"If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist." â€“ Jimmy Wales, Internet Entrepreneur
Jimmy Wales was being generous. A more practical statement might be: If it isn't on the first few pages of Google, it doesn't exist. When was the last time you made it to page 10?
That's what makes SEO so critical. Because be it Google, Bing, or Yahoo, your prospective and current members are using search engines to find information online. If your association wants to be found, you need effective SEO so that people are directed to your expert advice and benefits every time they search for solutions to their problems. Whether you show up in search engines also has a big impact on getting your message in front of journalists, legislators, donors, and potential partners.
While associations have traditionally put SEO on the back burner because they didn't need to "get found" by members they already had relationships with, SEO has increasingly become a strategic priority. Organizations now fight for relevance and to be the center of their industry in an age when information and networking opportunities vary widely.
SEO, however, is complicated. There's a lot of competition, and consistently creating the high quality content you need for a great SEO ranking is expensive and time consuming.
Fortunately, part of the solution to this problem resides in a tool you likely already have, and are probably already using â€“ your website's discussion forums. Since your members contribute to content creation, they can provide the boost your SEO needs while taking the burden off of your association.
Here are five steps you can take to start using your online discussion forums for SEO today.
If you don't already have active discussions, now is the time to start a few. Create discussion forums around topics that your members are interested in or have questions about. It's essential that the topics be relevant and helpful to your members, or they will not participate.
Whenever possible, include a discussion title complete with a keyword that you want to be found for. For example, if you're a legal association, you could start a forum with a title including the phrase "State of Arizona Bar Exam". Use this forum to discuss when and where the bar examination is held, or how candidates can study for it.
Keyword headlines will get forums started in SEO rankings, and your members will likely repeat the phrases throughout the discussion. Typically, the more times the phrase is mentioned in natural, organic conversation, the better your rank will be.
The discussion forums in your private online community aren't helping your SEO. Why? Because they're private. Search engines can't go through your private pages to find relevant phrases and updates for ranking.
In order for search engines to crawl your discussions, you have to make them public. As soon as they're made public, search engines like Google will start indexing your pages and ranking them in order of how relevant they are to searchers.
Remember, not all of your forums need to be public. You can choose certain topics or discussions with specific levels of activity or expert involvement to make available to everyone. The rest can remain behind a login as an exclusive member benefit. Your forum software vendor or online community platform provider should be able to help you set up both public and private discussion forums.
SEO scores are based on a number of criteria, and how recently your page was updated is one of them. By posting regularly and keeping a steady flow of new information, you'll ensure that your content is timely and that your pages are considered recent by search engines.
When you post, focus on content. Content is king, and you should consistently post content and questions that are relevant and interesting to your members. Content that your members engage with will also help keep the discussions going and will encourage members to participate. Your staff should also get involved by answering question about your association and giving advice.
If you need to increase participation even more, you can incentivize it. Gamification, contests, and rewards can help motivate both staff and members to contribute.
People often search the internet using conversational phrases or questions, such as "How can I improve my SEO?" The more closely your forum topics, posts, and headlines match these phrases and others typed into search engines, the better your score will be.
Matching phrases is based on relevancy. If someone asks the exact same question in your discussion forums as a prospect typed into Google, there's a higher likelihood that the forum has helpful information. Search engines will rank your discussion higher as a result.
To get more of these phrases in your forums, start your questions and topics off in a relaxed, conversational tone. Most members will follow your lead, and respond with more of the conversational phrases you want.
Linking is all about authority, another of the criteria that search engines base their results on. The more links you have leading back to your website, the more likely it is that your website is credible and helpful, and thus it is considered to have more authority.
The need to cultivate authority makes it tempting to link back to your site in every forum post, but that's not a good idea. Too many links start to look like spam, and may annoy your members. Post links only when they're helpful.
You can share links to content that directly answers a member's question, for example, as long as you don't do it every time you reply. Most of your replies should be pieces of advice, comments, or questions with no links included.
Even when you don't include a link, you can steer members back to your association using profile links. Link your profile to your employee page on the association's website, or blog posts that you've written for the association. These links are helpful because they give people information about your credentials, but they're also discrete. They lead back to your association without being pushy.
Discussion forums are a powerful SEO tool. With the right keyword headline, they can give you an SEO boost right from the beginning, and once they're active and popular with your members, they take much less work from you to maintain.
Your members will keep the discussions going, benefiting themselves and your organization. Your members will make connections and get helpful content. Your association will get all the SEO benefits of higher authority, consistently updated pages with conversational phrases, and an active, engaged member base.
Incorporate your discussion forums into a larger SEO strategy that encompasses online tools, including your website. This SEO primer will help you get started.