In the Internet’s early days, community forums were extremely popular. They served as a convenient place for people to ask questions, share knowledge or do business. And for some, it was just a great way to kill time.
It seems that in the past couple of years, traditional forums have been largely replaced by specialized community-building tools, like Discord and Slack, or by social media groups, like the ones on Facebook.
But does it mean traditional forums are dead?
Analyzing traffic to popular forum websites
Unlike content on traditional forum platforms, posts from Discord forums or private groups on Facebook are impossible to find on Google.
But despite the fact the traditional platforms should be easy to access via Google Search, the question remains ‒ how many people still visit internet forums?
To find out if conventional forums are dying out, I checked some statistics in SimilarWeb to see how much traffic they are getting from Google. Here are the results from April 2022:
|Forum||Total traffic||Organic traffic share|
It’s clear that forums are still visited by a large number of users and can get massive traffic from Google. For instance, StackOverflow is getting around 275 million monthly traffic, with 88% of traffic coming from Google. Incredible!
Indexing popular forums
Using ZipTie.dev I noticed that Google only indexed 35% of tested pages on one of the popular forums, Digital Point. That’s a relatively low result compared to other websites like Quora or UbuntuForums, which have over 90% of their pages indexed on Google.
Low Index Coverage usually means two things:
- The website contains low-quality content.
- The website has serious technical SEO issues.
In the case of Digital Point, both of these problems occurred, and moreover, it turned out that they are related to each other.
During further analysis, I discovered that DigitalPoint allows some low-quality content to be crawled and indexed by Google. This oversight causes Google to perceive the entire website as spammy and useless from a user’s point of view.
Let’s see how dangerous this can be with a few other examples.
Low-quality content and search visibility
Flooding Google’s index with tons of low-quality content isn’t a good strategy. As I explained in one of my previous posts, it was the reason why websites like Giphy and Pinterest once lost over 50% of their visibility on Google.
Indexable low-quality content can negatively influence your search visibility on three levels:
- Landing page.
- Section (directory).
- The whole website.
But what exactly would we not want to be included in the Google index? Let’s look at some examples from Digital Point:
Sample page: List of likes received by a given author.
Sample page: List of all posts by a given author – in this case, the list is empty.
The pages shown above are entirely impractical for Google. Nobody will ever search for them, and they won’t provide anybody with helpful information. These authors are not famous for their knowledge in a given field, and individual likes won’t provide us with any information about the quality of their posts. For these reasons, these pages shouldn’t be indexable.
If you don’t implement a sound indexing strategy on your website, Google may consider its entire sections to be of low quality and assume it shouldn’t rank high in search results.
Dealing with low-quality content
Having an indexing strategy for your website is a necessary step to succeed in Search. And one of the key aspects you should start with is to control your low-quality content.
Quora is a shining example of how to deal with low-quality, user-generated content. They implemented an easy yet efficient procedure for fighting index bloat.
Every unanswered question asked on Quora has the “/unanswered/” prefix in the URL.
Once a page gets valuable answers, its URL automatically changes so that Google can visit and index it.
Why do I consider it a good strategy?
Because Google isn’t flooded with low-quality content and doesn’t waste its crawl budget to process it. Good job, Quora!
Another way to control low-quality content is to prevent its creation. A well-known programming forum StackOverflow uses this solution.
Whenever a user wants to ask a question, the portal automatically checks whether forum members previously discussed the raised issue. If a thread about this topic exists, the user is directed to it and therefore discouraged from posting a redundant question and creating an unnecessary URL.
Moreover, the website allows its users to sort answers by the number of positive votes and makes sure that threads are easy to distinguish and follow.
Why do traditional forums need to change?
The Internet is changing, and so are the expectations of users. To stay relevant, forum sites need not only to solve their indexing dilemmas but also adapt to modern trends.
Traditional forums might have been great twenty years ago. But these days, there are better tools for online communities. Apps like Slack or Discord offer extended features while retaining most of what a typical bulletin board offers. That’s where the future of online communities seems to be.
At the same time, the need for people to search for information on specific, community-related topics hasn’t gone away. But their attention span is decreasing, and their browsing behavior is different. They want answers to their questions to be both exhaustive and quick.
Websites like Quora or StackOverflow thrive because, at their best, they offer straightforward, easily findable answers to specific questions. Google likes that.
Furthermore, modern Internet users no longer trust unverified answers from anonymous accounts. They expect professionalism and accountability.
And trust becomes the currency they pay with for helpful hints.
This policy primarily applies to the sites in the Your Money Your Life category (topics that can negatively impact a person’s happiness, health, safety, or financial stability).
In my opinion, a modern forum should stick to the following rules:
- Make sure you are able to quickly validate authors to see if they are experts in their fields.
- Recommend people to use their name and surname, or at least put it in their bios. Thanks to this you can decide if you trust their opinion.
Besides, if someone uses their name for a forum account, they will have to remember that potential employers or contractors are able to reach their posts and comments. With their reputation on the line, they’ll avoid putting low-quality statements on the web.
- Allow users to express their opinions on content so that high-quality answers are visible on top and are readily available to users in a hurry.
Best SEO practices for forum websites
The results of my indexing analysis clearly show that forums can get a vast amount of traffic from Google. To take advantage of that, you should learn how to optimize for organic search.
Here are some best practices while creating and managing forum websites:
- Block Google from indexing low-quality content. Index bloat can negatively affect your visibility in search results.
- Allow both people and search engines to navigate to the most commented discussions on similar topics quickly.
Consistent internal linking not only delivers a great user experience to users but is also critical for Google to discover your pages and understand their structure and context.
- Make your forum valuable for users. Ranking in search results is just the first step. If people visit your forum and bounce, it may indicate your content doesn’t serve the user intent well.
- Beware of spam and & NSFW content, as users with the SafeSearch filter turned on won’t see pages considered adult-only.
- Last but not least, apply the principles of traditional SEO as the base of the optimization process.