Section 12.3. Adding Forums and Groups to Your Site


12.3. Adding Forums and Groups to Your Site

In the early days of the Internet, Web sites weren't at the heart of the action. Instead, the most interesting and lively interactions took place on a mammoth collection of online bulletin boards called Usenet . Sadly, Usenet fell into decline as the Web grew, suffering as well from an onslaught of spam, and losing its luster as slick graphical sites become the norm. More recently, the collection of Usenet groups was bought by Google, and is experiencing a small renaissance as a part of Google Groups (see http://groups.google.com).

Although Usenet isn't ever going to recapture the limelight, different types of discussion forums are still ragingly popular. But instead of subject-based, administrator- moderated groups that are controlled by a single organization, forums are cropping up as a bonus feature on all sorts of different Web sites. Here are some examples:

  • Technology vendors large and small use them to provide community support and spread information. For example, Microsoft veterans and newbies exchange Office tips on the boards at www.microsoft.com/office/community/en-us.

  • Topic sites use them to host rollicking discussions. For example, you can tear reality TV to shreds on the popular http://p085.ezboard.com/bsurvivorsucks or register your Office frustration at www.officefrustration.com.

  • Individuals use them to provide technical support and get feedback. For example, popular computer book author Jesse Liberty helps readers with questions about his technical books at http://forums.delphiforums.com/LibertyBooks.

One of the best parts about forums is they drive themselves . Once you get the right ingredients in place, a forum can succeed without you needing to intervene. Think of it as a dinner party that you're hosting, and all you need to do is get the conversation started before making a polite retreat. And if you use forums to answer technical questions, you can reduce your workload immensely. For example, on many forums the emphasis is on different customers or experts helping each other. That means easy questions are answered for you, and you might only need to step in to clear up a long-running debate.

Although discussion forums are wildly popular, they come in many different flavors. All the examples in the previous list run on different software. Some of it's free, other options cost money, and still other options are developed by hand by Web site programmers and aren't for sale to the public.

To create your own groups, you have a few choices. You could purchase an expensive product, install it on your own in-house Web server, and have complete control over everything: what your discussion pages look like, who gets to post messages (or not), and so on. This approach makes sense for a gargantuan company like American Express, but it doesn't fit the bill for the small- to medium- sized site. Instead, what you'll probably want to do is use an online service provided by another company. In this scenario, you provide a link on your site that leads to the other company's Web server, where the discussion forum is hosted. The only catch? Usually, most companies that provide a discussion forum sell advertising space. That means that as you read messages in the group , you're likely to see some ads on the sidelines.

In the remainder of this chapter, you'll learn how to create a forum with one of the most capable discussion forum toolsGoogle Groups.

12.3.1. About Google Groups

Google Groups is a thriving community of discussion forums. Although it hasn't been around as long as some other forum hosts , it includes a collection of useful features that rivals any of its competitors . And, of course, it's all free.

Here are some important details about Google Groups:

  • When you create a group, you're given a unique, easy-to-remember URL. That's the group address, and it never changes.

  • Group members can search through group postings with some of the best search tools on the planet. For bragging rights, nothing rivals the catalog of searchable Usenet content that Google has acquired , which ranges back to 1981.

  • The group creator (you) controls who can and who can't post.

  • Google manages the registration process itself. That means you don't need to manually add and remove group members.

  • Each group member can choose whether they like to read group messages online, or receive them in regular emails that Google will send automatically.

  • Google's page layout is a frazzled Web surfer's dream. It's easy to search posts, see all the replies to a post at a glance, bookmark the posts you want to follow, and more.

  • Although Google will display ads in the corners of your group windows , it does its best to choose relevant ad content. For example, if the most common topic in a group is favorite DVDs, you're likely to start seeing ads that promise cutting edge DVD players, mail-order movie clubs, and DVD e-commerce shops .

You can learn more about Google Groups by surfing to http://groups.google.com/intl/en/googlegroups/about.html.


Note: Google is continuously improving its offerings. At the time of this writing, some parts of the Google Groups features are considered to be "in beta." Technically, that means they may get tweaked a bit, and may have a few unexpected hiccups along the way.

12.3.2. Creating a Group

To create a new group, follow these steps:

  1. Head on over to http://groups.google.com. Look for a link inviting new members to join, and click it .

    You'll need to register (with a valid email address and password) before you can create a group. Once you've completed the process and activated your account, you're ready to return to the group setup page.

  2. Click the "Create new groups" link to get started .

  3. When asked, log in with your user name and password. The "Create a group" page appears, as shown in Figure 12-6) .

    Figure 12-6. Creating a Google group takes two steps. In the first step, you define all the basic information about your group, including its name and email address.


  4. Fill in all the information for your group .

    The group name identifies your group, like Candy Collectors .

    The group email address is a version of the name that will work as an email address or URL. Spaces aren't allowed, but Candy-Collectors and CandyCollectors work. The email address also becomes part of the group URL, so make sure it's memorable.

    The group description explains what the group's all about, using two or three sentences.

    The access level indicates who's allowed to post. If you want to create a completely open group that accepts all comers, choose Public , which makes sense for most Web groups. Anyone who stumbles across the group can join at will, without your intervention. If you want to use the group solely as a place to post your own musings, choose Announcements-only . However, you're probably better off to put these announcements right on your Web site instead of in a group. Finally, if you want to have micromanaged control over who's allowed in and who's kept out, choose Restricted . That way, the only people allowed to join are those you specifically invite.

    Finally, you'll see a checkbox to allow adult content. If you don't allow this, naughty posts may be blocked automatically, saving you some embarrassment.

  5. Click the "Create my group" button .

    The second step appears (see Figure 12-7).

    Figure 12-7. In the second step, you choose your initial group members. Remember, if you're creating a public group, new people can join at any time through Google.


  6. Fill in the initial set of group members .

    Supply a list of email addresses, with one address per line. Google will email these people to tell them they've been allowed into the group.

    If you choose Add, each of these members is automatically a group member. If you choose Invite, they'll need to visit the site to opt in and become a member. Either way, if the recipient doesn't have a Google account, they'll need to create one before they can do anything.

    The subscriber type allows you to choose how these people will use the group. They can choose to read the group posts on the group Web site, or to have every message delivered to them by email (a bad idea unless it's a quiet discussion group). There are also two more specialized options. If you choose Abridged Email, the subscriber receives one email message per day (as long as there's been at least one new post), and this email message contains a list of message titles, with a link to the full text next to each. This option is a handy way to stay on top of group activity, and keep an eye out for interesting posts. The other option is Digest Email, which sends all the new content once per day in a single gargantuan email. This option won't clutter your email inbox as much as receiving each message separately, but in an active group, it's impractical to browse through such a long email.

    No matter what subscriber type you choose, each group member can change this to match their personal preference later on.

    Finally, supply some text for a welcome message. Once you create the group, every member receives a welcome message letting them know the group's been set up (see Figure 12-8).

    Figure 12-8. Welcome aboard. You're a new member of a Google group.



    Tip: Don't worry if you don't have email addresses handy. You don't need to invite anyone now. You can return to this page to invite more people later on, after you've created the group.
  7. Click Done .

    Google creates the group, and shows you a summary (Figure 12-9). Sometime shortly thereafter, it sends welcome messages to the initial set of group members.

Figure 12-9. The final summary includes some important information. It includes the group home page (which you'll want to link to from your Web site) and email address. You can use the links at the bottom (circled) to skip directly to the group homepage.


12.3.3. Participating in a Group

When you first head over to your group, you'll find that it's barren. To get the discussion started, why not post the first topic?

Google gives you two different ways to post a topic. You can add a topic right from the Web page by clicking the "Start a new topic" link. Or, if you're really in a hurry, you can simply send an email message to the group email address. The email message is then automatically converted into a group topic (Figure 12-10).

Of course, discussions are all about back-and-forth exchanges. Once a message has been posted, you can read it and click the Reply link to post a reply. Posts and replies are threaded , which means they're grouped together so that you can easily see what message goes with what topic, no matter when the posts were made (see Figure 12-11).

Figure 12-10. Top: This email is about to be sent to a Google group.
Bottom: Once the email's received, it becomes an ordinary posting. Interestingly, even with a single topic Google's already picked out some ads it thinks are related (shown on the right). As people use your group, Google will refine the types of ads it uses, based on which ones are the most popular (and get the most clicks from group members).


You now have a fully functioning group. From this point on, the challenge isn't in using the group, but attracting enough interesting people that it becomes a lively community.

12.3.4. Managing Your Group

When an ordinary group member visits a group, he'll have the option of posting new messages, replying to existing messages, or changing his delivery settings by clicking the "Unsubscribe or change membership" link. Use this last option to have group messages automatically emailed to you or to see a summary of group activity (Section 12.3.3).

Figure 12-11. When browsing a group, you'll only see a list of topic posts, not replies. However, each entry clearly indicates the number of replies. In this example, there are three topics. The first two have one message each. The third topic has three messages (the post you see and two replies). Click "read more" to see the full post and any replies.


On the other hand, when the group creator visits the group, some additional links appear in the display. Along with the customary links for posting and changing the membership settings, you'll also see an Invite link, which allows you to send welcome messages to a new batch of groupies. You'll also see the "Manage group" link, which allows you to take control of a lot more (see Figure 12-12).

On the whole, the group membership page is well-organized and quite clear. You'll have no trouble using the various options. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Access settings . These settings allow you to define who's allowed to read messages (anybody, or only group members), who's allowed to invite new members (just you, or any group member), and who's allowed to join. The last option is the most interesting. You can allow everyone, restrict the group to just people you invite, or force people to apply for group membership. If you use the last choice, anyone can apply to join through Google, but you'll have the chance to review the application and give the final acceptance or refusal. You can even tell Google to give hopeful applicants a specific question. You can then review their answer to determine whether they are group-worthy.

    Figure 12-12. When you click "Manage group," you'll see this page, which allows you to change the group name and description, change the level of access, and invite new members or remove existing ones. The settings offered here are more detailed than those you saw when you created the group.


  • Posting & Delivery settings . These settings let you define who's allowed to post to your group. You can choose any group member, just you, or anyone. Additionally, you can choose to use moderated messages . With moderated messages, every new message is sent to you for review. Messages won't appear on the group until you give them a thumbs-up (and if you don't, they'll never reach the group). Only use moderated messages if you have a lot of spare time.

  • Browse membership list . Use this link to delve into the details about group members. You can review the full list of group members, see who hasn't responded to a group invitation , ban troublemaking posters , and give other members managerial powers.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTION
Group Restrictions

Should I restrict people from joining my group or posting messages?

It's tempting to force group members to apply to your group, but resist the ego trip. On the Web, people are impatient and easily distracted. If you place barriers in the way of potential group members, they may just walk away.

On the other hand, there are some cases where restricted group membership makes a lot of sense. Two examples are if you want to discuss semi-secret information like company strategies, or if you're afraid your topic might attract the wrong kind of crowd . For example, if you set up a group called Software-Piracy to discuss the social implications of software piracy, you might find yourself deluged with requests for the latest versions of cutting-edge software. As a general rule of thumb, restrictions make sense only if they're being used to maintain group quality control.

The same holds true for message moderation . Most healthy online communities are self-regulating. If a member inadvertently offends the general community, others will correct him or her; if it's deliberate , most will eventually ignore the provocation. You might need to step in occasionally to ban a member, but screening every message is overkill. It also adds a huge amount of extra work for you, and severely cramps the dynamic of your group, because most messages won't appear until several hours after they've been written (at least). For fans of the Web who expect instant gratification, this isn't good news.




Creating Web Sites. The Missing Manual
Creating Web Sites: The Missing Manual
ISBN: B0057DA53M
EAN: N/A
Year: 2003
Pages: 135

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