The one feature that most distinguishes the Internet from any previous communications medium is its interactivity. The Net is two-way. You give, and you receive. Savvy organizations have long recognized this and have even set up discussion boards where customers, clients, interested observers, critics and even competitors could air their views and share their experiences. The main benefit: repeat traffic and referrals, with the expectation that some visitors will become customers and customers will be more likely to remain customers. In contrast to the almost-anything-goes atmosphere of independent discussion groups such as Usenet newsgroups, organizations typically exercise greater control by moderating discussions at their sites. Moderation varies from merely responding to complaints about particular posts to reviewing all posts before publishing them. Still, says Alan Webb, CEO of Abakus Internet Marketing, many organizations are wary. "There is a worry in creating a forum that disgruntled customers or anybody with a chip on his shoulder might log in and badmouth the organization." The trick is skillful moderation. "You need an active, friendly, knowledgeable and level-headed moderator if you can't do it yourself," says Webb, whose company's own site has a discussion forum. A good moderator, says Webb, "enjoys starting new discussion threads and posting messages, is not heavy-handed about censoring others but is not afraid to close discussion threads that are getting out of hand, will immediately delete spam, is a good researcher and above all has deep knowledge of the subject matter.." Being a moderator can be tricky. There's sometimes a fine line between vigorous, healthy debate and angry, unproductive arguments. Some moderators let their egos get in the way, big fish in their own little ponds. Webb heads up a search-engine optimization company based in Germany with clients worldwide. He helps Web sites achieve good rankings when surfers use search engines such as Google, a task that can be crucial in attracting visitors and growing a business. Webb creatively employs a forum at his own site for this purpose. "Adding a search-engine-friendly forum to my site was probably the most effective thing I did to bring in traffic," he says. Instead of Google and other search engines just indexing pages he creates, now they also index pages created by participants of his forum. He now has 34,500 forum pages indexed in Google. Each is a potential entry point to his site. Without his discussion forum, Webb says he would lose at least a third of his search-engine originated traffic. Webb will add a search-engine-friendly forum to any other site for $300, though he's generous in offering free advice at his site on how to do this yourself. First, you need to make sure you can install forum software on your Web server. Webb recommends phpBB, available for free and with an active support forum itself at its own site. Second, you need to modify the software to achieve search-engine benefits, with step-by-step instructions offered at phpBB's site. Another program worth checking into for business sites is vBulletin, a commercial package that starts at $85. Other tips: Make sure you have enough Web space. A forum can easily cause a Web site to increase in size from three to five new pages a day. Create names for your forums that correspond to keywords you use in your site's title tags. These should be words that Web searchers are most likely to type into Google or other search engines when looking for sites such as yours. Along with the technical side, you also need to address the human side. "Most forums flop because the moderator doesn't know how to draw people into the discussion," says Webb. One trick is to start, or have your moderator start, discussion threads that have subject names phrased as questions. Also, don't hesitate to tackle controversial subjects, which are more likely to get people talking than tamer material. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.