Ode to a Forum

May 9th, 2008 by Chris

I love forums, they are excellent tools for website publishers with almost no downside and tremendous upside. If you have a site that you think would benefit from a forum, wait not another day, and get it done now.

Why are forums good? Well, there are many reasons, lets start first with how they provide a stable core of traffic for your site. If you have a popular, vibrant, growing forum with a critical mass of active users, even if all your search engine rankings were to evaporate your site would likely still survive as the forum would continue to grow. All your forum members would be telling their friends about it, linking to it from their Facebook profiles, and everything else. Forums provide a stabilizing affect on your traffic that helps your site weather swings and shifts in other traffic sources.

Of course, forums also help your search engine traffic by providing a treasure trove of content that search engines can index and list. Try making a content site that doesn’t rely on user submitted content and try to reach the sheer page count possible with a forum. You might have hundreds, even thousands, of articles on a website and yet a forum will almost always dwarf that with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of posts.

A forum can even help prevent losses in search engine traffic. When I, and many of you I’m sure, started in this business it was quite different, there was less competition, and overall less people knew that you could make money online. The bubble burst of 1999 and 2000 made most people think the Internet was money poison, a few of us knew that by staying small, and keeping costs low, you could make really good money.

Now, however, things have changed. The mainstream media has reported dozens and dozens of human interest stories of average people making large incomes by running websites out of their homes or small offices. This perception of easy money has attracted people who look for get rich quick schemes, people who do not quite understand how to program, market, design, or otherwise put out a good website. They rely on stolen content, stolen ideas, gibberish, spam, and other things. But they do know enough to at least make their website look real enough to a machine.

This is where human reviewers come in, search engines employ human reviewers in a quality control capacity for reviewing their search results. Additionally we’ve had human reviewers, in the form of link popularity algorithms, for a long time. As such it is vitally important that your site come off well to humans, and there are certain things you can do to accomplish that. One of them is bragging about your content, but additionally having a forum will help. The Google Human Reviewer handbook specifically has a section about how an active forum is a huge vote against labeling a site as spam. So when you want to be sure your site passes muster when reviewed by a human, a forum is a huge help.

Forums, are of course, just one form of user generated content, but thanks to sophisticated software, you can use your forum to handle all sorts of such content. The most recent version of vBulletin (3.7) has many social networking like features, it also has a robust plugin system and can integrate with blog, gallery, and review products. It is also easy to appropriate vBulletin’s user authentication system to power custom sections of your own site, saving you programming time and allowing your users to have just one login for your whole site.

For any site that is going to be built around user submitted content it will be hard to find a better CMS that a properly modded vBulletin forum.

Finally, forums are amazing tools for promoting other sites. You can market your other sites or products to your forum members and build sales and traffic that way. Additionally, you can use a tool like the vbGeek Autolinker to turn your forum into a link popularity machine. What the script does it turn select words into predefined links to help you build link popularity. For instance if you own a forum about widgets and a site that sells widgets you could have the word “purple widget” turned into a link to your page about purple widgets in any post that uses the word. I’ve used this technique to get great rankings for some of my ecommerce sites, in addition to the direct traffic it provides.

So, buy a forum, or build a forum, but get one, don’t wait any longer. It may take awhile to grow, or it may shoot up instantly, but almost all forums eventually become successful.

Here are some related articles that may be of interest:
The Ultimate vBulletin Optimization Guide
Should You Pay for Posts? Forum Posting Services Reviewed
Your .Community – A Guide

5 Responses to “Ode to a Forum”

  1. Gyutae Park  Says:

    Hey Chris,
    Great article, but I would have to disagree with your last point that “almost all forums eventually become successful.” In my experience, forums are the hardest types of sites to grow because they rely so much on other people.

    Blogs rely on content and articles, ecommerce on products, and forums on community. Without people forums are nothing but most people won’t join a forum unless it’s already popular. It’s not impossible but a forum takes a HUGE time and effort commitment to make successful.

  2. Chris  Says:

    Which is why I said “almost all” and “eventually.”

    I have one forum that for 4 years couldn’t do more than 200 posts a month. Now it gets 100 a day.

  3. Rob  Says:

    Chris, I love reading your articles. You’re love of forums is what has kept me committed to forums and user generated content.

    I love the word linking idea! I don’t use VB, but my forum software has the ability to convert “banned” words into other words. I can simply convert a word or phrase into a linked version of that phrase to a page on my site… I love it!

    Also, I’m in the process of leveraging an existing community into a complimentary forum / community. Right now all the members of the new community are from my original forum, but I’m hoping that as the SE’s get a hold of the content I’ll start getting a lot of new members, many of which I can even funnel into my original site. Potential for some exciting community synergy!

  4. Tom M  Says:

    Great article!

    I think forums are great but I think they take up so much time and there is tons of competition. In fact, so many forums fail each year because the owner just gives up.

    I believe if you can hold the course and have a nice budget to promote the forum, in the long run it will be a great benefit.

  5. Chris Bowyer  Says:

    I concur. Building an active community can take a lot of time and effort, and there will often be times where it feels like a lost cause, but there’s a ton of upside to it, as you’ve detailed here.

    I think one point you mentioned, about using forum software as a site-wide registration gateway, is worth repeating. A few sites do this, but not nearly enough, to my mind. When I start any significantly-sized site now, integrating it with vBulletin from the bottom-up is a given. Using vB’s templating system greatly speeds development time, as does letting it handle all of the registration and login details.

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