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Comments September 20, 2009

SEO… Snake Oil or Magic Bullet?

Filed under: Board Management, phpBB — Dave Rathbun @ 1:03 pm CommentsComments (7) 

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. :lol: 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. :D 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? :lol: 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?

Related Links

  • 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


  1. Good Lord, that video was rather explicit! @_@

    Nice to see you mentioned me. I’ll admit, I had seen people give references to phpbb.com being well-indexed in the past and didn’t think a think about it. But I thought about it again just a month or two ago, when Marshalrusty posted, and now I realize that it’s completely immaterial to just about every board owner.

    I think that this Page Rank thing is bogus too. Or at least, the sites/services who claim to be able to figure it out for you. No one really knows how the Page Rank figure is computed; everyone’s really just making shots in the dark about it. What I do know is that if your web stats program provides a list of frequent keywords which people used to find your site, then you should analyze them and see what you can do to provide additional content in those subject areas. This is my current SEO method.

    Comment by Dog Cow — September 20, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  2. The video was a commercial broadcast on network TV in the US, so it’s hardly that explicit. ;) If my memory is correct, it was a Superbowl commercial several years ago. Search youtube for “less filling” or “tastes great” and you’ll likely find a whole bunch of commercials from the campaign.

    From what I understand, Google has an API that you can query to determine your page rank. They just don’t tell you how it’s calculated.

    Comment by Dave Rathbun — September 20, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  3. I’m rather appalled that just because something is broadcast on network TV in the US, you think then that it is not explicit. I personally think that the FCC ought to be censoring out quite a bit more swearing and other naughtiness than they do at present. I hardly ever bother to watch the television these days, but when I do, I generally regret it. And to take this tangent out even further, I also think that they ought to flat-out ban ALL drug/pharmaceutical commercials from the television, just like how you never see cigarette ads on TV.

    Well, I still don’t believe in it.

    Comment by Dog Cow — September 20, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  4. I’m not sure what to say to that. You clearly have not seen much TV in Europe. You can see as much (if not more) in PG rated movies. I’m not defending it, exactly, just saying that it is what it is. The morals today are clearly different from what they were fifty years ago when Lucy and Ricardo slept in twin beds to avoid even the implication that they slept together… as a married couple.

    I apologize if I offended you, it was not my intention.

    Comment by Dave Rathbun — September 20, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  5. No, I wasn’t that offended, just more surprised to see that kind of video here, especially since I still don’t get how it relates to the blog entry.

    Comment by Dog Cow — September 21, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  6. It was supposed to be a funny follow-up to the “tastes great, less filling” reference I made in the first paragraph. Apparently it failed.

    Comment by Dave Rathbun — September 21, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  7. One SEO issue you have not mentioned is how Google AdWords treats content when you are placing an ad to drive traffic.
    Google AdWords checks three things when it decides whether to allow your ad.
    They are:
    1. landing page content
    Google like the words in the ad to be the subject of the landing page.
    2a. display URL shown in that ad
    Google requires that the content reference be reachable with no more than one click from the landing page.
    2b. hidden URL link to the landing page the ad directs to
    Google requires that the displayed URL and the linked to URL have the same start,
    ie if the display says:
    then the link is OK to be:
    3. Google requires that the landing page load time be reasonable

    So with the default version of PHPBB3,
    here’s what you get when Google grades your ad:
    Quality score 2/10
    Keyword relevance: Poor
    Landing page quality: No problems
    Landing page load time: No problems

    The sad implication of this is that Google charges a LOT more for poor quality ads, and is a lot less willing to show the ads. I can’t pay these ultra-high penalty rates of over $1 per click for traffic.

    The ads I’m using are for the forum subject areas by name.
    The subject area terms show up in the breadcrumb routing near the top of the page.
    But Google seems unable to see them.
    The subject area terms do not show up in meta keywords, meta description, or the link itself (as your example also covers).

    So what’s a newbie PHPBB forum webmaster to do?
    I’m used to the meta keywords and meta description filling automatically based on a dynamic database query to pull the correct content into meta keywords (the breadcrumbs would be great) and meta description (the listed forums on the page would be great).

    What do you guys and gals do when you are building a new forum website to address this issue?

    Thanks in advance for your ideas.

    Best Wishes,
    Lawrence Kramer (aka TVwas)

    I also posted in the MODS support forum of PHPBB, but got no response there.

    Comment by Lawrence Kramer — November 22, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

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