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IP.Board 3.3 Dev Update: SEO Improvements

Over the past few years, we've invested a good amount of time into ensuring that your forum content is spidered well by various search engines. We've created a crisp clean skin with good semantic mark-up, introduced a friendly URL system and made numerous enhancements to ensure that search engines read your content and spider it effectively.

Search engine optimisation is an organic process and it is always evolving. I feel that even though IP.Board 3.2 maintains good practise, more can be done to better tailor content. Of course, we'll always steer well clear from the murky waters of HTML cloaking and other dubious techniques but with the help of a small focus group, we have identified areas that can be improved and I'd like to take you through those today.

Problem: Dead End Links
One thing that was identified very early on was the number of 'dead ends' that IP.Board gives to search engines. Let me elaborate a little. Lets say that you don't allow profile viewing for guests. Search engines are shown the same content as guests so this is very relevant. Now, imagine you're a search engine and you now see the board index. It's content rich with hundreds of links of which a good proportion are for user profiles. Google happily follows these links to end up on an error page served with a "permission denied" error. This clearly does not have a good affect to how Google treats your forum. What's worse is that the default error code is 500 which is designed for a generic "Internal Server Error"; now Google is getting a high number of permission denied errors and some internal server errors.

The solution
Now, if you don't have permission to view a profile, then the username is not hyperlinked and neither is the photo thumb on the board and forum indexes. This dramatically cuts down on the number of dead end links and even reduces bandwidth for large busy forums.

We have also changed the default error code to 401 which is less severe than ISE 500 and we've ensured that we use 403 and 404 appropriately.

We've also added a per-group setting to disable the display of online lists reducing further bandwidth through mark-up and reducing 'noise' in your content.

We snuck in another per-group setting to remove completely the "last post" information for those that want a really focused clean look with only keyword rich text on display for guests and search engines.

Problem: Scary Error Pages
We admit it. Our existing error pages are a bit scary. The red/pink background below the screaming proclamation that "AN ERROR OCCURRED" not only intimidates people but can also confuse search engines who are relatively blindly sucking up words to attribute to your site.

The solution
Our error pages have had a complete makeover to reduce the technical jargon and make the messages friendlier. Even better, the title is header code context sensitive so if it's a 404, then the title reflects that to reduce confusion.

Problem: Poor use of 'bread and butter' mark-up.
IP.Board has had meta description tags for a long time now but they've not been especially optimised. Likewise the <title> tag that is possibly the most coveted piece of mark-up for search engines. The meta description just contained 155 characters of the first post with no real context.
Worse still, at no point was the forum name and topic title written in the same tag. For example, if you had a forum called "Halo 3" and someone started a topic called "Cheats!", IP.Board would not often return "Halo 3 Cheats" unless it was explicitly written in the post.

The solution
Meta descriptions now contain a proper brief description that contains both the topic title, the forum name and some of the post.

The <title> tag now also takes the format of NAME - FORUM - BOARD NAME. Putting together important keywords in richly spidered areas.

We've noticed that a lot of forums rank highly for benign keywords such as "photo", "topic", etc. We've made several improvements to reduce the frequency of these keywords.

For example, the little photo thumb on the board index used to have an alt tag of "Photo" - so no surprise that "photo" was spidered a lot! This has now been changed to something better suited contextually: TOPIC TITLE - last post by NAME.

Problem: Poor Bounce Rates
Very briefly, the bounce rate for your site is the percentage of visitors who 'bounce' right out of your site. This could be because they found a link to your site via a Google search but the actual page itself doesn't have relevant information for the visitor so they back right out.

The solution
We've already reduced content to code noise and we've reduced nonsensical keywords such as 'photo' and we've increased visibility of vital keywords so already Google should do a better job of attributing keywords to your pages which will help in 'false' matches via a Google search.

We've also taken this a step further by being a little more polite: The slightly huffy "You cannot reply" buttons have been replaced with "Please log in to reply".

Better still, we've introduced a killer new feature "Also tagged with". This pairs up perfectly with IP.Board 3.2's new tagging system to show a list of topics that share tags from the current topic. The matches are forum wide, so it doesn't just return matched topics from the forum you're in.

Consider the possibilities for this feature! If you tag a lot of topics up, they'll now show cross referenced below the topic. This should further entice visitors into your site if the topic they found via Google doesn't have the information they need. Better still, it adds more rich keywords onto the page which further strengthens the existing keywords.

Let's recap
The takeaway message from this blog is that we're committed to improving search engine optimisation within IP.Board. It's a constantly evolving process and we'll continue to monitor and improve. We feel these changes will drastically improve how search engines view your site and also benefit those with large and busy sites by removing excess mark-up. Of course there is always more to do so use our feedback forum as appropriate if you have specific suggestions. We're very excited about these changes and we hope you are too!

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