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 recommendations on my rehosting 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.

 

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