Simple Machines Forum
A good choice in freeware forums; it does its job, all round, better than most
Pros & Cons:
Simple Machines Forum ("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 SMF 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.
System Requirements: LAMP servers with PHP and MySQL.
Simple Machines Forum was reviewed by Gizmos Freeware on based on version 1.1.4.