When you think of search engine optimization, chances are optimizing a forum is not the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, most SEO strategies seem aimed at website page ranking or content creation.
However, many of the same principles (and a few new ones) can be aimed at increasing the visibility and success of your forum.
What Search Engines Love
There are many factors that impact how well a forum will rank:
- Clean coding and design of platform, making it easy for search engines to crawl and index
- The number of backlinks a site has linking to its, i.e. how many other websites are linking to you and sending traffic your way.
- Not all links are created equal. Links from high authority sites such as a well-known news outlet will have a greater impact than your friend putting a link on their blog.
- The quality of the content contained within your website or forum (including frequency of posting).
- Time on site that your users spend on domain
- Social sharing of webpages
- And the best, as forum users most likely users of your product, the keywords and phrases they use are similar to the terms being searched on search engines.
Search engine optimization is made up of many components and to list all of them would require an article far longer than this one. However, those are the three main components that many other factors would fall under.
Above all else, search engines want to connect their users to a site that answers their question. That is why when someone searches for something such as “hosted community software,” you’ll see Vanilla Forums right near the top.
The first result on the list, an article by Entrepreneur, lists 5 software platforms that host online communities. Vanilla Forums, it should be noted, does make the cut!
And since Entrepreneur Magazine is a well-known, widely circulated publication and website, they show up well in that particular search. Since Vanilla Forums is mentioned by name and linked to in this article, we show up well too. That is SEO at work.
Translating This Method to Generating Forum Traffic
By now you see that the key to generating positive search engine results are content, traffic, and popularity. All three are important and should factor into your plan to generate traffic for your forum.
Some basics you will want to consider:
Consider keeping your forums open
Forums that require registration before viewing the content will be more challenging from an SEO standpoint. In general, forums that are run this way will see an increase in membership since that is the only way to view the content. However, continued engagement may not be there.
Open forums will see less memberships since anyone can come in and view the content. However, This also allows the content itself to be searchable. In general, the easier you can make it to join and interact, the better off you will be.
Create and Encourage Video
Search engines love dynamic sites with a variety of content and nowhere is that more true than with video. Search engine algorithms are constantly changing, but content is still king and video makes for great content. Whether you create your own or not, encouraging your community to create and share their own is a great way to help enhance your SEO.
Video is a dynamic medium that is searchable in its own way, and video sharing sites such as YouTube can further link to and from your forum which also helps.
Link and Promote Your Forum
SEO is not a short-term fix, but rather a long-term strategy. It will take time to achieve results and doing any or all of the above will not yield an overnight ascension to the front page of Google. It is important to promote and link to and from your forum.
Form partnership and link exchange arrangements with friendly websites who are not in direct competition.
Promote and link to your forum on social media as well as in email correspondence such as newsletters or within your email signature.
Remember that Content and Community are King
At the end of the day, all the smoke and mirror tricks won’t get your forum anywhere if it is a boring, lifeless play to be. As a community manager, it is incumbent on you to foster a community where you and your members are vibrantly engaged in creating fresh, original content to interact with.
Search engines value many things, but they all want their users to find what they are looking for and to enjoy the experience. If your forum remains true to its purpose and your community loves you, search engines will too.
Common Questions on Forum SEO
Adrian Speyer, our Marketing Manager has compiled and answered some common questions that our customers ask us in regards to SEO on your community.
1. Does having a forum in folder like website.com/forum get me better SEO than putting it on a sub-domain like forum.domain.com?
This question comes up because you want to make sure that all your inbound links are juicing the entire website, not just a part of it. Our opinion is that there is no difference if the forum is on a folder or sub-domain. If the content on a sub-domain is on a different web-server and IP address, it’s a good idea to register the sub-domain in your Google Webmaster Tools account. This way, Google knows that the website and forum are one and the same and you’ll get SEO juice for inbound links to the forum.
2. Does a forum need a sitemap?
Sitemaps are XML files that help search engines find your website URLs and can also provide some information about those URLs to help the search engine crawl them more intelligently. When no sitemap is present, search engines will simply crawl by visiting links it finds on your site.
Forums have a very clear tree-like content structure and so sitemaps aren’t necessary. As for the other information that can be added to a sitemap, we trust that the search engines will set their own behaviours based on what they find on your forum.
3. Does the URL structure matter?
Each new discussion is going to have a unique URL that looks something like this:
http://forum.website.com/category-name/this-is-the-discussion-title.html or http://forum.website.com/1234/this-is-the-discussion-title
Vanilla can display URLs in both these formats and we haven’t seen one outperform the other. When it comes to forum post URLs, the real deciding factor is that they are based on the Discussion title. Members of your forum are not likely writing titles with SEO and keywords in mind, so this is something you cannot fully control.
4. If I move my forum to another platform with a different URL structure, can I keep my SEO ranking?
Yes. You’ll want to make sure to setup 301 redirects. What is a 301 redirect? It’s a way to tell a search engines that an old URL has moved permanently and it will be redirected to the new URL you specify.
5. If I embed a forum into a page on my website, will my website get the same SEO benefit as having it on a sub-domain or in a folder?
While Google tries to index iframed content properly, it doesn’t always get it right. When the forum is on a sub-domain and linked to your website navigation, Google will have no problems finding and crawling the content. What’s more, it’s easier for people to create external links to specific pages on your forum. These links will help your SEO.
If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decide to go the embed route, here is a short Embedding Checklist to follow:
- Choose the embed friendly theme. This theme has minimal padding around it and will look good at any width.
Set up the forum on a sub-domain. (Even though nobody will see the URL, this helps search engines attribute the SEO juice to your main domain.)
6. What are things that could hurt my SEO?
There are lots of things that can impact your SEO:
- Buying links
- Links from bad neighbourhoods. Services like MajesticSEO or MOZ are helpful in locating rogue links you might want to get removed.
- Malware (check your site here. Add your domain to see how it fares)
- Choosing a bad domain (always use archive.org to see what was there before you buy)
- Spam in your forum (we have some great plugins to help with that)