November 2017 work summary

Business here at phpBB Services was a bit slow in November but it picked up toward the end of the month. It worked out to a nicely profitable month in the end. Here is a summary of the work done this month. All identifying client information has been withheld, of course:

  • Tried to fix more malware issues for a client who uses WordPress for a site to advertise his business. Because of the malware, his web host would not allow me access to the site to fix it, but they did provide a Dropbox with the files and identified the known files with vulnerabilities. Setting it up on my machine was complicated but I finally got it to work. I corrected the known problems and compared WordPress and all plugins with referenced files. I checked the database too for malware. I removed all unused themes, including one with a known vulnerability. I updated a few plugins and WordPress itself. I zipped everything up and sent it to the web host, who installed it and found no errors. But later on despite my best efforts and scanning all the files by the web host, the malware returned. The malware looked like it has been injected into a business theme. The frustrated client ditched WordPress. Not sure what he is using now but I think he moved to weebly.com. I can’t say I blame him. I tried to fix this for him as a favor. While I dabble in WordPress but don’t consider it an area where I have any particular expertise.
  • I installed the Advertising Management Extension on a forum running phpBB 3.2.1. I spent extra time troubleshooting and analyzing his ad placement questions … apparently there was an ad missing in the footer. I found one missing on the portal page and suggested checking his Adsense code to see if it is still correct, as it left a blank area on the page.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.1.9 to 3.2.1. Since the client has a SCCS-based style, I reinstalled the Artodia SCCS compiler extension after the upgrade so I could give it the desired look. The colorizeit.com site unfortunately doesn’t work on phpBB 3.2 styles, so I looked at changes made originally using colorizeit.com to his Elegance style for 3.1 and replicated them for his Elegance style for phpBB 3.2, creating new custom style I called Elegance Orange. There were some issues with drop down controls and the style that the client noticed. Fortunately, I found a newer version maintained by another style artist that fixed these bugs. I installed that version of Elegance, made a new Elegance Orange style again and reapplied the code changes to the theme and templates. Customer satisfied!
  • Client had issues accessing tabs in the Administration Control Panel. I tried to look in the database using phpMyAdmin but got a token error trying to run phpMyAdmin. I figured the issue was with the database itself, so I repaired it outside of phpMyAdmin. There were still issues so I deleted the cache manually and the errors stopped. The client approved converting tables to InnoDB to reduce likelihood of further issues. I had to put Unix 777 permissions on the cache/production folder. For some reason they did not inherit. I recommended that the client complain to web host and ask to be moved to newer hardware and software as he was constantly running out of quota and they were using old Windows hosting.
  • I updated the Tapatalk extension from version 2.0.3 to 2.0.5 based on email client received from Tapatalk.
  • I moved a forum from FastComet hosting to TMD hosting, both the database and files including files for the website, not just for the forum. I changed the DNS in GoDaddy to point to the new hosting.
  • I updated the Tapatalk extension from version 2.0.3 to 2.0.5 for another client.
  • I installed the Advertisement Management Extension on a phpBB 3.2.1 forum using the standard prosilver style.
  • I installed my digests extension (version 3.2.4) on a new phpBB forum. There were some issues getting the cron to work right. It required a support ticket to the web host to get path to curl.
  • I updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.0 to 3.2.1. I had to upload all the files rather than the changed files because the upgrade would not work otherwise.
  • I upgraded forum from phpBB 3.0.10 to 3.2.1. Due to the high availability requirement of the forum, it was a two step process, first to verify it could be done at all. In the first step, I created a test database and copied the production database into it. This exposed MySQL shared hosting quota issues, so it took a while to copy all the tables correctly. Trying to recreate the search index on the test forum also caused MySQL quota issues. I installed the Flat style and integrated the old logo, changing some CSS to place the transparent logo image on a black background like before. Converting the production forum was straightforward. I placed a copy of files and database into a backup folder first. I copied theme as I configured it from test forum to save time. It all looked good so I deleted old database, the test forum folder and subdomain too.
  • Client worked with his web host to move his WordPress site and phpBB forum to a new server. The forum did not come up. Upon investigation, I determined that the forum’s files were moved but database hadn’t been moved. I exported the database from the old hosting and imported it into a new database on the new hosting. I edited the config.php file so it correctly connected with the new database. I purged cache manually otherwise the cached file would still try to connect to the old database. I set folder permissions correctly. I then upgraded the forum from phpBB 3.1.9 to 3.2.1. There were no complications, just one image to replace. Later the user discovered that post images weren’t showing. When I tried to bring up the forum but the phpBB3 folder was gone! I recovered it using File Manager. The post images still didn’t show. It turned out that the path to Imagemagick had changed from the old machine. Once the path to it was fixed the images showed. I also changed some settings to use the new security certificate installed.
  • I fixed a weird issue that developed with Forumrunner modification installed on a forum running phpBB 3.0.10. Forumrunner is similar to Tapatalk in that it allows a forum’s posts to be seen inside of a smartphone app. In the forum’s error log, I discovered an error that said the Forumrunner program expected to write to a missing fr_token column in a table. I scoured the web for a reference and found its datatype (tinyint), then added the column to the table with phpMyAdmin. It should make this issue go away. I also provided an estimate for upgrading to phpBB 3.2.1 but the client is not interested at this time. Hopefully there are no more Forumrunner issues like this!

Professionalizing your forum, part two

Since I wrote my first post about professionalizing your forum, I realized there are some other actions that will up your game in this area.

Monitor your domain for blacklisting

Blacklisting happens when users report to one or more blacklist sites that your site is sending out spam or contains malware. Generally you don’t get put on a blacklist inadvertently, so your site may have been hacked. It’s also possible that some email sent or reportedly sent from your domain were judged as spam or spam-like. It’s also possible of course that someone is falsely reporting your site to a blacklist. In any event being on a blacklist is not a mark of distinction. You need to monitor blacklists and take corrective action if your domain shows up on a list. Being on a blacklist can get your dropped from search engines or move way down in the rankings, as well as dramatically reduce site traffic.

Since you probably don’t want to check all the blacklists out there individually, there are services out there that can help you. If you have just one domain and getting one email a week is sufficient, you can use this site for free. They offer paid plans for multiple domains and more frequent checks, and there are other similar services so shop around.

To get yourself off a blacklist usually requires some explicit action on your part where you appeal or prove that the content does not or no longer exists.

Monitor, find and fix issues with Google Webmaster Tools

Google of course is constantly searching the web and indexing as much content on your site as you allow it to index. Google Webmaster Tools can find security issues with your site too, as well as tell you of issues like links that are bad that should be fixed.

To see reports about your domain you must take the time to register the site with Google, which can be done using a number of methods. Google will tell you if there are any critical issues but to do things like fix broken links you have to dig into their reports. Since most links on your site are going to be in posts posted by users to your forum, fixing these links is probably not worth the effort. However, there may be other links that are worth fixing.

Periodically check your WOT Rating

Browsers generally support a Web of Trust (WOT) extension. The extension allows users to easily say whether they trust your site or not. Since it’s an extension, you can install it in your favorite browser and when you are on your site monitor your reported trust status. If you notice your site trust level going down, you might want to see if there is a root cause and take appropriate actions.

There is some controversy about whether WOT can itself be trusted, since it was reported its developers were collecting your browser history without identifying information.

Use a sitemap

A sitemap indexes your forum’s content into a file that search engines like Google can read. It’s an authoritative way of describing the content on your site to search engines. There is a sitemap extension that works for phpBB 3.1 and reputedly 3.2 as well. Since it is simple to install, installing this one should be a no-brainer, providing you know about it!

Moderate, or take out the trash

A lot of administrators don’t even read their forums, or not all parts of it. It could be because the forum gets a lot of traffic and it’s a lot to keep up on. All forums should at least be moderated, either by an administrator or one or more global or forum-specific moderators. The moderation tools in phpBB are pretty good. They let users do a lot of the moderation for you by at least being able to report a post as inappropriate, spam or whatever. They won’t do this though unless you encourage them, so if this is important to you post a global announcement to this effect.

Disk space is cheap these days so moderation may seem like a lot of work. Why not just let people post whatever they want in whatever rambling way they want? For many forums this is fine, but for certain forums it’s not appropriate. You want the content to be relevant and that can be done by removing posts and topics that aren’t relevant.

Posts that seek to troll other users, inflame conversations and such are rarely desired. Here’s where you moderators can be of help, perhaps by empowering them to set up moderation guidelines for their forums setting the rules and then letting them wield the power. Hopefully this will translate into a better reputation for your forum and topics as search engines decide the content is more relevant.

As long as your moderation rules are clear, a well moderated forum where irrelevant stuff is regularly pruned is a good idea. It’s unlikely your readers want to read irrelevant content anyhow.

You might want to set up an off-topic forum for general banter, so your main forums can stay clean. Moderators may choose to move these topics into such a forum rather than remove them.

Consider pruning

phpBB has a rarely used pruning feature. It lets administrators throw out old content. This is rarely used for obvious reasons: old content is not necessarily irrelevant and it’s unlikely that you will hit some sort of quota for the size of your database. It’s possible that search engines will rank you higher if the old stuff is regularly pruned. Global pruning is an administrator responsibility. Topics can be pruned on various common sense criteria: days since there was a posting and days since someone last viewed the topic. You can prune announcements, stickies and old polls as part of pruning or not. To prune: ACP > Forums > Manage forums > Prune forums.

There is likely more to this topic that may generate future posts.

 

Professionalizing your forum

For many forum owners, their forum becomes a bit more than important. It may be a big feature of their website. It may be their website. It may contain crucial information to a very specific community. It may generate income. Or maybe its purpose is pure vanity but for whatever reason it means a lot to them. If you are one of these forum owners, you want it to gleam, seem always new and shiny, serve lots of users robustly and be reliable 24/7/365. How do you take your forum to the next level? How do you professionalize your forum?

This is not a discussion of how to better market your forum. I leave that for SEO experts with more expertise in the topic than I have. In truth most phpBB forums serve very specialized markets so they probably won’t grow beyond a certain size. Most of the forums I work on have under 100,000 posts, even if they have been around for a decade or more. I get plenty of forums in the 200,000-300,000 posts range, but it’s rare to see a forum with 500,000 or more posts.

You may already be doing some of these practices. If you have the time, energy and money you might want to implement all of these suggestions.

Styling

Your style presents a first impression. The default style for phpBB is prosilver. It looks nice, if you like a blue style with a hint of grey. There are plenty of free styles to choose from, but also paid styles as well. The paid styles may be worth investing some money in. Some are extra slick, using advanced CSS practices so that styles not only look good, but are applied quickly and intelligently. For more information, see my styling post. Going the extra mile here might be to pay one of these style vendors to custom fit a style so that it integrates slickly into your larger website or to give your forum a unique look. It may be worth the extra cost.

Collect metrics

If you are not collecting metrics on the usage of your website, you probably should be. Yes, you can see the number of new topics and posts by visiting the forum but it doesn’t tell you (at least not easily) which topics are most popular or answer other questions. Google Analytics is the 800-pound gorilla in the web analytics area. There is an extension you can add to phpBB that will report your forum’s usage to Google Analytics. But there are plenty of alternatives. Some like to keep it simple, using a service like Statcounter. Quantcast offers a more Google-Analytics experience. There are plenty of other analytic services you can use too. However, to add the code needed to capture this information usually requires editing your forum’s overall_header.html template, overall_footer.html template or both.

Understanding these reports can be too much information, but all handle the basics such as showing popular posts, visitors and common search engine terms. A careful analysis may reveal trends that you may want to exploit. For example, popular search term might suggest creating additional topics in this area to help build site traffic.

Extend your forum

phpBB Extensions allow you to offer additional functionality beyond what comes “out of the box” with phpBB. Installing extensions isn’t hard and official extensions are free and rigorously tested by the phpBB group, so you know they are unlikely to have vulnerabilities. You might want to read my post on extensions. While you should not install extensions willy nilly as they comes with some cost and risks, there are many top-notch extensions such as the recently released Advertisement Management extension that makes it easy to place ads on your forum.

Change your hosting

If you are happy with your hosting and neither users nor you are noticing any issues with performance or page speed, by all means keep your current host. Rehosting a forum is not simple as it involved moving both files and the database, plus changing your DNS to point to the new hosting. There are also costs to acquire a new hosting contract. The phpBB group has a rehosting knowledge base article if you want to try it yourself.

I have some hosting recommendations on my services page. The phpBB group has some more, but bear in mind they get some revenue if you get hosting by following their links. New hosts will often move a forum for free to get your business, at least if you ask them nicely. I also offer a rehosting service with prices starting at $50.

Monitor your forum

You obviously can’t be on your forum all the time to see if it is up and working correctly. You might want to know if there is a problem accessing the forum. Site monitoring services can do this for you. Some are free, some not, and the features vary a bit.

I like Uptime Robot because it is free and has proved reliable, but it checks at a maximum of every five minutes. It sends me emails when my site is down and another email when it is up. Most of these services provide basic tests, with the most basic test being does the index page come up. It’s possible that there problems might affect a particular part of the website, like posting or the Administration Control Panel. These services can’t usually be configured to do these kinds of tests, but they do provide some basic service to let you know if the site is up or down.

I have found many of the times my site is “down” it comes “up” minutes later. These are usually problems related to brief patches being applied by the web host and they are hoping no one will notice. If there is a major incident underway, these services will at least let you know. Your web host may not know there is a problem.

Hint: make sure you choose a HTTP test if offered. You want to know if a web page can be returned, like the index.php page. Simply having a service ping your domain is a poor test.

Update the forum regularly

Just like it’s a good idea to get your car’s oil changed regularly, it’s a good idea to update your forum when new micro versions are released. Bugs get fixed but more importantly there are occasional security issues that get fixed too. The phpBB group keeps trying to simplify the update process but it seems to be an uphill climb. There are little landmines that can trip you up. You can read the official update instructions. An upgrade is moving from one minor version of phpBB to another (like 3.1 to 3.2). Here you don’t need to be one of the first to upgrade. Upgrades sometimes have issues with the first version, so lagging a bit behind may be a virtue. You might want to wait for the 3.x.1 release.

Most of my business is upgrades, so I am happy to do these for you if you want. Or you can try the official upgrade instructions.

When you go into the Administration Control Panel, it will tell you if there is a new update or upgrade to phpBB. If you don’t often go into the ACP, you may prefer to get official notifications instead. You can subscribe to the phpBB blog with your favorite newsreader where new releases are announced. phpBB also has a Twitter feed and is on Facebook.

Keep your web server properly maintained

Typically you do not own and manage the web server on which your forum resides. If you have shared hosting, it’s the responsibility of the web host to update the software on which phpBB depends. You can monitor the key software needed to run the forum and complain or rehost if the web host gets too far behind. A lot of this information is available in the Administration Control Panel under PHP Information. Check your version of MySQL (if you are using it as your database) with the current generally available community edition available from Oracle and complain if you are a few versions behind. If using MariaDB, you can see community editions here.

If you have a virtual server or a dedicated server, you may need a hosting contract to provide these updates as a service. This can get pricey. A good system administrator will keep your operating system, database, control panel and PHP up to date and regularly patched.

One easy way to increase performance if you have phpBB 3.2 or above is to use PHP 7. It should add about a 50% increase in performance compared with PHP 5.x. You can usually change this in the web host control panel, but it may require a support ticket with your web host. Be careful though to ensure that other software you use on your site can handle PHP 7.

Backup your files and database

Most web host control panels provide built-in solutions for backing up your site, including your database. Sometimes this can only be done manually. Ideally you would like an automated backup, storing multiple versions. At a minimum, back up your site monthly and ideally keep two other previous versions.

phpBB does let you backup your database manually: ACP > Maintenance > Database > Backup. You can store the backup on your server or download it. This won’t backup your forum’s file too. There is a useful extension to backup your database using phpBB’s cron process. As of this writing though it works on phpBB 3.1 only.

The key items to backup are the /files, /images and /store folders and the config.php file. The rest of the files and folders are software and can be recreated from a reference if needed.