One of the major things that a webmaster often takes into consideration when putting together a site is: “Should I install a forum?” Even if the site starts off small and doesn’t require one, it may end up receiving more traffic, leading to more help requests ending in the owner’s inbox. At this point, adding a forum may be useful as something of a self-sustaining (to a point) community where members tackle each other’s questions.
However, that’s not the main point we’re considering today. What impact does a forum have on SEO? While reducing the number of support emails the owner receives could provide him with more time to focus on SEO — and that is a potential positive — there are even further aspects to consider. Let’s look at some major topics.
We all understand that content is vital for optimization efforts. If the main website is for a simple software program, and it only contains eight pages, then we might be looking at only a few thousand words across the entire site — perhaps more if one of those is an expansive FAQ page. Even if his userbase is not massive, an additional eight posts could be posted on the forum every day. For the most part, these posts should end up being on the same topic as the entire website is about, which can’t hurt either.
Now, there is the possibility that bots will start registering and posting a bunch of useless, scripted, and unrelated content. That could end up being a detriment to the site’s SEO. However, a good measure of protection against automated registrations should help significantly in that area. Therefore, overall, it seems that the content provided on the forum would be a net positive in the typical situation. Keep in mind that if the forum is going to be largely unrelated, content-wise, then it might be better for your site’s SEO to host it on a subdomain, rather than a subdirectory.
There’s always the possibility that some topic on the forum will get linked up by another person. Maybe one of the forum members writes a tutorial to help the rest of the community, and someone notices and decides to share it on his blog. Cha-ching! Even though the links are deep into the structure of the site (home page -> forum home -> particular forum -> tutorial), it won’t hurt the site as a whole. Some people might even link to the front page, or a product page, as a result of first finding the site through the forum!
Personally, I tend to think of SEO largely in terms of the main keywords I’m considering. Of course, that’s a bit short-sighted, as there is plenty of room for growth in other areas. Have you ever noticed how many visits you get from completely different keywords? Or, in some cases, a slight variation on the main keywords? Some of the content that is provided on your forum may lead to you get additional, new visitors who are still interested in the same type of product, service, or information that your website offers, but wouldn’t have searched for the keywords that you used to rank in. Well, guess what? You just ranked in these new ones!
Let’s say the website in question is hosted on a $3.95 monthly shared webhost — along with 10 other sites. Including some rather sizeable databases. There’s a possibility that the forum’s database (given the opportunity to grow in size, and some traffic consistently querying it) may put a strain on the hosting service. That probably wouldn’t be helpful for search engine optimization, considering that it does no good if your site times out when the search engine spiders come to visit it. If this is the case, then you may need to consider a better hosting package. Is it worth it to you to pay a bit more each month in order to gain the benefits of having the forum?
In the end, installing a forum probably won’t save the webmaster a lot of time. Fewer emails may be sorted through, but more hours will be spent on the site (unless a volunteer moderator is found). That time may be worth it, though, for the potential increase in organic visitors that can be obtained through opting to host a bulletin board. There are some negatives and positives overall, but it seems that in most cases — assuming enough traffic to start a reasonable community — the SEO effort has the possibility of coming out ahead due to the presence of a forum.
Josh has recently been considering — but is yet to make a final decision on — opening a forum on his website about elevated liver enzymes.