By now, you know about the vBulletin discussion forum software. It's used on many popular sites to enable threaded discussions on a wide variety of topics, from web development topics on our own forum on WebDeveloper.com to Car forums to Reptile forums and everything in between. Over the years, the folks at vBulletin have added many social networking features to the software, but this year they have released a complete publishing suite, aptly called vBulletin 4.0 Publishing Suite. I was provided a sneak peek at vBulletin's new software, and in this article, I'll walk you through the main features and let you know if it's something you should consider using for your site.
First, let's talk about the installation process. If you're familiar with the installation of the standard vBulletin discussion forum software, you won't have any problems installing their Publishing Suite, as it's the same process. For those not familiar with it, I'll quickly walk you through the process. Obviously, this article assumes that you have already purchased a vBulletin Publishing Suite license ($285) from vBulletin.com and downloaded the software. It comes as a zip file, and when it is unzipped, will have several directories, including the Upload directory, and a do_not_upload directory. Once that is uncompressed, you will need to create a MySQL database on your web host server. That's usually done through the MySQL Administration section of your web host, and you will be provided with the following information once you have finished the creation process:
- Database name
- Host name
- Port (usually 3306)
- User name
- Database password
You will then upload the entire contents (22 MB) of the Upload directory to your web host, usually in a directory called forum. Once it has been uploaded, you will open a file that is located in the includes subdirectory called config.php.new, add the required information, which not only includes the database information, but also the email address you wish to be contacted at through your forum. You save the file as config.php and upload it to the includes subdirectory, and then proceed to the installation program, which is accomplished through the web browser. During our initial installation, we ran into some problems with the install process. Now, realize that our first look at this software occurred in late November during the pre-release phase of software testing, so that was a likely occurrence. We had to do some hunting through the vBulletin forums, and found that it was a documented problem. Essentially, it was hanging during the style importation process, so we had to work around that issue by manually editing several files. We did as the forum thread suggested, and we were up and running! This error has since been corrected, and you will not run into it during the installation process of the release version. The web-based installation procedure is pretty seamless. If you can install a Windows application, you won't have any problems installing the vBulletin Publishing Suite 4.0. It will essentially walk you through the process, ask you to delete the Install directory, and then direct you to the Admin console so you can begin setting up your site. If you go to the main page of your new site, you will be presented with the Welcome screen shown below:
The software comes pre-loaded with sample content, which in this case happens to be tutorials and articles about the software itself. You are presented with a look at the various sections of the page, what they do, as well as the terminology used in the Admin console to refer to these sections. They break it down like this:
Here is the listing from the Welcome section of how each section works:
1. Section Navigation Widget. This widget allows you to go to different sections. The "plus icon" means that this section has sub-sections. Clicking on the "plus icon" will display the sub-sections.
2. Category Navigation Widget. This widget will display all categories on CMS sections. The number next to the name displays the number of articles in that category.
3. Admin-Defined Navbar Section Links. The admin is able to define which sections can display in the top navbar. Please look at the "Managing Sections Article."
4. Articles. The content here is displayed in the "2x1" layout. "2x1" means 2 articles are displayed in the first row and all remaining content is displayed in a single column. In other sections you will see alternate content layouts like 1 column, 2 column, 3 column, 1x2 (first article spans 2 columns and all remaining articles displayed in 2 columns).
5. Create New Article Button. If a user has permissions, the "Create New Article" button will display. For more information, please look at the "Create New Article" article.
6. Recent Article Comments Widget. This widget will display the latest article comments.
7. Recent Blog Posts Widget. This widget displays the newest blog entries.
8. Recent Forum Posts Widgets. This widget displays the most recent forum posts.
Once again, if you are familiar with the vBulletin Admin console, it will make it a simple process to learn how the Publishing Suite works. The main difference is how the site is laid out--the Articles section shown above tells you how it is broken down into columns for easy reference.
Another nice item they have included within the sample content is a Tutorials/Documentation section, as shown below:
Unlike previous versions of vBulletin, this software essentially creates a site around your discussion forums, and adds the now familiar social networking features to your site. Your members are able to create their own profile pages, with fields including a custom user title, the URL of their home page, their date of birth, instant messaging IDs, location, occupation, biography, interests, along with any other custom user fields that have been defined by the administrator). They are also able to write their own blogs, add videos (including videos from YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, Dailymotion, Google and Metacafe) to their forum discussions, write articles, add photo albums, have private conversations with other members, have a best friends list, and join groups. If they are used to using other social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, they will feel at home with the vBulletin Publishing Suite.
The administrator is able to promote specific threads to the home page, create topic categories, as well as site sections, and change the look and feel of the site's sections. They can limit who can use specific features of the site, and generally control every aspect of the site--this release lets the administrator create multiple styles, which can be applied to different pages, forums, articles, specific users or user groups--all the way down to the small template boxes.
Search Engine Optimization functionality is also built into this product. With this release, one does not have to rely on third party applications for optimizing their site. It includes SEO friendly URLs, custom META keywords and descriptions, the automatic creation of Google XML sitemaps, and the ability to remove duplicate content links. It also supports the use of the popular RSS format, and has built-in syndication functionality, with support for RSS, Atom and XML, and is XHTML compliant to boot! Administrators are able to create article and static HTML pages, or enable their members to do the same. This release also supports tags, commenting and future publishing dates for articles.
All in all, if you are already familiar with the vBulletin discussion forum software, you won't be disappointed with the vBulletin Publishing Suite 4.0. It costs $100 more than the discussion forum software itself, and is well worth the additional cost based on the number of additional features that are included. If you're not familiar with vBulletin, there are plenty of sites out there that use the software, the learning curve is low, and customer support is top notch, with current customers getting a reply with 24 hours in most cases. I give it a thumbs up--this is a great upgrade that's been long in the development process, and users will find that not only has it been worth the wait, it's a big step up from an ordinary discussion forum--it's a complete publishing system, not just for the administrator, but for the end user as well.