Customizing SMF > Building Your Community and other Forum Advice

Forum SEO is a myth

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Last year I posted an article on a site about the mythology of trying to search engine optimise forums. I'm reposting because I think it's an interesting point for discussion.

--- Quote from: Arantor ---I have said publicly that trying to 'optimise' a forum is futile. Here's why I think that's the case.

1. You're Trying To Game The System

Let me get this straight. You're trying to attract the attention of, amongst other things, one of the most powerful companies in the world, which is staffed with Smart People, probably smarter than both you and I combined in many cases. You're trying to attract their attention, and do so by gaming a system built by Smart People.

It's like going to the doctors, and suggesting a diagnosis before you get there. And at the clinic, the doctor is likely going to ignore your diagnosis (especially if they have any sense), and evaluate you themselves, before making a recommendation.

You know what? That's what Google does, mostly. Sure, you can help them a little, but by and large it isn't your site's SEO they're evaluating, and it definitely isn't the prime factor they rank you on. It's the site as a whole. Length of time it's been there, responsiveness of pages, and its content.

2. SEO works on carefully crafted content.

Now, unless you're weird, your average public forum is filled with juicy content that's contributed by the members, not the staff. And unless you're going to sit and mercilessly edit content, or beat your community members with a big stick, odds are quite strongly that it won't be the keyword-laden, search engine "optimised" masterpiece that the SEO experts recommend you should have.

I wonder why that is. Is it because you have no control over it?

On a blog, where you're the sole author, you can control the content, the presentation - every aspect of the page from the opening DOCTYPE to the closing </html>. But on a forum, odds are you just don't have that flexibility. Sure, you can modify the layout, the code, whatever, but the most important thing for search engines is the one thing you have little real control over: content. And content is utterly king for search engines.

You can adjust your page to have header tags (H1 through H6), you can adjust the link follow elements, you can do all the so-called tricks, but since you're only affecting a tiny percentage of your content, it actually makes very little difference.

3. Sitemaps are next to useless on a forum.

A sitemap, for those who aren't really aware of it, is a list of URLs a crawler should visit. Not a "must index these pages" list. Nor even a "only these pages kthx" list. But simply a "here's what we think you'd be interested in" list.

Now, on a smaller website, or website where the content is more finely controlled, you probably would want a sitemap. You get to set relative priorities of pages, plus a 'how frequently updated this page is' factor. This does actually help a search engine, for the kinds of sites that that applies to.

Note I said "for the kinds of sites that that applies to". A forum is not one of those kinds of site. A forum, by nature, has a totally dynamic, primarily user driven update schedule. It's not like a blog where the author writes as and when he feels like it, or even on a schedule.

You will also likely know that a crawler is quite capable of traversing links by itself; it doesn't need to be told the list of pages it should index, and where it's dynamic and likely to change from one day to the next, adding a sitemap just means you're building an ever changing list of links, which an engine is smart enough to find for itself without your help.

There is only, and I do mean only, one reason you might consider a sitemap, and that is if you've managed to hide a board from general view but still want it indexed without it being linked any other way. If you create a sub-board (or child board) of a parent, such that the parent is not available to the public but the child board is, the child board can be browsed and indexed, but won't show on the board index.

This, however, isn't standard practice, meaning that it's the sort of thing you don't actually need to do on the vast bulk of forums out there.

4. Pretty URLs doesn't help.

At this point I know that I'm going to be near lynched by claims of B-B-B-BUT THE SEO GUIDE SAID... It's crap. It's absolute, utter crap.

Well, what are pretty URLs? The idea is that the URL contains key words relating to the page at hand, so search engines rank it higher. It's also easier to remember if you're going to type it in.

Search engines generally don't use the URL itself in any kind of ranking, or if they do (Google, at least, is known not to use the full URL at this time in ranking though it can consider the domain on its own, but all that may change) it won't be significant at all.

Now before we get into the 'but every little helps' argument, let me put this forward first. Since Google has stated page load speed is actually a factor in the ranking process (albeit not a huge one, but likely more important than the URL), and that pretty URLs on a forum is not a small calculation (though, SlammedDime's SimpleSEF mod does it surprisingly fast), you'd probably be better off dropping the pretty URLs for the performance boost.

That said, there is one possible argument for pretty URLs on a forum, but it's pretty weaksauce: click through. When you're on the Google-or-Bing-or-whatnot page of results, you'll see the URL of the page, and if it's short, and it looks nice, there is a tiny fraction of a percentage of an outside chance that you'd click on it where you wouldn't otherwise. Most seasoned net users, however, don't care.

Now, other sites DO use pretty URLs. And it works for them. Why? Why not forums?

Let's have a quick look - off the top of my head, Facebook and Wikipedia both do. But, curiously, it's not for search engine ranking reasons (and anyone that tells you it is, is BS'ing you) In both cases, it's because articles are likely to be actually typed in by users directly.

For example, is a prime example. It's a pretty URL.

Or (which is reachable through Loaf in most browsers) Again, it's memorable.

So why wouldn't this approach work on a forum? After all, what's stopping this page from being index.php/Chit-Chat/Forum-SEO-is-a-myth ? Well, partly [here] don't have any pretty URLs mods installed, but if it did, I know full well it wouldn't generate that as a URL.

As I've said earlier, a forum is typically, mostly, community generated, which often means little regards to the normal SEO stomping grounds of things like titles. I won't dwell on it but on the forum community here, titles such as "Help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" are not uncommon. As you can imagine, that's not very SEO friendly.

That's the first thing: the page's title will be directly tied to its URL, and if you have a meaningful title, you have a meaningful URL. The majority of forums do not produce meaningful thread titles.

The second thing is what happens if you get a duplicate? Well, on a conventional blog or other site, duplicates of names are much less common, but on any decent sized forum it starts to become very common - and you would get into the realms of having index.php/board/topic, index.php/board/topic2, index.php/board/topic3, which isn't very meaningful either.

So already you've drifted off track in terms of having a meaningful URL. What both the pretty URL mods do for SMF (this software) is embed the thread's id number into the URL. This has three effects.

Firstly, it makes the thread URL unique, which is great.

Secondly, it means an expensive trip to the database is avoided because you have the id number handy and don't have to look it up like you do elsewhere, which means site performance isn't degraded as much.

Lastly, but by far most importantly, it makes the URL unmemorable. Which sort of makes it pointless because the whole idea is to have MEMORABLE URLs.

And seriously, how often do people type URLs in? Well, on social services, and linking to their friends, not that uncommonly perhaps. But general forum links? Very, very often you won't type the whole URL in, you'll either copy/paste it or you'll just use a URL shortening service - either way, the pretty URL phenomena just doesn't work on forums.

Closing thoughts

I hear a lot of people saying how effective these tips are, and I'd love to actually collect stats on whether it does actually have an effect or not, because I believe that forum growth is IN SPITE of the above, not because of it.

Why? Well, if you're putting that time and effort into the site to check SEO, to check all these things work, you're making more content and content is really the key. If you're actively pushing the site, you'll grow, not because you played some voodoo magic to game a system built by people smarter than you.

--- End quote ---

Honestly, I don't care about SEO or anything like that on my blog. It just a waste of time, but a good way to get easy money by people who "believes" in SEO magicians...

青山 素子:
Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Seriously though, I agree with your points. It's near impossible to massage user-contributed content in places like a forum unless one is willing to heavily re-write ever post a user makes. Should one actually try doing that, I think they will find out quickly that people don't appreciate such things.

I especially agree with the notes on "friendly urls". Using something such as that is expensive (in computation time), so it should be avoided. As for the readability and "friendlyness" of them, let's make a few real-world examples.

First, the standard SMF URL:


Here, you only really have to remember the topic ID number. It's not as easy to memorize as some things, but it's not super-humanly difficult.

Now, a sample "friendly" URL:


I think that perhaps this might be easier to memorize than some of the more common topic titles, but you suffer a bit here from the length and time. Four hours later, if you try to pull the page up on a different computer you not only have to still know the topic ID, but now you have to try and remember the words too! Was it Britian or England? Eat or Consume? Of course, if the rewrite is working correctly (pulling only the ID at the end), the following should take you to the same topic:


This means, of course, that the software will need to find some way of signaling to a search engine that such a URL as the above is not the correct URL either through the fairly-new canonical link tag in the page header, or via redirect to the "correct" URL. Of course, this means more computation time is spent making sure that the URLs are preserved instead of, you know, serving the page.

As for blogs, the canonical URL usually has a date in front of it to prevent URL collisions, which make "friendly" URLs on blog posts an oxymoron as you then have to also remember the year and month of the post and possibly the day as well.

On the topic of using heading tags the right way (in other words, not sprinkinlg h1-h6 in random areas you think are important but as actual outline elements), I support taking the time to do so if it is possible. Anything that can help the search engine distinguish between content and wrapper should be encouraged. This is especially important if you have the advantage of getting quality content-filled posts and topics.

I have seen incidents where start up companies would pay well over $1,000 for SEO services. I can understand this to a limit for product sales or distribution and, if the site content was well written. But for a basic forum site? No way.


That one came from last year but most of the thoughts I have about the 'way of things' tend to appear on Innovate, not Imitate, and interestingly enough I recently posted again on the same matter, though much less forum-specifically. (Here's the second article, off InI, more about SEO being uninnovative in general)

Thing is, though, the same is true of blogs... the majority of them that have nice long 'friendly' URLs are invariably far longer than I could ever be bothered to type, I'd just copy/paste it again. The one difference with blogs is that you can pass in just the year/month and often get a list of topics from that period which could be useful for narrowing it down - assuming you found the right month/year to start with.

--- Quote ---I have seen incidents where start up companies would pay well over $1,000 for SEO services. I can understand this to a limit for product sales or distribution and, if the site content was well written. But for a basic forum site? No way.
--- End quote ---

Yup... how do you optimise something you have no real control over? Even a huge forum with masses of content can do little more than nibbling at the edges.


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