Why making all of your forums private is a bad idea

by Patrick O'Keefe - Guest Writer on 9 April 2008 in Articles

Making forums private

Patrick O’Keefe is the author of ‘Managing Online Forums: Everything You Need to Know to Create and Run Successful Community Discussion Boards‘. He blogs at ManagingCommunities.com.

Private forums have a place on every community. The most common and, often, best use of them is for your staff forums, so that you and your moderators can privately discuss issues relevant to the site, without other people being privy to the discussions. That’s the way it should be.

However, some administrators mark all of their forums as private, making it so that you cannot see anything until you have an activated member account. On communities meant for specific groups of people (internal company forums, forums for a family or set of friends to communicate, etc.), that’s fine as those communities are not trying to reach more people. But, if you are trying to bring more people to your forums and your target is growth, your primary forums should be available to the public.

There are various reasons for having your forums public and accessible, but here are three to start you off.

If I don’t know what your site is about, how do I know if I want to join?

Some people decide to make their forums private because they think it’ll make the user more likely to register. i.e. they will want to register, so that they can see what the community is like. But, generally, this strategy will backfire and will result in an opposite effect.

Many potential members want to see what type of discussions your community is already having before they take the plunge by clicking the ‘register’ link. Plenty of members register because they see something that they want to reply to. However, if you make them register just to view those discussions it is quite likely that they will simply leave, never to return.

Search engines can’t index you.

For any community that is really looking to grow, this is reason enough. Search engines represent a good chunk of traffic for most communities and a majority of new traffic for many. They can be your best friend. So, treat them like one by allowing them to look at (and index) your content.

Every new thread on your community is potentially valuable content that someone is looking for. To find it, they’ll probably use a search engine. For example, if you ran a martial arts community and someone posted a topic to discuss the differences between Shotokan Karate and Taekwondo; that thread may very well show up in a search engine result when someone is looking for that information. You’ll get their traffic and, if they like what they see, perhaps their membership, as well. You should be embracing search engines and helping them to spider your content – not shutting them out.

If search engines can’t index your content, you are cutting off a potentially big source of traffic and limiting yourself in a truly unnecessary way.

You look guilty.

You’ve seen them. Music, movie or media forums that just have that certain suspicious look where you know something here just isn’t kosher. And then, just to make sure that they are perceived that way, their forums are private, giving the impression that they are doing something that they don’t want the public (i.e. copyright holders) to easily access.

This will apply to some subject matters more than others. But, if you have a community where people might think you are trading copyrighted media (whether or not you are), hiding your forums makes it look like you might be up to something that’s not too cool – whether it’s true or not.

The bottom line is that if your community is focused on growth and you want people to find you, you have to make sure that they can find your content. If they can’t, finding you gets much harder and caring about you becomes even less likely.

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{ 21 comments }

Sue @ TameBayu April 9, 2008 at 12:35 pm

One other reason from my own experience – if people think their words can be read by *anyone*, they tend to behave better than if they think they’re “in private”. Bitchiness, negativity and even downright libel have been much rarer on open forums than closed ones I’ve been involved in.

Patrick O'Keefe April 9, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Martin,

Thanks for publishing this. :)

Sue @ TameBayu,

Thanks for the comment. You’re right! Good one.

Patrick

Simon Brown April 9, 2008 at 4:35 pm

“Search engines canít index you”

While I agree with your other reasons – in phpBB3 you can set access rules specifically for Bots. Although if a user finds you from a search engine and finds a deny message – they will almost certainly turn away.

Patrick O'Keefe April 9, 2008 at 5:23 pm

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Brown. I don’t know if I would consider that an actual solution (could be a little deceiving?), but it is a very good point. I appreciate you making it.

Patrick

Eva White April 10, 2008 at 4:53 am

Thanks for the tips, I’ll forward it to a friend who is planning to start a forum.

Quentin April 10, 2008 at 6:04 am

u r right. making the forums private will never help. and it gets worse if u keep only as a showpiece for others. they will really leave, never to come again.

Joe Manna April 10, 2008 at 5:32 pm

I agree that making a community private is generally a bad idea; however, I disagree with the suggestion that private communities have no value.

Communities which are public usually have three problems:
- Trolls
- Fear from New Users
- Spam Exposure

While it’s the job of the administrator and moderation team to mitigate the impact of trolls and spam, it’s often difficult for new users to be comfortable in a new community — often lurking and not engaging in discussion. Private communities can often (for the short term) address this and allow new users to gain comfort with each other while minimizing spam and such.

I think it’s useful to balance online communities with a combination of public and private areas for users to interact. You must also adapt to your audience.

Trust me, in public communities, I’ve seen my fair share of harassment, stalking and trolling — so the fear of retribution isn’t really there. At least in private communities, when that happens, it has minimal exposure.

~Joe

Patrick O'Keefe April 10, 2008 at 5:37 pm

Thanks for the comments, Ms. White, Quentin and Mr. Manna.

Interesting points, Mr. Manna. I can see what you are saying, that people may fear participating because everyone can see it. That makes sense.

And then I can see that they would also fear joining, not knowing what they are joining into. So, it’s kind of a dual issue, I think. I appreciate you bringing that side up.

Thanks again,

Patrick

Kurt April 11, 2008 at 3:44 am

i agree to the only thing about forums being kept private to a select few is that the owners fear the the spammers and not to mention the hackers. morever, preparing a community and inviting guys by convincing them about what the community is all about is also tasking. and to maintain their site and to have a good traffic they also invest a lot of time and money. so long as the private forum is highly informative, i think being private shudnt hurt. after all, internet is all about dissemination of information.

Schufafrei April 11, 2008 at 10:30 am

I want to include a forum to my site and I am working on it. Hope your information will help me

Amish Made Furniture April 11, 2008 at 11:17 am

End use of the site, should decided whether it should be private or public. As you have pointed out, sites like staff forums or specialized groups should be private so that people working together can share ideas without worrying about uninvolved people getting on to the band wagon and upsetting things.

Nicole Price April 11, 2008 at 8:07 pm

I have come across a lot of tech support forums that are private. They do not let you read the solutions beyond the first problem post. Luckily, there are so many other public ones, that I was never pushed to join any of these private ones.

Furniture Store April 12, 2008 at 3:23 am

I have found that some forums remain private because they fear spammers, who contribute not so much to the discussion as leave a lot of gratuitous links or spiel.

Mr Woc April 14, 2008 at 9:15 am

Hi there

Do people ever do this, keep their forums private ? I cant see any possible benefits to this at all, unless you have got something to hide.

As you say it will stop the pages being indexed, which for most website owners is very very important, so it sounds like forum suicide to do this lol !

Woc

Patrick O'Keefe April 14, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Thank you for the comments, everyone. A lot of good points.

Ms. Price, that’s a good point as well – making your forums private while others in your subject arena are public could also be considered a competitive disadvantage.

Thanks again,

Patric

Dog Leashes April 17, 2008 at 10:41 pm

Thanks for the post. I’m thinking about starting a forum soon!

Faraz Ahmed April 19, 2008 at 8:10 pm

Its not always like that. I started a forum a couple of years back and promoted it a lot, I also kept adding content to it, but the rate of growth was so slow that I had to delete the forum after having a little above 100 members in 2 years :(

on the other hand a forum that has stuff we need, or a lot of good material, peolpe dont mind registering , your forum just have to be good enough befor you can make it private. A lot of warez forums are private but since they have the goods people dont mind registering

Truck Driving Jobs April 21, 2008 at 4:39 pm

exactly.. i dont know why so many people make them private and expect all this traffic… common sense people!
~Bubba

Patrick O'Keefe April 30, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Thanks for the comments, Dog Leashes (:)), Faraz and Bubba.

To be honest, Faraz, while you are correct – I have to say that I don’t really write community management advice for people who run warez forums. I expect people to respect my rights, so I respect theirs.

Thanks,

Patrick

Chris Sterlling October 5, 2008 at 11:59 am

Whilst you’re right about all those points – most obvious being suspicions…they’re kept private for those reasons

So that the only reason you’d join is because you got invited/told to, so that search engines cant list what is in them to keep the contents strictly private.. and so that you have suspicions about it to make you WANT to know whats in there.
That’s why some forums keep parts of it private and have a guests section for “Taster” purposes

Thanks for the post tho, was a nice read :)

Patrick October 5, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Dear Mr. Sterlling,

Thanks for the comment. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article.

I understand that, as a tactic that some employ. My point is that, generally speaking, I don’t view it as a worthwhile tactic, when considering pros and cons.

Thanks,

Patrick

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