SEO Fundamentals of Hosted Online Community Forums
In larger companies, the strategic nature of SEO usually goes to another level, with an expert being added to staff. Sometimes it’s a whole department.
Usually these teams come with experience working on websites, or a CMS like WordPress, Sitecore, Drupal or Joomla. They bring extensive knowledge of canonical urls, folder structure and meta tag importance. We can agree the level of competence and skill will also vary. Anyone can grab a book on SEO, read Google’s guidelines or spend time on MOZ, and get a working knowledge of SEO.
Here is where we as a hosted vendor of forum software hit a snag. While much of the SEO knowledge the people practicing SEO consume, they don’t account for the distinctiveness of a hosted forum platform. So unlike a WordPress blog, a forum has numerous user generated posts, that require different considerations. This does not mean we ignore best SEO practices.
As we’ve covered before, Vanilla does SEO the right way. We don’t use blackhat techniques, and we don’t encourage our customers to do them either. With over 10 years of experience, and the way we’ve done the SEO for our platform, customer after customer has seen a markedly positive change in their organic traffic. This has come either when switching to Vanilla from other platforms or when they added a forum to their online presence. The best results, have come by people letting the platform do the SEO, and focus on great content.
At the same time, however, we still persistently find ourselves dealing with the same SEO questions from people applying their SEO experiences with a CMS to hosted forum. It is not the same thing and I’d like to cover the most common questions we face to help those new to the differences.
Somewhere along the line, some people in SEO got concerned with folder depth. And I agree it’s important not to have folders for folders sake. We do a good job of only using parameters that are needed – we are not including “unnecessary parameters” as Google suggests to avoid. For example, the most common item SEO professionals ask us to modify is our URL structure (like exclude discussion ID in the url), but this is is something actually necessary for the content to be identified. Almost every forum software created has this some form of ID. We don’t do this to annoy you, it’s a fundamental of forum structuring.
As for the rest of the discussion URL structure, we base it on the title of the post, and it’s SEO friendly using hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) as Google recommends.
Ahhh title modification. This is another common request – we get asked if it’s possible to modify titles to be different than content. Surely this is a great idea for a blog, where you can have 1-5 posts a day and it’s easy to manage. What happens when a forum has thousands of posts a day? This kind of feature does not scale.
We grab the meta tag title from the discussion title from the original poster. Don’t like it? Modify it, and we will ensure the meta tag is updated and the old post url will go to the new url based on the title.
Remember though, a title created by your audience is in the language of your audience and is attractive, because it is not marketing speak. So as long as the title is not “HELP”, you should really take a second breath before modifying the title. However, the community manager does have this ability.
The other meta tags are auto-generated from the post, as well as relevant image for the content, if one is included, and description based on the first bit of the content. All modifiable in the content of the post directly.
Subdomain vs Folder
In a perfect world we could easily allow people to choose folder or subdomain with ease. This is not the case with a hosted solution. Work with any SaaS solution and you will see the product located at a subdomain – this is just a reality. We are not alone. Look at Unbounce, Hubspot, Salesforce, Marketo, WordPress VIP, – all of their customer facing CMS content is on a subdomain. Google themselves has already stated there is no difference, numerous times and even created a video:
Yes there are studies with some people claiming folder are “better”, but this applies when there is an easy choice. As noted by Google on the topic in their own FAQ about structure “You should choose whatever is easiest for you to organize and manage. From an indexing and ranking perspective, Google doesn’t have a preference”.
If you have a post and you change the title, it’s fine, as underneath it is a discussion ID. So it’s not a traditional 301 redirect, it’s just the fact the URL does not change. This however, is not the most common request we see. It’s a redirect of hundreds of discussions to a root category, rather than showing a proper 404 error by removing a post. Or it’s a case of noindex/nofollow to a huge chunk of community content for “SEO purposes”. Why? To somehow sculpt the SEO.
The main challenge here, is inevitably people never realize how popular the old content is until it’s gone, and then they see a dip in traffic. The best strategy is that of curation. Move the old content to a different category, close it for discussions, and add a message it’s out of date content. As an extra step, you can also move the content to a category not “ viewable” to guests, which is how Google crawls the content on your site.
If you feel the content is out of date, no longer relevant, you could add a meta tag of noindex/nofollow at that category – but tread carefully. We’ve had our share of mishaps from people thinking content was no longer useful and once removed, it is hard to get back all the benefits it brought
In most cases, for the one off post, the best solution is to go to the original discussion – update the title and an add an explanation that this is a more recent info. Don’t delete, don’t noindex – simply update and save.
So what should an SEO focus on for Forum Optimization?
The goal for any SEO expert should be valuable organic traffic, not tricks to boost pageviews, that just dilute the kinds of people that will buy your companies products or services.
So what should an SEO professional focus on with their forum? It’s simple – the content. Here are the things you, as an expert, can suggest:
Make sure the community manager knows how to clean up titles – when necessary.
Teach the community manager how to do keyword research and trends to create relevant content.
Make sure the category names, slugs and descriptions are relevant.
Review the announced discussions regularly, so pinned topics don’t take up valuable slots on the recent discussion list.
When a community manager posts content to the community suggest they add a relevant image.
Encourage the team to add relevant content to the sidebar or in a promoted content module – so there is always fresh content.
Make sure the link to the community on the main website is prominent and easy for search engines to find.
Add proper alt tags to images, where possible, when images are being added.
Not necessary due to the tree structure of forums, but ensure they have a sitemap.
Teach them how to use Google Webmaster tools – the different codes and what are false positives and what are the things of concern.
As you can see there is plenty for an SEO expert to assist their team on when it comes to forums, but it requires your approach to be more content and less technically focused. This is where you can have the greatest impact and drive the most value for your company with their online community.