Best Free Website Forum Software



Due to the wide range of forum software available, it's necessary to define the job description we want the website software to fulfil. Here, we are looking for a solution that suits a small or medium size site with an average or inexperienced webmaster. We are not looking for a forum solution for a giant site (aka a 'big board'), or for an experienced forum webmaster with an extensive agenda, or for an owner with a big budget.

Also read about Forum Applications and The Word 'Forums' at the end of the page.


Rated Products

Simple Machines Forum  

A good choice in freeware forums; it does its job, all round, better than most

Our Rating: 
License: Free (Open source)
Best free forum, easy to administrate, great plugin system, good choice of templates, good ACL, plenty of options, good security.
Poor SEO (in comparison with the top CMS software), occasional session ID URLs (SIDs), basic docs.
Read full review...


A genuine contender for the best free forum choice

Our Rating: 
License: Free
Best SEO in forums, best templates, best trouble-free solution, easy admin, good security.
No docs at all, poor ACL, a simplified solution, less options than standalone solutions.
Read full review...

Other Contenders

Some other choices that you may want to look at - a mix of free and commercial apps.

Here I have a confession to make at July 2015: MyBB is now probably the best free forum. I simply haven't had the time to fully work up a review and post it. Go for MyBB if there is anything you don't like about SMF.

The phpBB series is a very popular free forum solution, perhaps even more so than SMF. The phpBB2 version has a big following and is well-supported, but had major security issues (whether or not due to user-added extensions is a popular debate). The new version, the 3.0 series, has the best ACL in forums, which is fully granular; but this results in admin usability issues. Together with other negatives, it means that phpBB3 is not currently a contender. However the installation routine is probably the best in forums and is to be commended - maybe even the slickest in website apps, although WordPress is a contender. Note that this is probably the only modern webapp that doesn't have a plugin system (at least, when I tried it, it was), so the core files have to be hacked for every extension, and you can't upgrade it without numerous issues as a result. This forum app is very capable, but only for experienced webmasters or coders.

This is a commercial forum. It is the best forum application available anywhere at any price. It is not yet as capable as vBulletin but coming on fast. By far the best SEO in standalone forum software and that translates into more visitors.

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.

A commercial app, this was the outright winner until recently, when XenForo took over the #1 spot.

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.

IPboard has been round a while now and is a commercial alternative to vB but without the same size of community. It had major security issues in the past, and you'd probably need to be assured this era is past before you signed up to put this software on your server. Many people like it because it is simpler than vB. 


Related Products and Links

  • ForumMatrix, a forum comparison matrix excellent for basic spec comparisons, less useful for vital considerations like SEO potential, admin usability, past exploits vs current situation, and all the other detail we flag up.
  • Comparison of Internet forum software, as usual, good for a topical overview and some more links. Some good comparisons if you follow the links, also more on ASP forums that we don't cover here, for those on Windows servers.


Forum Applications

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.


The Word 'Forums'

Some Latin words such as datum have two equally-correct plurals: data and datums. One is the simple plural, one is an anglicised version that means something completely different and is perfectly correct; 'datums' is the mean lowest water level on a nautical chart - 'chart datums'. Forum is exactly the same: it has two correct plurals. 'Fora' means locations to discuss something, such as a public meeting or a newspaper letters column; 'forums' means internet discussion sites. So, 'datums' and 'forums' are the correct plural form with specific meanings.



This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Chris Price. In the computing area, his interests include freeware or open-source software, website software, web usability for all, and web business management. Registered site visitors can contact Chris by clicking here.


Have Your Say

Please visit the Website Design, Support and Maintenance forum. Here you can enquire further or state your opinions on the various offerings (or this review). The Comments area below is mainly for brief software suggestions and similar, and any discussion may be removed to the forum.

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Hello everybody!

Need your advice. I still do not understand about the application MyBB and phpBB3. What is better to use?

Thank you!

If you don't like SMF then give MyBB a try. Some prefer it to SMF. It may still have some bugs at this time as someone told me it doesn't work with the Safari browser without a code hack - but it works fine on Safari for me. My view is it's a good choice, you need to install SMF and MyBB and see which one works best for you. Because forum code is generally so poor, if you want your site to become popular you will probably want to see which has the best SEO plugins to suit your requirements. For example old SMF versions had very few SEO plugins, so it had problems such as the same metadata on every page. Check out these issues first.