Time is on your side
First, there's no need to rush into joining a guild, and even though you might get a not-so-subtle nudge from prospective guilds, you can take all the time you need to make a decision. Often, players who are looking for a guild feel as if it's a job search and that they need to prove themselves worthy of an invite. Ironically, it's the other way around for the majority of guilds, and the longer an MMO has been out, the more in demand you are as an unguilded player.
It always surprises me how many guilds still have a lengthy application process for prospective members given the fact that it gets harder and harder to find good members over time. Screening is important, but hoop-jumping is not, and it's actually something to take into consideration when looking for a good guild. You want a guild that doesn't just invite the entire server, but at the same time, a prolonged application process might be a sign that the guild is highly structured, and it's up to you to decide whether that's preferable.
Look beyond the forums
The first place players usually look for a guild is in a guild recruitment forum, and while that can be helpful, it's only a small fraction of prospective guilds out there. And while there are some well-established guilds that post on the forums, there are also many guilds that do so in a desperate attempt to fill the roster, and those are risky bets because they're in a tenuous position. In-game guild recruitment windows are much better because they tend to include a better sample of guilds, and they often have a filter that lets you cull out the ones that don't match your playstyle.
But one of the best ways to find prospective guilds is to just look around you. What guild tags do you see most often in town? When you're out adventuring or PvPing, what tags do you most commonly see on players who are nearby? Chances are, the players who are doing the same activities as you probably are in guilds that match up with what you enjoy doing. When I write about how guild leaders should recruit, I often suggest taking advantage of chance encounters, and it's actually the same piece of advice that works for players looking to join a guild. Take note of whom you bump into in game, and if you start seeing the same tags over and over, that might be a guild you'd be happy joining.
There are several qualities that you can quickly run through when you first begin to search through prospective guilds, and it's up to you to decide what you prefer. How long has the guild been around? Are members generally younger or older? What are the peak playtimes of the guild? How large is the guild? What's its main focus (PvP, raiding, crafting, small grouping, social)? What's their policy on voice chat? What's the overall tone when it comes to guild chat (chatty, silly, serious), and how moderated is chat overall? What are the policies regarding loot, participation in guild events, access to guild resources, etc.? These are the basics that help narrow the field down and leave you with some solid leads on a guild you'd like.
The people (intangibles)
One piece of advice that players often give is to go out and group with players in other guilds so that you can get a feel for things. It's a good suggestion, since you do want to find players whom you get along with, but I'd also suggest talking with members and the leadership as well. There are many intangibles that can determine whether your guild experience is enjoyable or nightmarish, and the best way to find out is by chatting and asking questions. Do members get along well, or are there cliques? How formal is the guild structure (ranks, bank access, etc)? What are the expectations when it comes to participation in guild activities? Do members relish snarkiness in chat or prefer quiet professionalism? Even those players who prefer more of a lone-wolf style and don't like chit-chat should at least broach the subject with the guild leader to see if that's something that would work within the guild.
Anticipate your role
One last thing to consider is what you think your role will be in the guild, and whether that's the role you actually want. Will you be only one of two tanks in the guild, and will that mean members will lean heavily on you for groups and raids? Or are you the 14th ranger on the roster, meaning groups (and gear) might be harder to come by? Do you prefer to be in high demand or to be left alone? Similarly, are you behind on gear, levels, and progression compared to your prospective guildmates, or are you a bit ahead of the game? Are you happy being "just another member," or are you seeking a guild where you can make an impact and perhaps even take on a leadership role down the road? Ideally, you want a guild where you can find your preferred role.
It can be very daunting to try to find a guild, but it's worth it to at least give it a try because when you do find a guild that's a good match, it really does make your MMO of choice that much more enjoyable. What's especially exciting now is that there's a much wider variety of guild types, so even if your playstyle is a bit unorthodox, there's probably a guild out there that has the same approach and would be a perfect fit. Guilds aren't just about raiding and PvP anymore (although there are plenty of good ones if that's what you're seeking). And just because a guild might not have an active raid schedule doesn't mean it isn't well organized and well-managed. It might take a little time to find a guild you'll enjoy, but that extra bit of legwork can really pay off if in the end.
Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.