One of the frequent questions that comes up on phpbb.com is whether phpbb offers SEO or Search Engine Optimization features. I rarely (if ever) get involved in these discussions because they often degenerate into a “great taste / less filling” sort of argument. (Please see the “related links” section at the bottom of this blog post for an explanation of the reference if you don’t understand it.) Earlier today I read a reply by user “Eelke” that provides a nice viewpoint on the subject:
If you are in a subject area where there is heavy competition from other boards, you may want to try every trick in the book. If you’re not, than carefully consider whether the stuff you are applying really is worth the extra hazzle[sic]
It seems to me that anytime this discussion comes up there are folks that use the “phpbb.com gets indexed” example as evidence that SEO techniques are not required. Clearly, phpbb.com is not under heavy competition from other boards for this subject matter. Also as another user (and frequent comment source for this blog … moof!) pointed out, phpbb.com is linked from nearly every phpbb-powered site and there are hundreds of thousands of those. In short, phpbb.com is hardly a compelling example for the benefits (or lack thereof) of applying SEO techniques to your board.
SEO for the Doctor
I have experimented with a few SEO techniques on the board associated with this site. All of my forums and topics have static URLs. For example, my announcements forum URL is
… rather than the standard phpBB URL of
Now to be honest, neither of these is really great. What is should be instead is
or something that includes the key word “Announcements” as well as my site name “phpBB Doctor” to leverage the combination of keywords. In my opinion it should also include the word “list” as the forum itself is not an announcement, exactly, but simply a container for a list of announcement topics on my board. Why is this even important?
To be honest, it might not be. If someone searches for “phpbb announcements” then the first link that comes up is (and should be) the announcements forum on phpbb.com, not here. I seriously doubt someone would search for “phpbb doctor announcements” in Google. If they know about me then they already know my site, and they’re hardly going to go to a search engine to find something they already know about.
So why do so many folks think that SEO techniques are so important?
Follow The Money
People can have different motivations for putting content on the Internet. Webmasters that are trying to make a quick buck seem to be the ones that are more concerned about SEO techniques. Some of them (and I am not trying to group everyone in this category) seem to think that if they can only find that “magic SEO feature” and apply it to their site, they can sit back and watch the money roll in. It’s not that easy.
And even if it was, you can bet Google will be watching. For a few hours (or days or even weeks) of entertaining reading, try plugging the words “google dance” into your favorite search engine and see what comes out. To summarize what you will probably find, Google purports to take the integrity of their search results very seriously. As soon as someone finds a technique that seems to give them an edge, Google’s engineers start figuring out how to avoid having that technique skew their results. This process is called the “Google Dance” as people on both sides try to figure out how to counteract what the other side is doing. Ultimately the only folks that make money off of this process are folks that call themselves “SEO Experts” as they get to go back and bill their clients again for an entirely new set of updates.
A Brief History of SEO and the Google Dance
Years ago people discovered that meta keywords were used by Google to index their site. As a result, they started stuffing keywords into the meta tags… even if the keywords had nothing to do with their site. One story I was told included a mention of a guy who put the words “Pam Anderson Naked” several hundred times in his meta keywords even though there was no such content on his site. Google’s response was to get better at scanning the web site content so they could first determine if the keywords were an effective summary of the site (and if not, penalize you) and second use the actual content for their index rather than relying on the (potentially abused) keywords.
The next step for web site owners was to “stuff” keywords into the site itself. Web designers would add content to the page but display it in very small or invisible characters (white font on a white background). Google’s response in this ongoing dance was to start checking to see if the content was in fact content that visitors would see, or just content-stuffing for the benefit of a search engine.
Next comes the concept of Page Rank. When so many different sites have similar content (stuffed or otherwise) how was Google going to decide which site was potentially more useful than the other? They made the assumption that if someone else links to my site, they must like what I have to offer. The more people that link to my site, the more valuable my content must be based on the judgement of these supposedly impartial people. Google spent tons of time (and money, no doubt) building out their page ranking algorithms and started rewarding pages that have more inbound links than other pages with similar content. Page rank became the holy grail of SEO consultants, mainly because you could measure it. If you could prove to your client that their page rank improved, you could justify your hourly rates.
What happened next? Link farms. People built sites that didn’t do anything more than create links, giving the appearance that your site is more popular than it seems. You could pay for inclusion in these sites as a form of advertising, but really the intent was to improve your page rank. Some SEO companies were nothing more than fronts for link farms.
Google’s response? At best it started to discount inbound links from known link farms. At worst you got penalized.
Because of this, webmasters starting trying to buy links on popular sites that had nothing to do with their own content. I myself participated in this a while back when I was contacted by ZTMC. They put ads for mortgage companies and guitar lessons on one of my sites that had nothing to do with either of these topics. But they were willing to pay me a monthly fee for that because the site in question had a high enough page rank to make it worthwhile. I am not a link farm. The fact that I was willing to link to these other sites was supposed to imply that I saw some value in the sites, and avoid the link farm penalty. For what it’s worth, I participated in this program as an experiment as much as anything else. The site in question is not one of my primary sites, and not one where I am currently developing new content.
Google’s response? Based on some reports, they downgraded page ranks for sites that sell this sort of advertising. It’s probably not to hard to recognize this tactic. For example, the word “guitar” or “mortgage” does not appear a single time anywhere on my site other than in the ads, therefore links to mortgage or guitar-related sites are discounted. It all comes back to content. Does my content have anything to do with sites I am linking to? Do sites that link to me have anything to do with my content?
It never ends, does it? phpbb.com itself was the apparent victim of this downgrade process. At one point they had a page rank of 9 and are now much lower. It could have been the link advertisements, or it could be that Google realized that 99% of the boards linking to phpbb.com were not doing so because of related content but merely because they used their software. The link has value, but the link in combination with the content had reduced value. (On the other hand, the link from this site to phpbb.com should have more value because the content is directly related.)
One of the new SEL techniques involves “smart” or “friendly” URLs that include keywords. How long will it be before people start stuffing extra keywords into their URLs and Google reacts?
And it goes on from there. The bottom line is that every time someone finds a technique or tactic that seems to give them an edge based on how Google currently works, Google is likely to find out and take steps to counteract the abuse.
Page Rank Becomes Incentive to Spam
In the case outlined above I was approached by a company that wanted to place advertising on one of my sites. Other people (and I use the term loosely here) are not so polite. They simply seek out boards or blogs and post their own content (and links) trying to leverage page rank. I am, of course, talking about spammers. They see a benefit to having their links on my site, and I don’t. I have plenty of other posts on this blog talking about techniques to combat spam, so I won’t repeat them all here.
If you’re trying to break into an area that is already heavily covered (video games for example) then your board might initially seem to benefit from SEO. But all the tricks in the world won’t help if your site doesn’t have compelling content. SEO techniques can change every year. Good content can remain valuable forever. While applying SEO tricks might help people find your board, content keeps them coming back. Which one of those is more important to you?
- Many years ago Miller (a beer company in the United States) started an advertising campaign for their “light” beer. The campaign was based on two different sides of the argument as to what made Miller Lite a better beer. The first was that the beer “tastes great” and the other was that it was “less filling” because it was a light beer. The campaign was very successful and spawned a number of immitations. Wikipedia article: Less Filling… Tastes Great! advertising campaign from Miller Light beer
- WIkipedia article: Google Dance