bbPress Review From a Coder’s Point of View

I was very excited about the relaunch of our forums at the start of this week. The forums were an integral part of my future plans when I first launched WP Mods 18 months ago, though things didn’t work out as I had planned. Today I would like to talk a little about why I initially chose bbPress as my forum solution, why I decided to remove bbPress and why I don’t think bbPress is necessarily the right solution for your website.

Before I proceed, let me tell you a little about my background with discussion forums. The first forum script I used on a website was vBulletin. I tried a lot of free alternatives at the time but decided that I needed a premium solution for my shopping website (the forums were added to a shopping directory I owned). That was back around 2000/2001. I loved vBulletin and I was a huge advocate of it for the best part of ten years. I purchased several licenses, applied hacks to all of my websites and spoke frequently about how no other forum solution came close to the number of features it offers.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan boy though as I also used lots of free alternatives on my websites such as Simple MachinesphpBB and PunBB. I still believe that no other forum script matched vBulletin between 2000 and 2010.

Between 2001 and 2008, the majority of my income online came from discussion forums I owned or websites I owned that also had a discussion forum. I guess I was a little bit of a forum junkie. On my own forums I probably wrote at least 25,000 forum posts (probably more); not to mention the thousands of posts I wrote on other webmaster related discussion forums. It was definitely a contributing factor in my decision to move into blogging more seriously in 2006. When you think about it, writing a long blog post isn’t really any different from writing a long forum post.

My background is definitely one of the reasons that I want to develop a forum here. Maketers are always encouraging you to use social media services in order to network and get to know your readers though in my opinion Twitter, Facebook and Google+ can’t match the level of interactivity you get through a forum.

Why I Initially Chose bbPress for the WP Mods Forums

Before launching WP Mods I looked at a few forum solutions. I had used vBulletin on my previous website, as I always did, so gave that the most serious consideration (I later spoke about forum scripts available to webmasters in my post ‘Which Forum Script Should You Use With Your WordPress Powered Website?‘).

I was keen on using bbPress though. At the time it was a stand alone script but it was still the only forum script that integrated well with WordPress. The official bridge was easy to install and once it was set up your forum used the same user database as your blog. Most popular forum scripts have WordPress bridges available for them that try and centralise the user database so that the visitor can use the same user account throughout your website, though the vast majority of these solutions were buggy and impractical.

I also felt a strange duty to use bbPress. I was after all launching a dedicated blog about the WordPress platform and had seen it used successfully on the official WordPress support forums.

Why I Don’t Believe bbPress Is The Perfect Forum Solution

I was never truly happy using bbPress. bbPress is a great lightweight solution for those who only need a basic forum. It’s main strength is it’s biggest weakness; it’s too basic. It’s quick to use but lacks important functionality that is vital for building a good community. Even basic features such as signatures and file attachments require the use of a plugin. I’ve read similar comments from other WordPress fanatics such as Jeff Chandler, who chose vBulletin over bbPress.

I had high hopes for bbPress when it was announced that it was changing from a stand alone product to a WordPress plugin. This is what every WordPress is looking for; the perfect forum solution that can be integrated into an existing website at the click of a button.

The stable release of bbPress 2.0, which is the name given to the first release of the bbPress plugin, was not released at the scheduled release date in June. At the end of August I wrote about my disappointment with the slow progress of the bbPress plugin. The stable version of the plugin hadn’t been released, no one was getting support through the support forums and there was no documentation that explained how you could modify the bbPress templates for your website.

John James Jacoby, who is one of the main developers of bbPress and BuddyPress, took particular offence at my comments. He advised that I shouldn’t blame people for the slow progress and should instead be looking at ways I could help out. I appreciate where he is coming from as he has put a lot of work into the script though I disagree that end users can’t complain about a free product missing deadlines or not living up to its potential just because it’s free. For me, price isn’t the issue. I’d happily pay a few hundred bucks for a solution if it was updated regularly, feature rich and well supported.

Using bbPress Experiences:

It’s more than 2 months later and my view of bbPress hasn’t changed. The stable version of the plugin has been released but there is still no documentation so unless you’re a good designer you are going to find it difficult to change the default design that bbPress uses (which is very poor). Support for bbPress is hit or miss too, which is understandable for an open source script, though it’s not encouraging to someone who needs support. Time is money and most bloggers like myself don’t want to spend days trying to work out how a script works. I understand HTML, CSS and basic PHP but I’m a blogger, not a designer.

Let me clarify that I’m not trying to put people off using bbPress. It’s a very lightweight forum script and for some people that is all they are looking for. Plus, the ability to integrate a forum directly into your website design and use your existing WordPress database should not be discounted. This is exactly the sort of integration every single WordPress owner wants.

It does have many negatives though:

  • Very little documentation on how to style bbPress.
  • Very little support for those who do need support.
  • Very basic features. Most features that are standard in forum scripts need to be added as a plugin.

I definitely wouldn’t rule out using bbPress on another website of mine in the future if documentation is finally added to the site. Until then, I will be using alternative solutions.

My Reasoning For Choosing XenForo

Once I decided that bbPress wasn’t the right script for me here, I started looking at alternatives. I tested Automattics other community script BuddyPress again. I had tried it out a year or so ago and whilst it has been vastly improved since then, I still find it very limiting.

So I turned to what I consider to be the best forum scripts available at the moment: Invision Power BoardvBulletin and XenForo. All three scripts are priced between $140 and $200.

Invision Power Board (IPB) – $149.99

IPB has improved greatly over the last few years and is now considered one of the best forum scripts available. It has a great design and allows visitors to sign up or login using Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live, LDAP and OpenID.

Invision Power Board

A license for the discussion board retails for $149.99 however there are several additional add ons available such as the eCommerce add on Nexus ($74.99), gallery ($64.99), blog ($49.99) and downloads ($49.99). There is also a content management system add on available for $49.99 and a live chat option too (that is priced by the number of active users).

I signed up for a demo account and spent some time familiarising myself with the admin area. IPB was an option I seriously considered though I read some bad comments from people about the quality of their support. This put me off a little.

vBulletin – $195.00

vBulletin was sold about a year or so ago to the hufe software company Internet Brands. Myself, and thousands of other vBulletin owners, were very unhappy about this due to the pricing structure changes they made. Everyone who had full licenses had been promised updates every year for around $40 a year. The new company came in and changed that and priced an update from the older vBulletin 3 system to the vBulletin 4 system about the same price as buying a new license outright. Put simply, they made full licenses worthless.

vBulletin

Even though I was very annoyed bout the whole licence pricing issue, I decided to purchase the full version of vBulletin 4 as I had been waiting for it for a long time. This version included a fully functional CMS too. The CMS, as it turns out, turned out to be truly awful and a complete waste of money. I wouldn’t advise anyone using it.

I still had a full license for vBulletin 4 up until a few months ago (when I sold my tech forum) so I am very familiar with the script. I still have two full licenses for vBulletin 3.x; which is arguably a better script that the bloated vBulletin 4. I was keen on using something else though. The one thing that I really like about the new vBulletin is their new mobile suite that makes browsing forums a joy through mobile devices. They’ve priced this add on at a whopping $199 though so it was never going to influence my final decision. They also have a Facebook application but that retails for $99.

XenForo – $140

XenForo is a brand new script that was developed by the orginal vBulletin developers Kier Darby and Mike Sullivan. Ironically, they only left vBulletin as the new owners of vBulletin didn’t want to do a complete rewrite of the script; which is what most of the deveopers wanted. It gained attention when Internet Brands sued them for breach of contract stating that XenForo was created using code from vBulletin however they always stressed it was created from the ground up.

I first tried a demo of XenForo a few months ago. From the start I was very impressed with the back end of the script. vBulletin had added feature after feature every year for around a decade which has resulted in the options area being huge. XenForo, on the other hand, has much less options, making it much easier to administrate your community.

XenForo

I couldn’t customise the header of XenForo to match the header of WP Mods when I spent time testing it. It was a completely new styling system that I hadn’t used before. I don’t believe I gave it a real chance when I first used it as when I used it again at the weekend I found it incredibly easy to use.

Once you understand what templates control what areas and how the colour picker and style properties work you will find customising it a breeze. I did run into a few problems when customising the design due to my inexperience of the template system. Thankfully, the support through XenForo has been amazing so far with the moderator Brogan helping me directly through the private message system.

XenForo Style Properties

The script is less bloated than vBulletin but it still has every feature you need. It also has great social media integration (such as signing up or logging in via Facebook) and is super quick. I don’t know if it’s because the script was designed from scratch but it seems considerably quicker than most other solutions.

It’s still a new script so certain features such as galleries etc haven’t been added yet. I don’t have a particular need for galleries in the WP Mods forums though I am sure they will be added in the future.

There is also more of a community feel over at XenForo. There are a lot of users releasing add ons and posting tips and tricks already and people seem more inclined to help each other out.

Overview

I know that there are thousands of other WordPress users out there who are either deciding which forum platform to use or do not feel that bbPress is the right solution for their website. So I hope you have found this article useful in some way.

In my opinion, if bbPress gets better documentation it should be considered as a great option for those who just need a simple forum solution. However, I strongly believe that bbPress will never be able to match commercial forum scripts or dedicated forum scripts such as Simple Machines and phpBB in terms of features or usability.

The major drawback of not using a WordPress forum plugin is your forum and main website will not share the same user database. There are user bridges available for most scripts that resolve this issue however there is no guarantee that they will always work or that they will always be supported.

As I don’t require people to register here to leave a comment and don’t have a members section that is powered by the WordPress user system, I don’t personally need WordPress and my forum to work together.

If you do use a stand alone forum solution, your main concern will probably be styling the forum so that it blends in with the design with the rest of your website. It’s simply a matter of copying the same HTML and CSS code from your WordPress website to your forum script though it isn’t always a case of copying and pasting. With some forum scripts you can simply enter the code you need in the header and footer templates. In others, it involves copying code to specific templates. In both cases you need to watch that your CSS classes from your main site doesn’t clash with the classes in your forum stylesheets or your design will look really messed up.

If you are still unsure about which forum platform to use for your website, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction. I encourage those of you are are looking for a commercial solution to to take a browse around our WordPress Forums to get a feel for how XenForo works. I don’t believe you can go wrong with any of the commercial scripts I mentioned though as they are all great forum solutions and everything you need to create a popular community.

Good luck,
Kevin