
Visitors are well served on SMF. It's an attractive, logical and easily-used forum. Templates of course have a big role here, and there is a very large range to choose from. There is a complete lack, however, of any of the multiple page assets that users of every other kind of website software would consider essential. It makes for a clean but very basic and limited page view. As stated, this is fixable with a plugin, but an additional menu and a module display block or three should be basic options on one of the default templates.
Usability is fine for experienced forum visitors, but not so good for newbies. This is a universal problem in any case. As an example, if you take an office worker who uses a PC and the Internet everyday in their work (and is therefore hardly a complete noob), but has never used a forum before; then ask them to post their first message - you will find they can't. They don't realise that you first need to register and login before the buttons to post a message are visible. This is something I see in usability testing all the time: software is written and maintained by experienced people, and they just cannot see the problems new users have. Very easy indeed to fix of course - simply have a large menu link to a new user's help page. Only trouble is, forums are still a hundred years out of date and don't have additional menus you can add to the page...
In conclusion, this is a very smooth forum solution that deserves its tag as the benchmark in freeware forums. The negatives are common to all forums. It looks simple, but does many complex things so smoothly it is deceptive. The good points are SMF's mature status and smoothness; its superb plugin system; the vast range of templates; its easy LAMP install; the attractive page layout; the good ACL; the good visitor experience - and of course its notably good security record, in marked contrast to one or two other big-name forums.
The bad points are the Stone Age SEO; the complete lack of any on-page assets; the tricky first board set-up; the occasional session IDs; and the lack of an included manual with the basic download.
SMF is a top tip in freeware forums because it's an all-round good choice. There are other forums that do one or two jobs better, but this all-rounder does the trick.
Update: SMF 2.0 is out soon and this review will be updated to include it.
Kunena is an example of a CMS plugin forum. We include it because it is a genuine contender for the best free forum choice, even though it cannot exist outside of Joomla CMS. It would be entirely feasible to install the CMS just for this purpose, and not generate any other content pages. In this way, the forum would be the only content; and since the advantages over other forums in the areas of on-page assets, SEO, owner usability and a dozen other areas would be substantial, this is not such a strange idea. In any case, with the CMS potential, it is unlikely that the forum would remain as the sole website content for long. One thing forum owners desperately need is a way to include something - anything - that is additional to the barebones forum display; and Kunena in Joomla might just be the answer to a prayer for them.
Installing it is simple and quick, since it is a plugin. The main application has already taken care of the database configuration and so on. Documentation is basic but it isn't really necessary as the Fireboard issues have been solved (Kunena is based on Fireboard, which had a glitch near the end of the install when you had to create the first forum).
Because Kunena is part of Joomla, templates are a strong point - any Joomla one can be used; and that means the widest choice on the planet. You can even have a different template on each page, which points out the capability.
On the SEO question there is only one answer: the finest SEO of any forum solution by a long mile. There are many reasons for this, but it devolves to being a part of a CMS that - when properly managed of course - is superb in this area. It only falls down on full W3CAG support, but since only 0.1% of users are likely to know what that means, it's hardly an issue.
Admin usability isn't bad. It is similar in most ways to other forums with a text-based admin backend, and very familiar in all respects. There are even some useful configurations here that are missing from standalone forums.
ACL in Kunena, used in Joomla 2.5, is now sufficiently capable. Private boards for different usergroups are easily arranged.
The visitor experience is good, and improved of course due to the availability of all the CMS on-page assets. In this respect Kunena kicks all other forums into touch. Many forums have attempted to introduce some CMS capability, but obviously Kunena has them all beat by a long mile as it is used within the best rich media CMS around.
The conclusion is that Kunena for Joomla is a remarkably good solution. At first, the idea of installing a CMS just to have a forum is a bit crazy, I guess. But when you look at all the individual issues, the initial worry fades away. You're left with a forum that has superb SEO and on-page assets such as menus and modules (content block displays), a choice of tens of thousands of templates, a choice of additional content pages if you need them, good security, and a dozen other pluses.
The negatives? Well, it may not be the best choice if you have very heavy traffic, as a forum loads a server up more than just about anything else. But this can be solved by load-balancing of course, and in theory, if you have good traffic, you have a good income, so multiple servers are possible. Although if the forum is the main site content anyway, this won't be an issue. In any case we're talking about 10,000 visits a day plus, just on the forum.
There is a possible security negative, in that sites that are attacked heavily will find an advantage in keeping the various website sections separate. Then a problem with any one part will be contained and firewalled: limited to just the database it was on. Forums are inherently more vulnerable to attack because they allow users to register, to write to the DB, to possibly include some code, and so forth. With the current webspam battles added to this, forums are a massive target for bots, so you cannot argue against a security policy that keeps them separate. To be completely honest, this has always swayed my decison in the past, and where I thought it safer I installed the forum separately.
In the case of a blog, I would never use a plugin solution, only Wordpress or an alternative; there are a bunch of reasons why this is a better solution. But in this case, a plugin forum doesn't seem to have much in the way of negatives at all. It only gets second place to SMF because it would be too far out to suggest it for the #1 spot...
There is also an interesting point to be made here about other CMS forums - Kunena for example is far better than the integral forum in Drupal CMS. You certainly wouldn't install Drupal with the idea that the forum is going to be a major part of the site, as it can't really be described as a proper forum - in complete contrast to Kunena / Joomla.
Originally a commercial fork from vBulletin, it was the creation of the original lead devs from vB, who left when vB was bought out. Now several years old, it is not only mature enough to use but easily the best choice if you can pay. Many vB users are moving over to Xenforo because it is a complete code rewrite and intended to the job properly without having to make adjustments for suboptimal initial code choices. For example it doesn't need vbSEO to fix more than 100 issues, as vB needed up until version 4; after which it became a different app and probably not as good as v3 in some ways.
If you are seriously considering a commercial forum app then this is the one to look at first. It does not have all the plugins that vB has, as yet, but you can always get them coded up for you as coding for this app is straightforward. The XF project is moving ahead fast so expect them to overtake vB in all respects at some point.
vB is the king of the plugins and you can do anything possible in forums. It has better SEO than most forums but that isn't saying much - XenForo is way ahead here. vBulletin will allow you to do anything and everything that a forum can possibly do; but adding all the plugins required turns it into into a great, lumbering juggernaut of a beast. It is fair to say that a big, extended, high-traffic vBulletin forum is the hardest load on a server that it is possible to envisage. It is impossible to use on cloud services for that reason: you must have a big and capable local server cluster. Managing a big vB site is a demanding job for the server techies.
If you need some kind of specific capability that only vB can supply, then go for it - but be aware there are significant negatives. Otherwise pick XenForo, a much safer choice, and one that will overtake vB soon enough as it is moving much faster. MyBB is the best free choice at mid-2015.
Related Products and Links
A forum comparison matrix: http://www.forummatrix.org
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SMF - Simple Machines Forum
FireBoard for Joomla
This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Chris Price. In the computing area his interests include freeware / open-source software, website software, web usability for all, and web business management.
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