A case against 'privatizing' existing forums.
Ethan 'Tails' Puskas

it's becoming something I see a lot more and more in the field; a larger and growing amount of previously public forums 'privatizing' their forums by making it completely inaccessible to guests, requiring people to register to perform certain actions, ect, ect, with the end game of increasing users/traffic/ect. While it could be appetizing at first, pursuing such a policy is in the end detrimental to your community overall, unless it's within a set of circumstances that would have it make sense. To clarify, this is in no means a case against privatized forums in general; as I will go into below, there are certainly many circumstances where it may be beneficial, however it is my belief that many people confuse what would be a good 'private' forum, and what should stay public; I've seen (and I'm sure many people here have seen it, as well) plenty of casual discussion forums try this as a attempt to get more users.

Why not?
Again, on paper it seems like a good idea; forcing user registration = more users = more posts = ??? = PROFIT!, but it really doesn't take into account the average user and the long term goals of any community.

First off, say goodbye to your search rankings: Google (or any other search engine) will view your forums as a guest; they will not take a 'google account' login and cache from that. If your forum forces login/registration upon landing, that is the only page they will cache and they will move on. This, obviously, will (over time as the caching updates) kill your communities search rankings. There are a few addons (i.e Google First Click Free) that minimize this effect, but ultimately your search engine rankings will take a pretty big hit.

Secondly, the average demographic of your site: While this changes, and (as I'll discuss below) there are a few circumstances where this may make sense, in most communities, you have much more guests than users, and they generally are there to see a topic or two and then leave; So why not make them register? Simple; Most people won't even bother to register and will just ignore the thread. This obviously is bad for the community, the original poster of the topic, and your revenues (if you're actively pursuing them). Speaking as a user on many of these sites, I often wouldn't bother and would just leave.

Continuing on that thought, those who do register are going to be one-trick ponies; They'll register, view what they came to see, and then leave. Even if you're trying to buff that oh-so-precious 'Members registered' bar at the bottom of your forums, lurkers don't help your forum nor the community.

Lurkers, as we all know and love them, (usually) come to your site for a purpose; they want to view some content and (most likely) get out. Over all, requiring them to register is going to shy off people far more than it's going to gain users and, as mentioned, the users you do gain are far more likely to visit once and never touch the website again.

So how do I get more users?

While Kathy covered this, albeit 11 years ago, most of her points are still valid so I'll just briefly touch on this with a few ideas:

  • (As the point of this article is) Don't restrict guests unless you absolutely need to. They've come here to view content, not to stare at a 'Please register' page.
  • Make it shiny and appetizing to join; The gigantor 'Please register!' banners may be somewhat obnoxious, but they do work.
  • (Obvious) Be engaging and active. People are less likely to join a forum that hasn't had a post in a week then one having active discussions right now when they visit it.
  • Have friendly, easily accessible guides: "How do I register and post?" and "What's this forum about?" may sound stupid to us all, but to some people who've never used a forum before it's a legitimate question. I'm not suggesting a big guides-for-everything subforum, but there should be a place with some general information for them to look at before or after registering.
  • Introduction forums with positive, welcoming feedback: People aren't going to stay long when they're 'Hey guys!" thread is responded to with negative comments.
  • (Somewhat scumbag option) Some forums do permit guests to view threads, but require them to register to say, download a item, or click a link: This (In my white-hat day-jobbing opinion) is rather underhanded, but it sure as hell works. If your forum specializes in information/news and or downloads, this may bring people in for you.
  • Other "incentives" - Convincing people to join in this manner is absolutely a delicate dance on a fine line between annoying the hell out of them into leaving and annoying them juuuuuuuust enough to convince them to join; notable annoying examples (and thus effective!) include posts cutting off at a certain limit, requiring you to register to read more, a few extra ads not visible to members, and the aforementioned URL and download requirements. Most of these I would say with white-hat responsible systems admin hat on are 'bad' and 'irresponsible', but they are remarkably effective; it depends on what you want to do and how these suggestions work with your community.
When is it okay to privatize my forum?

As I mentioned above, there are some circumstances where it would be in your best interest to privatize:

  • Privacy - I know there are several political gaming related, tight-knit forums that don't get many visitors and have fierce problems with other forums - requiring people to register keeps the spies out and the information in.
  • Privacy...ENHANCED! - There are several niche-sites out there (the we can't tell you about them or they'd kill us type ones) that make good use of privacy; members are able to more safely unwind and relax without censorship or any real policies, enabling real authentic discussion at the price of less exposure.
  • It's a family/friend/ect forum - Obviously if you don't want people you don't know joining the forum, you have no reason to make it friendly to guests.
  • Plagiarism/copyright issues - Again, this only really works in a strict set of circumstances, but restricting access to some or all forums from guests makes it a lot harder for people to crawl or otherwise steal your content. It's absolutely not a failsafe and should be a temporary fix if one at all, but it may work, situation dependent.
  • Pay-to-use - There is a bit of a (re)surgence in 'pay-2-use' forums, for privacy reasons and otherwise, and obviously in this case you'd want a private forum.
  • Otherwise when you're okay with the consequences listed above - If the consequences listed above don't matter to you/your forum, you are absolutely free to continue blocking guest access.