The Community Manager's Ultimate Guide to SEO in 2020
Short answer - yes, online communities are good for SEO, because they are also good for your website visitors.
Google’s search engine’s clearly stated purpose is to help users find the answer they’re looking for at that moment. The more your site fulfills that request, the more Google likes it. (That applies whether your site is for shopping, blogging, forums, news, or academic research.)
“For some topics, the most expert sources of information are ordinary people sharing their life experiences on personal blogs, forums, reviews, discussions, etc.”
You can scan through SEO websites trying to read the tea leaves after each new algorithm update comes out, but they will all tell you the same thing. Be useful, be clear, and know what you’re talking about.
One of the easiest ways to get explicit guidance from Google is to take a look at the Search Quality Rater guidelines. This is the document they give to contractors who sign up to use their human eyeballs and brain to evaluate the quality of websites. There are about 10,000 of them, and their ratings are used as supplemental information to help the algorithms get more accurate.
Here are example Google Content Rater guidelines (they’re updated fairly frequently).
The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines mention “forum” 53 times.
Turns out “some types of information are found almost exclusively on forums and discussions.” And in recent months, we've all seen the critical importance of accessible information.
Think about the sites in which families of patients with rare diseases share their daily experiences. That type of first-hand story is almost exclusively found in forums.
Think about communities discussing the art of knitting or other crafts; those are populated by regular people who happen to be subject matter experts on a specific topic.
In short, High Quality = Expertise + Authoritativeness + Trustworthiness (EAT)
Now that you know a bit about how to create a high quality site in Google’s eyes, here are some action items that will make your community an SEO asset.
Label your ads, and make them non-distracting
You should already be doing this, so you don’t annoy your users, but do it for Google too. Be consistent with where the ads appear on the page, and try to avoid too many interstitial or popup ads that interrupt the flow of the main content on the page.
I recommend against the typical forum tactic of injecting ads every few topics in the list. You might want to consider ad removal as a premium/paid membership benefit too.
Show bios or expertise for your members
Google doesn’t really care if you’re using real names; an anonymous handle that’s been in use over a period of time serves just as well to convey longevity. If you allow your members to use signatures or bio fields, and link to their own social outposts or blog sites, make sure you do some housekeeping and don’t let those become spam factories.
In the actual guidelines, Google points out a knitting forum member who stated she had 20 years of experience knitting, and that was used as an example of subject matter expertise.
Delete spammy replies and ban spammers actively
If you allow your forums to be overrun with spam links, spam comments (Cialis, anyone?) and single word replies, you’ll be relegated to the low-quality trash heap. We already know that forums shouldn’t be “set it and forget it,” but this is just another reason to stay on top of the activity and content in your community.
Address unanswered questions
If you have a high quantity of unanswered questions, that’s an indicator to your visitors (and Google) that there’s nobody home. Your forums may be considered “abandoned.” It’s best practice, from a business and from an SEO standpoint, to ensure that your members always get some sort of reply to their inquiries. (Preferably in a timely fashion.)
Clearly show who the forums belong to, with contact information
Focus the purpose of your community as much as possible
Some communities are intended to be broad (like a meme-sharing or humor site); but if you’re just getting started, consider becoming the “best forum for XYZ” so you become an indispensable resource to a specific audience.
Try to get authority sites to reference your forums or link to them as a source
This would be a side effect of doing all of the above, but if you want to go super Ninja, you could do some guest posting on other sites who will link back to your forums as a resource. You could become an expert source for journalists who cover your subject, building some links from authority news sites. Get creative, and do a small research study or survey among your members, and use that data as a launchpad to make some news. Host an in-person gathering and then promote it all over social media.
First hand stories and experience are super valuable, surface those
This is just good practice as a community owner, but try to elicit those great personal stories from your members. Consider a weekly prompt or some other way to make it easier for people to share. The more you can get ordinary people sharing real-world expertise, the better.
Don’t forget the technological housekeeping
Remember on-page SEO. Remember that the algorithms also need identifiable URLs (best to use the topic title as the URL, rather than meaningless numbers), properly tagged images/media, a structure that makes sense to a crawler, fast load times, etc.
Side note, your mobile app doesn't give your domain any SEO juice, so a browser-based community wins that particular round.
If you implement these ideas, you will be better serving your members, and you will have a much greater chance of higher Google rankings.
Want more SEO ideas? One of my favorite resources is Moz.com.
What's your favorite SEO pro tip for 2020?