SEO Best Practices for Online Communities and Forums
It is common knowledge that web page rank in the search engine result page (SERP) plays a pivotal role in business growth. This is no different for online community SEO -- a well-optimized online community can drive traffic, increase brand visibility, and help in new client acquisition.
Since web users are more inclined to click on organic results than paid advertisements, investing in SEO for websites, online communities and forums must be one of the top priorities. In fact, this has led to the mushrooming of boutique digital agencies that offer SEO services. In larger companies, there are dedicated teams that work only on SEO.
In general SEO professionals have an understanding of the different CMS such as WordPress, Ghost, and hosted solutions like Webflow. This expertise in configuring the website technically to ensure that the content is easily indexable via search engines constitutes on-site optimization.
The other component of SEO is off-site optimization which encompasses factors such as guest posting, media mentions, and influencer outreach for building backlinks.
Factors to consider for online community SEO
Although the majority of the SEO professionals are focused on optimizing websites, the experience of working on online communities and forums for SEO is comparatively less. This is especially challenging since the content is user-generated and community owners cannot arbitrarily change the content posted by the members. That said, there is enough scope for onsite optimization of an online community and discussion forum.
At Bettermode, we have taken special care of the SEO aspect of online communities by adhering to the best practices given by search engines. Many of our clients have noticed a surge in traffic via the community route and some of them even rank keywords related to their competitors. In this post, we'll cover the common questions as well as the best practices to follow when performing SEO for online communities.
All the optimization aside, the best way to rank on the search engine is to create high-quality content. When you don't have complete control over the content that will be posted by users, your best course of action is to guide the discussion in a way that would prompt the members to post highly relevant content.
Now, back to the topic of community forum SEO.
Subdomain or sub-folder for SEO
The indexing of the community by search engines doesn't get affected based on the location of the community. The subfolder structure looks like the following: yoursite.com/community and subdomain looks like community.yoursite.com.
This becomes a concern when SEO people start building links and they are interested in passing the link equity (aka link juice) to the main site. When the community is on a subdomain search engines consider them as a different entity if there is no interlinking with the company site.
The easiest way to inform Google that the web properties are connected is to verify them in a Google Search Console account and link them with each other (navigation bar, footers, and other web pages).
Web Core Vitals
Google has specifically started laying emphasis on the user experience as a ranking signal. Web Vitals are the key to measuring any website's user experience (including online communities) and discovering the scope for improvements.
The Web Core Vitals comprises of three core metrics:
- LCP (Measures loading performance)
- CLS (Measure visual stability)
- FID (Measures interactivity)
You can access this report via different methods such as Google Search Console and PageSpeed Insights (powered by Chrome User Experience Report). Based on this check out the areas in which your community site needs improvement. On Google PageSpeed Insights, always aim for a score of more than 90.
The sitemap for online communities
A sitemap is a structured list of all the pages that help the search engine bots to discover different pages created in the community. It also tells the bot when the page was last updated and the priority of the page.
Although sitemaps are not mandatory, they are great for helping search engine bots. In the case of Betermode, the SEO Boost app generates the sitemap and updates the same automatically.
Ability to modify the URL slug
The best practice for SEO-friendly URLs is to create the URL with important keywords. Also, ensure that there is not a lot of keywords crowding the URL.
Since community forums are driven by the members it is practically impossible to edit all the URLs and making them SEO-friendly. However, certain important threads can definitely receive special treatment.
Creating mobile-friendly online communities for SEO
Search engines such as Google are considering the user experience of the site on mobile devices as a major factor for ranking. Hence, your community must be mobile responsive and load fast on a mobile browser.
If you have a Bettermode Community, you don't have to worry about this. All the communities built with Bettermode as mobile responsive by default. Bettermode can automatically recognize when someone accesses the community via mobile and accordingly loads the community pages to ensure faster rending and availability of complete functionality (when compared with the desktop version).
Ability to edit the title and add metadata
The title tag of the page tells a lot about the page's content to both the people and search engine crawlers. Although meta description doesn't really affect the SEO, it provides additional context about the pages and improves the number of clicks from the search engine result page.
With Bettermode, you can edit title, meta description, URL slug (already discussed), Open Graph image (to be discussed) to ensure that important content posted on your community is well-optimized.
Adding semantically-related terms
Many SEO professionals highlight LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) keywords as the terms related to the main topic of a web page and claim that LSI keywords boost the ranking of a web page. Unfortunately, LSI keywords don't exist!
Don't believe me? Let's hear from Google's Search Liaison, John Mueller:
There's no such thing as LSI keywords -- anyone who's telling you otherwise is mistaken, sorry.
That said, the semantically-related terms do exist and they definitely contribute to ranking on the search engines. Here is an excerpt from Google’s article on how search algorithms work:
Relevance signals help Search algorithms assess whether a webpage contains an answer to your search query, rather than just repeating the same question. Just think: when you search for “dogs”, you likely don’t want a page with the word “dogs” on it hundreds of times. With that in mind, algorithms assess if a page contains other relevant content beyond the keyword “dogs” — such as pictures of dogs, videos, or even a list of breeds.
Hence, the presence of semantically-related phrases and words gives a signal that your web page is of higher quality in terms of topic coverage. Here is an easy-to-follow guide on finding such related terms.
Now how can you ensure that some of the important threads in your community that you believe should rank well contain the related keywords? The answer lies in content seeding and working with the internal team to use the terms that are related to the topic of the discussion. With Bettermode, you can create bot profiles and benefit from content seeding organically.
Editing the robots.txt file
A robots.txt file gives a directive to the search engine bots on which pages or files can or can't be crawled on your site. The most important point to note here is that robots.txt is not the full-proof method of keeping search engine bots from crawling certain pages.
The crawlers can still discover those pages from other links and index them. To keep a web page out of Google, you should use noindex directives.
For example, one common use case in the case of community forums is that the site owner would protect the user profiles from the search engine to ensure privacy concerns. That's why Bettermode allows you to add noindex directives as well as edit the robots.txt file.
Sometimes the content created in a community becomes old and irrelevant. And that mandates a new content thread with fresh and relevant information. In those cases, if a search engine has indexed the old page, you would want to ideally redirect that page to the new page.
When we permanently move a page to a new destination we use 301 redirections and inform the search engine to transfer all the visibility of the old to the new page. This is also crucial if you are migrating the community to an entirely new domain or subdomain. A 301 redirection allows you to transfer the link profile of the old domain so search engines don't start from scratch when they encounter the new domain or link.
Adding link attributes
When a link gets added to a web page search engine bots as well as people browsing the web can follow that link to discover new pages. Unless it has any specific link attribute, it is considered as a "do follow" link and passes the link juice. When you get such backlinks from high authority sites, it can improve the credibility of your site and eventually improve the ranking as well.
Earlier Google used to have the nofollow attribute, however, since 2019 they have introduced two different types of attributes - UGC and sponsored. Here the key is the UGC attribute which stands for User-Generated Content. This means the links posted by the members of your community should have this tag. Also, nofollow tag sends a signal to search engines that your community is not vouching for the credibility of the destination site.
That way you can control link spam and somewhat discourage people who solely want to post links to improve their link-building activities. That said, you should have the ability to selectively whitelist certain domains so that can be considered a "do follow" link. Also, when you are offering advertising services to your community by linking to certain sites (e.g., banner ads), you should add a "sponsored" tag.
Search engines such as Google, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo have joined forces to ensure that the data generated on the web is structured and easy-to-consume for the bots. That's the reason Schema.org has emerged so that webmasters can embed structured data into web pages. For example, a web page containing a data set can have a different schema structure and a community page with questions and answers will have another type of schema structure. The same goes for user profiles, an events page, etc.
There are different ways to implement structured mark-up for a web page; examples are JSON-LD and Microdata. However, Google prefers JSON-LD and that's what Bettermode uses by default. So, a community page that contains Q&A would automatically have the markup specified by Schema.org. You can check that by looking into the page source code.
Here is an example:
Apart from that, Better uses Open Graph protocol so that social networks can fully understand the content and display the page accordingly. This makes social sharing of the content a breeze - the social media site will properly display the title, meta description, and image.
Here is an example of how the community thread gets rendered on Twitter:
Start working on your community SEO
We covered a wide range of factors to consider for the online community SEO. However, reiterating here that finally, the search engines would value high quality, unique, and fresh content when it comes to the ranking of the pages. So, ensure that your community actually delivers relevant information and adds value to your audiences.
If you get this right and you help the search engines with the right set of optimization for your pages, your community would definitely rank well.