Setting up your forum, part four (picking, installing and enabling extensions)

(Read parts 1, 2 and 3.)

Once you have installed your phpBB forum, created the forums you need, installed and configured a style, and set up your user groups, generally the next thing to do is install any needed extensions.

What are extensions?

Extensions apply to phpBB 3.1 and higher. They are somewhat analogous to WordPress plugins and allow you to somewhat easily add additional functionality to phpBB beyond what comes “out of the box”. While not as numerous as the 44,000+ plugins available for WordPress, the number of extensions for phpBB grows regularly over time and should continue to do so. Note: phpBB 3.0 does not support extensions, but does support modifications.

Why are there so few extensions?

One reason there are fewer extensions for phpBB than there are plugins for WordPress is that extensions are a relatively new feature of phpBB. phpBB 3.1 was the first version to support extensions and it is about two years old. Another reason is that extensions are harder to write than WordPress plugins. I should know as I am the author of the Digests and Smartfeed extensions. As of this posting, only my Smartfeed extension has been approved. There is a lot to learn to write an extension and arguably it takes a senior PHP developer to write an extension, as it has a complex framework and a lot of onerous coding standards that must be adhered to. Only approved extensions are released in phpBB’s extension database. Just getting a review can take months, as I discovered.

Official extensions

Do you need to install extensions? If so, which ones? phpBB out of the box is quite feature rich. But there are common things that forum administrators want to do beyond what is available by default. Take for example some of the official phpBB extensions. These are so common that they are developed and maintained by the phpBB group. These include;

  • Pages – creates static pages that convey common information, such as a news page for your site
  • Board Rules – similar to pages, used to convey your policies for use of your forum
  • Auto groups – eases group management by setting up rules for putting people in and taking them out of groups
  • Board announcements – puts a “no way can you miss this” announcement at the top of every page viewed
  • Collapsible forum categories – allows users to collapse and minimise forum categories with a simple click, so they see only categories and forums that interest them
  • Google analytics – Provides a field for an administrator to enter their Google Analytics tracking code, so all web page usage is reported to Google Analytics. This way you can watch usage of your site, see popular pages and gain insight into how your forum is being used inside Google Analytics.

Finding extensions

phpBB’s extensions database contains a list of all approved extensions. Extensions are categorized and searchable but even so it can be hard to find an extension that meets your need. The extension you want may not exist. You can propose it and hope someone will take it up as a project. If someone does, don’t expect it to be something simple to do. At best it takes months to develop, test and get an extension approved.

Installing, updating and deleting extensions

Installing an extension is not as simple as installing a WordPress plugin, at least for phpBB 3.1. This is likely to be more intuitive in future releases of phpBB. Right now you must download the extension, unzip it then upload it to your forum’s ext directory. Here are the steps for installing, updating and removing extensions. An extension is actually a directory inside of another directory. The extensions architecture requires it be placed in a vendor directory. This allows one vendor to write multiple extensions but keep them separate. For example, for my two extensions, Digests is placed in ext/phpbbservices/digests and Smartfeed is placed in /ext/phpbbservices/smartfeed.

Recommended extensions

Let your requirements dictate which extensions you install. Don’t install extensions that you don’t plan to actively use.

Based on extensions I have installed for clients, these extensions tend to be particularly useful:

  • Google analytics (see above)
  • Pages (see above)
  • Share on – allows topics and posts to be easily shared on various popular social media platforms
  • PayPal Donation – allows you to ask for donations via PayPal
  • phpBB Gallery – allows users to have their own photo gallery inside of phpBB
  • Stop forum spam – checks the username, email address and IP of posters against blacklists, to reduce spam posts
  • AJAX shoutbox – Allows users to leave short tweet-like messages when they are on the forum, separate from phpBB’s forum and post system. Users on the forum at the same time can chat this way.
  • Copyright in footer – adds a copyright statement to the bottom of each page if you claim copyright on your forum’s content.
  • Board3 Portal – Provides a portal-like experience for phpBB, allowing sidebars for additional content to be seen on a portal page. With an additional change to your .htaccess file, you can redirect the forum to go to the portal page by default.
  • Sortables CAPTCHA – Provides a new spambot countermeasure where “correct” content must be dragged into an appropriate column. This can be used during registration to add greater assurance that a human is registering.
  • AdSense – Serves a horizontal Google Adsense ad immediately after the first post of a topic on a page. You have to get a Google Adsense account and set up the ads on that site first.
  • Recent topics – display topics with recent posts and replies on the index
  • Smartfeed – This is my extension. It makes your forum accessible to news readers. Since phpBB has an Atom feature built in for public forums, this extension is most useful if you want to support RSS feeds or for users that want to access protected forums securely using their newsreader using services like Feedly. This is done through creating an authentication key using the Smartfeed user interface.

New extensions are regularly added, so make sure to check the current extension database periodically. Many extensions are in development and when approved they will be added and widely used.

Extensions issues with upgrades to phpBB

When you move between one major version of phpBB and another (such as from 3.1 to 3.2) some of your extensions may not work. You can see the versions of phpBB that the extension supports in the Administration Control Panel: ACP > Customize > Extensions Management > Manage extensions. Click on the details link for the extension. If a given extension is critical to your forum, do not upgrade to a new major version until the extension is updated to work for the new major version.

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