Web forums may seem like an Internet trend from half a dozen years ago, but they’re alive and well today. Niche web forums maintain dedicated groups of users well beyond the relevance of their niche. Some forums continue to grow year after year, despite modern web trends. For that matter, one of the largest communities on the Internet is a web forum with a slightly different thread organization.
At first glance, it may seem like applying SEO to a forum community is unnecessary or impossible. PHPBB or vBulletin boards are messy and full of code that’s not necessarily easy for Google to parse. The reality is, you can apply many of the basic tenets of SEO to web forums; you just need to take some limitations into consideration.
Your page title is very important for SEO on any website. You need to consider keywords and human readability, since the title is going to be your link in the search results.
There are two problems with optimizing your titles on a web forum. The first is that it’s your community, not you, who creates the titles. After all, if a thread shows up in the Google results, it’s the thread title, not the site title, that appears. Unless you go through and edit every title of every thread posted on your site – an impossible task for larger forums – you have no way to control it. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this issue. The best you can hope for is that your users post descriptive titles when they create threads.
The second problem comes with many forum architectures. VBulletin, for example, adds a “Powered by vBulletin” line to your thread titles. Thankfully, you can do something about this. In vBulletin specifically, it’s in the admin control panel under search phrases. For other forum architecture, like InvisionFree, you may need to upgrade to a paid version of the software to gain such controls.
Is your forum a community for a larger site, or is it your site as a whole? If it’s part of a larger site, you don’t need to worry about homepage content; you have your entire website to control that for you, along with all the SEO you could want to implement. If you’re running a stand-alone forum, however, you don’t have a separate home page.
You can, if you so choose, create a homepage for your forum and put the forum itself on a subdomain. This is viable for some sites, but many find that doing so just distracts from the forum itself. People come to the forum to participate in the community, not read the front page.
Your other alternative is to optimize the main page of your forum. You don’t have a ton of room do to this, but you should go through your admin control panel – or the back end code if you can – to customize every bit of description you can. Why? Too much of what you see is standard content for web forums. If you want your front page to show up in search, you’re going to need to eliminate duplicate content.
You are, at least, unlikely to be hit by Google Panda for duplicate content that stems from the system architecture. It’s no different, really, than running WordPress; you aren’t penalized for having a “powered by WordPress” line in your footer or anything like it.
While you’re at it, you should customize the graphics and theme of your forum, for maximum individuality. It may not be a search feature, but if you’re just running the vBulletin logo in the corner, it shows you don’t care about the community enough to create a title banner.
On your forum top page, and on any forum page where you have subforums, you have a bar with the name and description of the subforum. These are your best chances for SEO on your forum. Make sure you make your forum names and descriptions as descriptive and optimized as possible, without compromising user experience.
When Google indexes a thread, and generates a search result from that data, the title and description are taken from the thread. The title becomes the meta title, and some of the thread content becomes the meta description. Some bulletin board software allows some customization of meta data, but most don’t.
The content of individual posts is, again, not something you can optimize unless your community is okay with you jumping in and editing posts. However, an interested and active community is about the best SEO you can get.
This is because, when you’re trying to attract users to your forum, you’re hoping they’ll fit in well. In order to fit in well, it helps if they’re interested in the subjects being discussed. If they’re finding your forum in search, they’re doing it because your topics organically appeared in search. You don’t need to optimize anything.
Duplicate content may be an issue, however. There can be a number of different versions of the same post. You have the live version, the archived version, the printed version, and the display-just-this-post version of a post, all with different URLs.
Fortunately, this isn’t a huge issue. For vBulletin specifically, engineers have experimented with the boundaries of duplicate content and have determined that the penalties generally don’t apply. Google understands the operations of forum software and doesn’t mind the duplications they cause.
A large part of whether or not your forum will show up in search is the size and activity of the community. If you’re a small tech forum, the tech giants probably have larger communities which will override yours. If you’re a small niche forum, you have a better shot at the search results. If your forum is inactive, you still might show up, if your content is unique.
One thing you should make sure of, if getting in the index is a top priority, is that your forum is visible from the outside. All too often, forum owners think to hide themselves from spambots by making threads and subforums invisible, but in doing so also hide their site from Google.
To protect your site against spambots, it’s typically a good idea to implement some form of verification or manual activation before a user can begin posting. Be sure to maintain a sanitary forum; spam posts will ruin the SEO power of a forum very quickly if left unchecked.