I've been dabbling in writing for several years and can vouch for these websites being great places to set up your forums.
Anyone can create their own online discussion board these days. You simply have to pick one of the many forum scripts available, install it on your web host, and you're good to go. Another option is to go the software-as-service route, where all the hosting and other technical aspects are taken care of by the service provider for a monthly fee.
With so many different solutions available, however, many people have a hard time deciding which web forum software suits their needs best. That's why I've compiled this list of the top 13 paid and free forum platforms. If you know a good message board system that's missing from my list, feel free to share it in the comments at the bottom.
Top 13 Forum Software Platforms
Here are the top 13 paid and free forum platforms currently available online, sorted by popularity and the features offered:
- phpBB is the most popular free discussion board software on the Internet. It is open-source, frequently updated, and can be customized to your liking by using various styles and modifications. Since it's so widely used, you can easily get support in the official community forums.
- vBulletin is powerful paid community software that offers not only message boards, but also blogs and articles. It is advertised as feature-rich, secure, and easy forum software. The license cost depends on whether you need any add-ons like the Mobile Suite or not. it is one of the best forum platforms available, and the choice of many big websites.
- IP.Board, recently rebranded as Invision Community forum, is a popular paid forum software, and a great vBulletin alternative. It is currently provided as a service with tiered plans—you pay depending on how many simultaneous online visitors your community has. Depending on your needs, you can also use Commerce and CMS add-ons for selling products or content management. Along with the previous two platforms, this is also a choice of many large communities.
- Simple Machines Forum, or just SMF, is one of the best PHP forum software programs that is free to use as well as open-source, which makes it a good alternative to phpBB. The new and largely rewritten SMF 2 version offers a lot of features out-of-the-box and can be further extended with modifications and themes. It has an active community where you can get help if you encounter any problems.
- PlushForums is a relatively new player claiming to provide "the most polished, user-friendly forum software." While it's only available packaged as a service with a rather hefty monthly fee, even the lowest plan comes with unlimited pageviews and only limits the maximum users online. A full-featured forum made for perfect mobile experience, it has received an award from CMSCritic for the "Best Forum Solution" several years back.
- XenForo is a relatively new forum software that was built by developers who previously worked on the famous vBulletin. It features social integration with Facebook, SEO-optimized URLs and microdata, a simple color changer, and more. It might be new, but it is one of the best choices for a forum platform, as it adheres to modern web standards like HTML5. Much like vBulletin, this is also paid-only software (albeit with a free demo), with a variable license cost depending on which features you want.
- PunBB is a fast and lightweight PHP forum software with a minimal set of features. It is a great choice if you are looking for a free discussion board that won't kill your server by overusing the CPU or confuse your users with its complexity. Many extensions are available that add more features to the otherwise basic and simple forum script.
- Vanilla Forums is a clean and lightweight open-source software with not too many core features. It can be greatly extended through the use of add-ons. A nice statistics plugin is included in the core package. As an alternative to hosting your own board, Vanilla also offers to host your community in the cloud for a monthly fee.
- MyBB is a free, open source forum system that offers the features and stability you need to create and run a professional community site. There are many free extensions and language packs available, and they can be installed easily using a built-in plugin installer—so you don't have to paste in any code manually. This free forum software also lets you convert from vB, IPB, phpBB, and other boards.
- bbPress is a free forum platform from the creators of Wordpress. According to the official website, it is focused on web standards and speed. Furthermore, bbPress can be easily integrated with Wordpress, unlike many other message board systems that require complicated modifications and plugins. It is pretty fast and light, but feature-wise bbPress lags behind leaders like phpBB.
- YaBB (Yet Another Bulletin Board) is a free open-source software written in Perl. The project was started back in year 2000 and is still getting updated now. It stores data in flat text system (no MySQL database needed!) and has good performance if you don't have too many topics and posts to store.
- miniBB is a free PHP bulletin board script and possibly the best message board around if you're looking for something very basic and simple to use. It can be easily integrated with other websites and offers a variety of add-ons and themes, although not as many as the most popular software. It can be a good alternative to punBB.
Related Links and Resources
Here are some useful links for webmasters trying to decide on the best forum platform.
- ProBoards provides a free hosted forum solution. They’re great if you don’t want to worry about buying your own web hosting and domain; however, you will have much less control over your site compared to an installation on your own server.
- HostGator is a great place to host your forum if you’re looking for affordable shared hosting. Bigger communities might require a VPS or even a dedicated server, as dynamic message boards often need a lot of server resources.
Do you know any other good forum platforms that I've missed? Go ahead and share them in the comments below.
James Florentine on July 19, 2019:
This is actually a nice list.
You can also add https://tribe.so in this article. It is a fully customizable and cloud-based online community powered by embeddable widgets, comprehensive API, and powerful apps.
Adrian Flitcroft on June 14, 2017:
Another hosted forum platform is PlushForums:
It's a modern real-time platform that works well on mobile devices and older browsers going back to IE8.