Transform WordPress into a Full Featured Forum with bbPress

Jacco Blankenspoor

Even in 2014, forums are still very popular, despite the rising popularity of the newer forms of social networks. The beauty of forums is that they allow for a focused discussion amongst like minded people. However, forum software is notoriously sluggish, hard to manage and can cause many forums to eventually lose their spark.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn your favorite CMS and blog platform into a full featured forum? Enter bbPress. bbPress is a forum application that comes in the form of a WordPress plugin. By using WordPress to power your forum, you can rapidly reduce the learning curve, for both users and forum managers. bbPress was developed by the people who also brought us WordPress itself.

So, is WordPress really up for the the task? Can a CMS effectively be turned into a forum with all the standard features you would expect? We’ve seen WordPress being used in many different capacities, so we know the potential is there.

In this article, I will take a look at how easy bbPress is to install on WordPress. I will also review the main features that make it so popular and how it stacks up against ‘traditional’ forum software and other competing WordPress forum plugins.

Configuring bbPress

Setting Up bbPress

As you can see in this screenshot, setting up a new bbPress based forum is as easy as making a new post. You might think this approach could never serve a really useful forum, and you’re right. It is rather simplistic to say the least. Or is it?

After Setting Up bbPress

bbPress demo

This is just the base from which you can build upon, but I always like a good place to start. After a few minutes of adding sub-forums and categories, people can start posting topics.

bbPress Categories and Posts

This is where familiarity with WordPress has an advantage.

So setting up a bare bones forum is pretty straightforward, and if this is what you’re after you can stop reading here.

However, I want to add a bit more meat to it now, so let’s have a look at the main features.

Features

User Permissions

I’ll start with one of the features that really matters for a forum: User permissions.

A solid permission system is important if you want to limit the usage of your site for certain users. Simply put, you don’t want them to be able to delete or edit each other’s messages or make new categories for example.

We all know that WordPress by default has a great permissions system, and the bbPress plugin makes excellent use of it. bbPress comes with five pre-defined roles, which should be sufficient for most forums.

  • Keymaster: The admin role, with all possible rights.
  • Moderator: Used for keeping the forum tidy. Had almost the same rights as the Keymaster, except for being able to delete forums.
  • Participant: For contributing forum members. This is the default role for new users.
  • Spectator: Read only rights.
  • Blocked: For those who have been naughty :)

Of course it wouldn’t be WordPress if there wasn’t a plugin to add your own set of permissions. Seeing these default roles and their permissions, it is safe to say they have got this part well covered.

Moderation

Now let’s look at how easy it is to moderate posts which is just as important as user permissions.

bbPress comes with two ways of moderating topics and replies. First, there is a control bar on each post. This bar gives you the ability to perform some handy actions:

bbPress Moderation

  • Edit/Trash/Spam: Needs to be there of course.
  • Stick (to front): Make a topic sticky which puts it on top of the category.
  • Merge: Move a topic into a similar topic, along with its replies.
  • Split: Take a single reply, and spin it off into its own topic.

I must say these are some very advanced features for a plugin which seemed pretty simple at first.

bbPress Moderation Admin

The second way of moderating is by using WP admin. Here you will find all of the topics and replies listed in the same way as comments are displayed. It allows you to go quickly through the whole list without looking at each topic or reply individually.

If you want to make it even easier there’s a moderation plugin available. This one comes in handy when your forum is becoming larger. It provides you multiple ways of notifying yourself and/or your moderators of new topics, replies or any suspicious activity (like anonymous comments).

So moderation is another plus for bbPress. For a piece of free software, I think you’d have to agree that it’s really pretty good. What it really shows you is the developers really knew what they were doing and kept the focus on what is really most important for a forum.

Widgets

Being a WordPress plugin, bbPress also brings in a number of distinctive features. There is, of course, the ability to use widgets as you can with a normal WordPress installation.

bbPress Widgets
Source: bbPress forums

Using these widgets also helps you to shape the look of your forum. I particularly like the forum stats widget.

The official bbPress forums I have used for this screenshot really give you a good insight on how professional your forum could look if you are prepared to give it a bit more attention (and also had a good number of users).

Shortcodes

There’s also the option to use shortcodes. This is an easy way to incorporate elements of your forum into your posts or pages. You can even list a single reply, which is perfect if you want to base a blog post on it.

Using these shortcodes also gives you the opportunity to promote your forum within your content. This is really unique, since a tool like vBulletin (one of the ‘Top Dogs’ on the forum software scene) can’t do this out of the box.

It also comes with full BuddyPress integration, to allow for advanced user profiles and group forums. For those who’d like to know more, check out my article on BuddyPress.

Alternative WordPress Forum Plugins

bbPress really is, all in all, an excellent plugin if you want to run an pretty advanced forum that is also still quite easy to manage.

Let’s now take a look how it stacks up to some of the other WordPress forum plugins. I already covered one in my “15 things You May Not Know WordPress Can Do” article, which is ForumEngine.

What ForumEngine brings to the table is mostly a slick look (understatement) and some funky jQuery tricks. Manageability, however, is quite limited as is it mostly a combination of WordPress posts plus comments.

There’s also Simple Press, which comes with so many additional features that you will soon become overwhelmed. It certainly takes away the simplicity that bbPress offers.

You could also consider a free tool like phpBB if you’re looking for more features. There’s also a plugin to connect phpBB to your WordPress site.

Conclusion

What initially started out as a bit of a disappointment with bbPress being ‘too simple’ for a forum actually turned into being more of an admiration for what they have achieved. It is very hard to make managing a forum look so easy to users and they have certainly succeeded in that.

bbPress really delivers on simplicity without sacrificing the most important functionality that a forum plugin really needs to include. Even better, it makes good use of the WordPress integration.

If you are prepared to put in around an hour of your time after installing it, you’ll have a very decent WordPress-powered forum in no time.

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  • Thomas Semmler

    I find it extremely hard to configure the template files. It is a huge load of work to just change the most simple things, and you never know, which update might erase all the work you’ve done… I will not use bbpress again, but I also know, that there are not many other options for wordpress out there. So if you need a forum, bbpress is still the way to go. Just a warning for everyone that is doing a paid project with it, triple the amount of time you expect to spend on it. Its not a bad plugin, but it is a lot of work.

    • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

      Thanks for the tip Thomas.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi Thomas, is there a way to work around this with child themes?

      • Thomas Semmler

        A child theme is the right solution for this kind of problem, that is what I did back then. Unfortunately the documentation is not very good and at some parts outdated. Besides, in order to have a bbpress forum up and running, you need a ton of template files – so what you’ll mostly end up doing, is copying these template files into your child theme and work on these.

        BBpress is a legit solution, especially if you or your client is already used to working with wordpress – but I don’t use it anymore, as it was consuming way too much time to configure it. (Its the same problem with buddypress) – But thats just my opinion.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Hi Thomas, too bad it didn’t work out but I want to thank you for your valuable insights though! Perfect addition to this article!

  • Hugo Zonderland

    My only question is why? Why change WordPress (blog software) into something that its not?

    • ChrisChristoff

      *WordPress* is a CMS not a blogging software.

      • Hugo Zonderland

        Any tool to manage content with is a CMS. The initial function of WordPress was being a CMS for blogs.

        • ChrisChristoff

          Initially maybe. WordPress has been around for over 11 years now and now powers 23% of all websites. Its no longer just a blogging software, hasn’t been for a while, and isn’t designed as such. WordPress is being used more and more as an application framework, and most commonly used as a base for websites. And WordPress does a heck of alot better job than many other open source forum software, like PHPbb or VanillaForums, at making a simple forum that’s up and running in seconds.PHPbb, for example, doesn’t even have an easy method of upgrading without wasting a ton of time. By making a forum using WordPress, updates are 1 click automatic upgrade, or you can set a simple constant or use a variety of services and WordPress will automatically update itself like Google Chrome does.

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi Hugo, in my opinion WordPress is a great platform to start a new project fast and cheap and maybe upgrade it to a more suited system when success arrives. In some cases WordPress is all you need though.

    • Hugo Zonderland

      I’m more a ‘purpose build’ kinda guy. ;-)

      • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

        I don’t entirely disagree with you, it’s just a matter of budget/time vs. usability and manageability. Take web stores for example. You could spend thousands of dollars in getting Magento fired up, or a few hundreds when you use WooCommerce. This doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade to Magento eventually, but when it comes to budget WooCommerce makes more sense (even if it gives you less features to start with).

        • Hugo Zonderland

          I do agree with you that its easy and fast to setup and the usability is quite good. But maintainability on these platforms is a no-go. Which eventually might stab you in the back later. I’d rather invest my money in getting closed-source purpose build software and have a stable product in the long run, than having to worry on a daily basis if my webshop, -site, form or blog is still up and running.