Open forum

Whenever visitors are invited to give feedback on the con­tent provided by a Web site, it's the forums that prove most popular. It's not hard to see why: Web conferences, or bulletin boards, provide the ultimate reader feedback, with content adapted to fit the needs of thousands of visitors each week.

There are many reasons to add a bulletin board to your site. Most important of all, it is one of the best ways to create "sticky" content - as users post requests or information, so they will return to see if there have been any responses. It is also a good way to get feedback on your site and to make visitors feel as though they are involved. There are problems, of course. If a forum is not maintained, signs of neglect can look much worse than not having a bulletin board in the first place, and such areas of a site have previously been known to act like magnets for spam and abusive postings.

Nonetheless, the pros definitely outweigh the cons and the good news is that the Web can come to your aid in terms of providing resources at all levels. An increasing number of Web hosts include forums as part of their bundle, but if this is not the case with your host, plenty of alternatives are available. Setting up a Web conference from scratch can be tricky, but there are third-party resources that will enable even a beginner to add a board to their site.

Bulletin board basics

A forum consists of three essential parts: an input form, where users can enter their posts, some form of database where information is stored and a page that will display posts for visitors to click on. Strictly speaking, a proper database is not completely necessary - it is possible to create a bulletin board that writes to and reads from a text file, but such forums are slower and can suffer problems as the number of visitors increases.

Obviously, such a site, in order to work, has to be dynamic. Traditionally, many bulletin boards were handled by Perl scripts and you still find plenty of these online. Popular alternatives include the PHP/MySQL combination, where pages written in PHP parse information from a Web site and pass it to and from an SQL database, as well as Microsoft's message boards for its IIS (Internet information server).

The simplest way to create a conference and one that involves absolutely no programming skills at all, is to use a third-party site to host your bulletin board. The various companies that offer these include ezboard, (www.ezboard.com), QuickTopic (www.quicktopic.com), RunBoard (www.runboard.com) and Aimoo (www.aimoo.com). One of the longest running third party hosts for web forums is ezboard, click here to see a screenshot.

For more details on setting up a forum on RunBoard, see "Up and running" on page 3 of this guide, but the essentials are usually the same for all of them: set up an account, modify the appearance of your board - in some cases you will have to pay extra for this - and copy a link to your site.

Aim higher

If you fancy trying something more ambitious, there are plenty of applications and scripts available online that can then be hosted on your site - assuming that you have permission to run executable files or scripting languages such as Perl or PHP. A couple of extremely popular tools are YaBB (www.yabbforum.com) and phpBB (www.phpbb.com). phpBB is one of many applications offering fully customisable bulletin boards for free, click here to see how.

For users who have some previous knowledge of Perl and CGI, YaBB is much easier to implement: it downloads as a .cgi or .pl file that can be hosted on just about any server that supports the common gateway interface, providing fairly comprehensive administrative and customisation features.

By contrast, phpBB is a good example of a fairly high-end Web-conferencing system. As with YaBB, it is open source and so free to use, but it also requires an SQL database such as MySQL or PostgreSQL to work. It can even be used with Access to create a rough-and-ready board, but this is not recommended as it would lose out on the main benefit of using this application over YaBB - the ability to scale your Web conference as you add more users and forums.

One comment that should be made about these and other freeware applications is that you should expect to have a working knowledge of the scripting language you intend to use. What you often pay for with commercial applications such as WowBB (www.wowbb.com) is a more user-friendly interface.

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Jason Whittaker

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