The one feature that most distinguishes the Internet from
any previous communications medium is its interactivity.
The Net is two-way. You give, and you receive.
Savvy organizations and individuals have long recognized
the benefit of this interaction, making it easy for people
to contact them and diligently responding to e-mail. Organizations
on the vanguard have even set up discussion boards where
customers, clients, interested observers, critics, and
even competitors could air their views and share their
The main benefit to them: Repeat traffic and referrals,
with the expectation that some visitors will become customers,
and customers will be more likely to remain customers.
In contrast to the almost-anything-goes atmosphere of
independent discussion groups such as Usenet newsgroups,
organizations typically exercise greater control by moderating
discussions at their sites. Moderation varies from merely
responding to complaints about particular posts to reviewing
all posts before publishing them.
Still, said Alan Webb, CEO of Abakus Internet Marketing
many organizations are wary. “There is a worry in
creating a forum that disgruntled customers or anybody
with a chip on his shoulder might log in and badmouth
the organization,” he said in an e-mail interview.
The trick is skillful moderation. “You need an active,
friendly, knowledgeable, and level-headed moderator if
you can’t do it yourself,” added Webb, whose
company’s own site has a discussion forum. A good
moderator, said Webb, “enjoys starting new discussion
threads and posting messages, is not heavy-handed about
censoring others but is not afraid to close discussion
threads that are getting out of hand, will immediately
delete spam, is a good researcher, and, above all, has
deep knowledge of the subject matter.”
Being a moderator can be tricky. There’s sometimes
a fine line between vigorous, healthy debate and angry,
unproductive arguments. Some moderators let their egos
get in the way, big fish in their own little ponds. Recently
I observed one moderator warn discussion group participants
not to “piss me off.”
The best moderation I’ve ever seen was back when
computer bulletin boards systems and CompuServe forums,
not the Internet, were the virtual meeting places of choice,
an avuncular sysop (system operator) who was as wise and
funny as he was self-effacing, Laurence Sigmund.
The most creative use of online forums I’ve ever
seen is currently employed by Webb, a use that other organizations
could benefit from. Webb heads up a search-engine optimization
company, based in Germany, with clients worldwide. He
helps Web sites achieve good rankings when surfers use
search engines such as Google, a task that can be crucial
in attracting visitors and growing a business.
Webb creatively employs a forum at his own site for this
purpose. “Adding a search engine-friendly forum
to my site was probably the most effective thing I did
to bring in traffic,” he said. Instead of Google
and other search engines just indexing pages he creates,
now they also index pages created by participants of his
He now has 34,500 forum pages indexed in Google. Each
is a potential entry point to his site. Without his discussion
forum, Webb said he would lose at least a third of his
Webb will add a search-engine-friendly forum to any other
site for $300, though he’s generous in offering
free advice at his site on how to do this yourself.
First, you need to make sure you can install forum software
on your Web server. Webb recommends phpBB (www.phpbb.com),
available for free and with an active support forum itself
at its own site. Second, you need to modify the software
to achieve search engine benefits, with step-by-step instructions
offered at phpBB’s site.
Another program worth checking into for business sites
is vBulletin (www.vbulletin.com),
a commercial package that starts at $85.
- Make sure you have enough Web space. A forum can
easily cause a Web site to increase in size, from
three to five new pages a day.
- Create names for your forums that correspond to
keywords you use in your site’s title tags.
These should be words that Web searchers are most
likely to type into Google or other search engines
when looking for sites such as yours.
Along with the technical side, you also need to address
the human side. “Most forums flop because the
moderator doesn’t know how to draw people into
the discussion,” said Webb. One trick is to start,
or have your moderator start, discussion threads that
have subject names phrased as questions. Also, don’t
hesitate to tackle controversial subjects, which are
more likely than tamer material to get people talking.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org