I've seen a lot of people emphasize the importance of Search Engine Optimization here at The Admin Zone. In fact, a lot of newbies seem keen on getting advice on how to improve search ranking for particular search terms to get to the #1 position on google or other search engines. I often wonder what benefit SE Optimization has on community participation rates. Note: I'm talking about community participation rate and not raw web stats - hits, visits or the increase in visibility of your website on search engines.

The Quality of SE Traffic

The biggest problem is the assumption that SEO means

More hits -> More visits -> More traffic -> More registrations -> Participation -> Community growth

The chain is somewhat flawed. The first three items in this chain are fine and are directly related to one other. More hits does imply more unique visitors and more traffic. But from there to "more registrations" is a big leap of faith. And from "more registrations" to "community growth" is a bigger leap of faith.

I've analysed my own web stats over a period of time and see that I get traffic from search engines, but do you know the actual percentage of SE traffic driven to my site? Average of a mere 5-7% of the total traffic. And 90+ % of that SE traffic is from google (the rest of the search engines being a mere 10% or less). Put that into perspective and you will understand what a waste of time it is to SEO your site when your community is still new and not as yet established.

Again, how much of this traffic has actually resulted in new registrations? Very negligible. This is because you have to analyze the mindset of people using google or yahoo and stumbling upon your site. People searching for info on the web typically jump from site to site on the results page. The quantity of time they spend on your site is actually less than 30 seconds. This is what I call "low-grade" traffic. You get more hits from search engines, but you get almost no benefit by being ranked high apart from raw stats. From my own stats, I see that 50% or more visitors spend less than 30 seconds online.

So what does this tell me?
  1. Being ranked higher in Search Engines has a very low correlation to actual community growth or participation.
  2. 90% of SE traffic is driven from google. Forget the other search engines.
  3. SE traffic is quite negligible compared to direct traffic.
  4. Getting higher ranks for specific terms has almost no meaning in the bigger picture.
  5. The quality of the traffic from search engine is low and you need an insanely large amount of SE traffic to get nominal growth.
So where does this leave me? I believe that SE traffic is most beneficial for already well established communities. Not only would they get a wider variety of search engine terms (having more and diverse content) they would simply get the sheer quantity of traffic required to sustain growth. The Search Engine traffic on smaller sites is not enough to guarantee a chain reaction going.

Social Marketing and its benefits

Rather than relying on search engine optimization techniques, smaller communities are best served by building up social network or partnerships with other sites and by increasing site content. More content implies more opportunity for search engines to pick up a wider variety of search terms and therefore give your site better exposure. Social marketing implies that your site becomes familiar in a smaller circle and typically helps you promote using word-of-mouth advertising.

Social marketing means:
  1. Developing a friendly ambience on your forum. By providing the personal touch which might not be possible on larger forums.
  2. By cultivating a circle of friends and acquaintances who will act as ambassadors for your forum - no short cuts here - lots of hard work and involvement.
  3. By quality of content rather than quantity.
  4. By being an active, involved and friendly forum administrator - this can be a great selling point for small forums.
  5. By getting your active forum members involved in your forum by giving them responsibilities and providing activities of focus.
There's a lot more to social marketing than the points I've listed above. But that's a topic of its own. Hopefully this article will give you an idea of how to focus on community building. SEO is all well and good, but SE traffic has little meaning for smaller communities because you cannot compete with larger forums on the sheer variety of traffic (due to the larger variety of search terms). The best way to grow is to achieve it through social marketing - by offering different things on your forum which are not necessarily found on the larger ones.

Your initial boost will most likely come from people who "know" you within a certain network and these will also be the people most likely to stick around for a while to give your forum a much-needed fillip before it grows into something bigger. Spending your time cultivating this network is a better way than SEO to build a new community.

Competing against the sheer strength of numbers of larger forums is silly and counterproductive. SEO is a hit-and-miss attempt to take on larger forums by ranking higher than them on search engines. As I mentioned before, this is a huge leap of faith. Creating a niche through social marketing is a much better idea. Hopefully this article will help you find that niche.