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Running a successful Vanilla forum with 3500+ members.. any questions?

RaizeRaize
edited November 2011 in Feedback
Hey guys, I started a forum back in 2006 for the student's at my university and it has remained fairly popular over the years, even after the spread of Facebook. It has about 3500 members, and gets about 200 visitors per day. It is fully automated, other than the fact that I have to approve new members manually due to spam. Anonymous posting is allowed with the recaptcha and all new posts are automatically posted to the twitter account as a way to retain traffic and bring in new visitors.

http://talksfu.ca

I know it's hard to launch a forum and develop a new community, so if you guys want to pick my brain (especially about the early stages) feel free to ask. I have learned a lot of things over the years about what to do and what not to do. From my experience, Vanilla is the best forum option out there hands down and I'm very glad that I switched 2 years ago.
ToddmclovinelifarleyDouglas_Thorreasey

Comments

  • x00x00 MVP
    edited November 2011
    I'm less interested in the automated stuff becuase I'm a programmer, I want to what you did personally in the early days help it catch on.

    Did you simply let membership pick up, or did you post your own articles, get you friends to post Q and A, etc?

    For me the site is more of a niche interest, which is different than a student union. But still quite popular. I've already ripped articles from my blog in an SEO friendly way excerpts, I will encourage club members' to post Q and A. I'm also going to invite bloggers, give them extra publicity, it would use a similar feed reading technique that I also use. I'm also going to invite some other struggling forum to join forces, as they don't have to technical knowledge.

    Other than if necessary that I'm thinking ripping (public) Q and A from, the web. However this has to be done well, in a way that is not dishonest, but also doesn't make a big deal out of it Archives bot or something (they would be hand selected). Early archives 2000-2005 from marginal sites would make sense.

    To be honest I have seen some pretty clueless people do well at forums. Sometimes it is simply about timing and luck. The guy I'm thinking of there was nothing out there at the time. But atm he has completely botched his site he is not competent enough to fix it. He calls himself a developer, but he can't tie his shoe laces in that respect. He had help in he beginning, but claimed all the credit and pissed off the other founders. Now he is too scared to migrate, and refuses help from anyone. His site is regularly down, becuase it can't handle the load, and he won't make efficiencies. The only thing he has done is purchase physical server.

    grep is your friend.

  • x00x00 MVP
    edited November 2011
    I think it is also quite important than it looks an feels the part, that is why I've spent a lot of time getting that right.

    My site is very tag focused. I'm not going to discuss all the details but it is simple, but with custom functionality under the hood.

    grep is your friend.

  • @Raize, can I ask you which was your previuos forum software?
  • ToddTodd Chief Product Officer Vanilla Staff
    Awesome post! Here's a few questions:

    1. How do you spread the word about your community?
    2. What are the most common questions from new users about the community?
    3. How do you deal with abusive people/trolls?
    4. My Dad's a UBC graduate. Do you hate him?
  • @Raize

    1. How do you get it to send new posts to your twitter account?

    Great idea for a post, btw! -bookmarked-
  • RaizeRaize
    edited November 2011
    @candyman I was using vbulletin since 2006 (at the time it was the most popular and most feature filled forum software available, but over the years it became outdated). i switched to vanilla in 2010.. the clincher for me was the mobile functionality that vanilla recently added.. and the fact that it's so lightweight and easy to use. more and more people are surfing the internet from their smartphones so this was key for the forum to survive long term. The vanilla importer tool was a huge help when I switched over, and I was actually surprised that it worked so well. Due to differences in the way that Vanilla and VB handle urls, my search engine traffic took a big hit as google tried to reindex my whole forum (over 7400 discussions and 55000 comments) and it probably decreased my pagerank too, but it has since recovered (it was worth it).
  • @Todd

    1. initially i spread it by dropping flyers around campus, and optimizing my forum for the keyword "sfu forum".. once ppl started using the forum and creating threads, those threads got indexed in google and the long tail started bringing in traffic (as well as word of mouth). right now, a majority of traffic comes from google simply by people typing in specific questions that have already been indexed on my forum

    2. the most common questions are regarding academic things such as which classes to take, or which professors are easy/hard. no one really asks anything about the community itself, it is self explanatory

    3. i have installed a plugin which gives forum regulars the ability to flag inappropriate posts. these posts show up in the vanilla dashboard and then we simply go through and delete them. also i have a team of volunteer moderators who help keep things clean (we have a zero tolerance policy for trolls)

    4. no, i love ubc. i wish i had gone there instead of sfu but it was too far from my house to drive everyday :)
    aery
  • @Todd I didn't know you were from Vancouver?
  • @Douglas_Thor I use a website called Twitterfeed, which is really easy to set up and use with Vanilla. Twitterfeed lets you post any RSS or Atom feed to Twitter automatically.. I just used the default RSS link that every Vanilla forum comes with

    http://twitterfeed.com/
    Douglas_Thor
  • ToddTodd Chief Product Officer Vanilla Staff
    I'm not from Vancouver, but both of my parents and all of my extended family is. My parents moved to Toronto just after my Dad graduated from UBC actually.
  • RaizeRaize
    edited November 2011
    @x00 the tricky part when you first start a new community is the classic chicken and egg question. First you have to get people to visit the forum, and then you have to get them to participate in discussions. If your forum has no members, then they won't stick around because they perceive that there is no one to talk with.

    What I actually did was create multiple users with a variety of usernames and display pics. Then i just searched on other student forums to find topics that I thought would be relevant to students at my school as well (general topics like about relationships and tips to do well in classes, that sort of thing). Then I recreated those discussions on my forum. At the same time, I was spreading the word around school about the new forum.

    Once people started using it, I didn't need to create discussions myself anymore and people did it for me. Once that critical mass was reached, it basically snowballed on its own. The more discussions that people were having on the site, the more it was being indexed in google, and the more new visitors were coming to the site.
    Toddmeuhmeuh
  • @Raize I think many people do that so I think there is no problem in it, if it provides useful information, and it stop once it is start to pick up. I probably will write some of the posts slight make them original.

    grep is your friend.

  • ToddTodd Chief Product Officer Vanilla Staff
    Seeding your own forum with its initial content is a great tip. It's really what bloggers do all the time. And I've seen big sites like Stack Overflow and Quora do this very thing.
    Douglas_Thor
  • ToddTodd Chief Product Officer Vanilla Staff
    With regards to your SEO dropping after your import from vBulletin, I'm kind of curious about this. With the routes we set up after a vBulletin export, Google should index your site just fine.

    I'm wondering if it was because you did the import before we refined the process. We've seen two major things that have hurt SEO after an import.

    1. We initially had 302 redirects instead of 301 redirects. It turns out that Google gets annoyed if you keep giving it the same 302 over and over again. This has since been fixed.

    2. We had a client that completely changed domains and was forwarding all traffic from the old domain to the home page of the new site rather than the individual content pages. This killed the SEO.

    3. Again, if you change domains and not just products you may need to put a site verifier into your new site. If you have Google Analytics on your old site and properly move it to the new domain then you should be good.

    When we did Penny Arcade's forum we made sure the redirects were in place correctly and saw no drop off in search traffic.
  • I notice you have "ads" - is this something that you are contacted about? I don't see anything about advertising on your site.
  • I just want to comment on the fact that you use Twitterfeed, imo http://dlvr.it is much better.
  • I notice you have "ads" - is this something that you are contacted about? I don't see anything about advertising on your site.
    Nevermind, I see what you did there. ;)

  • I have ~7k users on my forum. Vanilla needs a decent amount of memory setup for mysql to function well. A lot of the queries relating to activities are especially bad so I manually edited out the Activities tab from the main navigation. There are still considerable queries that end up happening without using indexes and when your activity table has ~5M rows those can take a longgg time.
  • AnonymooseAnonymoose Some people are not happy, because they are not moose. ✭✭
    edited November 2011
    Limit registrations to those with @university.edu accounts from your school and with email validation you can forget about manual user validation and spam.

    PangziWang
  • x00x00 MVP
    edited November 2011
    Many universities use .ac, then you have country codes. .ac.uk

    grep is your friend.

  • @Anonymoose I've thought about that, but there are a lot of prospective students that visit the forum as they are researching which university to go to, so they wouldn't have a university email yet. Especially those students who come from out of province or overseas. For now it's getting the job done, I get about 5 spam applicants and 2 real applicants per day and it only takes a few seconds to approve or decline them.
  • @Todd

    I'm not sure why it happened, but I did it when the importer was first released. It was a bit of a tradeoff at the time, but search engine traffic is strong now so I'm guessing it was some sort of pagerank issue on Google's end.
  • RaizeRaize
    edited November 2011
    @zippylistings

    There are a lot of businesses on campus, and the plan was to approach them to advertise on the site, but I graduated before I had the time to do that. So now I advertise my own services on there for the time being :) If you are working on any real estate products I would definitely love to hear about them. I am working on a real estate forum using Vanilla for my next forum.
  • ToddTodd Chief Product Officer Vanilla Staff
    I think @422 runs a bunch or real estate forums @Raize. You two should start a discussion about just that if you wish.
  • 422422 Developer MVP
    We do have a real estate forum, yet to be launched though. Happy as always to help. Thanks for the mention @todd

    422 Real Estate Australia , now open Check it out

  • mclovinmclovin New
    edited November 2011
    @Raize, very inspiring.

    By the way, is that an embedded vanilla or vanilla installed within the /forum directory and UI hacked?

    I am planning to work on another community site and I am wondering between wordpress/vanilla and buddypress. But I liked the way yours is done.
  • RaizeRaize
    edited December 2011

    It's just a Vanilla theme designed to match with the default Wordpress theme. See it here. I don't like to use embedding because then the forum threads don't get indexed properly with the rest of the site.

    Go with Wordpress/Vanilla or Vanilla/Nillablog. I am going to ditch Wordpress for my next site and use Vanilla as the CMS. Community is the keyword.

  • Thanks @Raize. I evaluated embedded vanilla and decided to go against it for SEO reasons. Vanilla/Nillablog with a custom theme sounds like a good idea.

    Raize
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