Forum Software SEO - phpBB, Xenforo, vBulletin, Discourse
Quite a while back, I made a post on discussion forum software and SEO. I also had a post about my experience when I was running the forum using bbPress software (the Wordpress discussion forum).
I'm not sure exactly when I switched to phpBB, but probably around 2012 maybe? For many years I've had great success with phpBB, but the excellent modifications for SEO are no longer supported since phpBB upgraded from 3.0 to 3.1. There are some extensions to allow for search engine friendly URLs, but I found the specific modifications to 3.0 worked extremely well.
So around February of 2017 I spent some time getting the SEO modifications working with phpBB 3.2. There were a few features I wanted to get working before I would make it live. First, it would have to have the proper URL rewriting. Second, I wanted the recent topics mod to work on the front page of my website. I believe that a lot of pagerank (or whatever they are calling it these days) gets passed from the home, which should be the most linked to page of a site.
I liked 3.2 for a variety of reasons. First, I love the responsive theme that works well on both mobile and desktops. With 3.0 I have to use a device detecting script that then redirects to either the desktop theme or a mobile theme. That works okay, but the mobile theme isn't as nice as the 3.2 theme.
I made the change a year ago and everything seemed to be working pretty well. The site hasn't really been a high traffic site for several years, but a few of the threads were still getting regular traffic. The only other change I made was allowing some of the disease discussions from guests get approved and have a brief discussion there.
Over the past 6 months or so, the traffic has trended downward. I am not sure how much of that is because of the change from 3.0 to 3.2 and whatever subtle changes there were with the software change. I am guessing more likely the change is due to two other things. First, the site hasn't had much fresh content. I'm a believer that the best SEO is regular fresh quality content. Without new content, I believe the site gradually loses value in Google's eyes. The second change is probably Google's algorithm itself. I am getting the impression that forum sites seem to be less and less popular in the search results. Several years ago, forums were doing extremely well. Now, it seems Google picks one or two bigger sites to feature in the results, and those few sites seem to get the large bulk of traffic.
I decided to make a few changes here and I'll see if it makes any difference over the next few year. Obviously, doing a few things at the same time will make it difficult to know exactly what helped, but if nothing improves, then I can be sure that the changes I made didn't help (obviously).
First, I reverted back to the 3.0 version of phpBB with the SEO features that worked well in the past. Second, I enabled SSL (secure socket layer) which means you should have a green lock in your address bar of your browser. With a forum, this basically means that you will only be sending your username and password through a secure channel. Google has said in the past that they found secure websites was a good signal for quality. I don't expect miracles, but I felt it as worthwhile to get it implemented.
I have recently been looking into other forum software in case it turns out that 3.0 does perform better than 3.2, for whatever reason, as 3.0 is not supported anymore. The two most popular forum packages at the moment seem to be xenforo and discourse. xenforo is a fork from vBulletin and seems extremely well done. Unfortunately, it isn't free. Discourse is free, but it runs a little differently from the forums I'm used to using. Installation will be more complicated than what I'm used to as well.
So, I'll update the statistics here each month, just to see if the traffic is going up, down, or staying the same. I'll post a few statistics in the next messages of this thread.
I went through my Google Analytics information for this site and I have analytics data going back quite a ways. It looks like the traffic peaked in 2012 but then I got hit with some kind of algorithmic filter and my traffic fell dramatically almost overnight. It has been a gradual slow drop since that time. Looking at that overall trend, I can't clearly say that the drop off is from when I upgraded to 3.2. It looks like since 2012, my site was losing about 25% of its traffic each year. Over the past year, though, the traffic seems to have lost closer to 70%.
So, the main things that I did over the past year included upgrading to 3.2 and approving a few threads dealing with medical illnesses. I have now changed back to 3.0 and added support for SSL. I've reposted the few disease discussion topics, as I suspect those are not the reason for the drop in the overall traffic.
I think that most of the traffic really came from only a few threads. At some point, I should probably consolidate all of the old threads and remove those that are no longer relevant. I'm someone who doesn't like to get rid of old things though. You never know what gems may be in there that someone else may find valuable.
As for any new sites I decide to develop, I will have to figure out new forum software to use. I suppose if the traffic doesn't recover at all, I can not blame the move I made to phpBB 3.2 and I can probably use that going forward with one of the SEO extensions that is currently being supported. Either that, or splurge and just buy xenforo.
I've put probably way more thought into this than I should have, but I am realizing long term the solution of reverting back to phpBB 3.0.x is not a great idea. Eventually it would require updates to work with current versions of other software and any security exploits aren't going to get fixed.
Assuming traffic improves, I won't be sure whether the change is because of reverting to 3.0.x, or because I converted to ssl/https, or because I went back to including related topics at the end of each post, or even related to some change on Google's end.
I do have another forum where I just changed to ssl/https and I'll see if I notice any changes in traffic there. I do plan on converting all sites to ssl/https soon anyway as you can not get free certificates, and the recent versions of cpanel even include an autossl that makes it all very simple to obtain and keep updated. Google has said that ssl is a small ranking factor now, so there is no real reason not to use it.
The question becomes what I am going to do long term. I don't see myself going to a paid option, but as of today, xenforo does seem to be the preferred paid option. As for free options, I'm left with using phpbb 3.2 without any seo mods, using phpbb 3.2 with the unsupported seo mod I was using here before, using phpbb 3.2 with one of the newer extensions to make seo friendly urls (but these won't match my current urls and also it won't include other seo features that are built into phpbb seo 3.0.x). myBB and Vanilla also get a lot of positive comments, but there are downsides to both of those options too.
I think myBB probably has the better SEO results of the available free options. I'm surprised myBB doesn't have a built in responsive theme at this point, which is also important as Google moves towards a fully separate mobile index. It looks like there are some responsive themes available, or a "go mobile" plug-in. It looks like myBB 1.9 will have a responsive theme, so hopefully that will be released soon, in case I do decide to go that route. Of course it will also mean needing to go through and do 301 redirects from the phpbb URLs to the myBB URLs to try to keep the value of any old links.
The bottom line is becoming more and more clear to me - fresh, high quality content is becoming more and more important than the SEO friendliness of the software used on a website. Content plus links continues to be the most important aspect. I do think that the software does play at least some part though, as far as how clean the code is and how easy it is to spider. That probably will become less and less of a factor over time though.
Last month I converted the website from phpBB SEO to wpForo. I really wanted to move to a forum that is being regularly updated and supported. I wound up using wpForo because I was able to fairly easily move all of the posts from phpBB into wpForo. I really wanted to try Discourse, but I couldn't justify paying for a VPS just for this forum, as it does not seem easy to run Discourse on the same server as other websites. I found descriptions of ways to do it, but it just was not working well when I tried it. I would need a much simpler walk through to figure out how to get Discourse running alongside wordpress sites on the same server.
I'm still not sure I made the right choice. This site does not get a lot of traffic at this point, in spite of there being quite a bit of content. My conclusions from four years ago are pretty much my same thoughts I have today - it is far more important to have regular fresh content over obsessing over the software used to run the website (as long as the software is not too crazy with structure). I am a big fan of Wordpress and that also convinced me to give wpForo a try.
There are many things I really like about the software, but there are some things that are still not great. As with phpBB, I still get plenty of spam sign ups and forum posts. It is pretty easy to moderate both of them at this point. Akismet seems to do a much better job of filtering comment spam than message spam.