Are SEO Forums Still Needed?

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For my Blog-off post, I wanted to do a piece which somehow tied back into my first contest post. Out of the 14 items, the one about SEO Forums actually has some deeper meaning to me and I thought it would be a good topic to focus on.

6. Real SEOs … Don’t go to the forums

Real SEOs used to go to forums all the time. As a matter of fact, I bet most Real SEOs learned the craft on those very forums. Now, Real SEOs post all of that hard earned knowledge on their own sites or friends blogs. Why give away the milk when you can monetize it yourself.

While the original thought was obviously written in satire, it did have a underpinning of truth. In the beginning, much of the knowledge base of the entire SEO Industry was formulated and recorded in the SEO forums. Today however, this is just not the case. Much of the new knowledge is now being published on blogs, social or news sites. Has this shift in the location of our knowledge centers made the SEO Forums a artifact of our past or do we still have reason to participate in our original social environments?

A Recent History of the SEO Forums

These forums have been the foundation of our industry’s knowledge base since the beginning. They have not been without their share of controversy or drama. The differing levels of accountability has long been a problem for me personally when visiting SEO forums. Many of these forums allow discussion of black hat or potentially unethical techniques relying on their membership to counter or expose the problems with such activities. This does not always happen and the information may go unchallenged. All but one forum, has a history of not allowing its members to “name names” when exposing spammers or Black Hat SEOs. IHelpYou Forums and its owner Doug Heil have actually gotten a negative reputation in the industry for exposing the names of these people or companies when they find them. The one exception that comes to mind was the Traffic Power scandal, pretty much everyone called them out though the members of IHelpYou were first.

There have been some political and personality battles as well. There was a rather large flame war both publicly and behind the scenes when Jill Whalen left her moderator status at IHelpYou to start her own High Rankings forum. The members of those two forums held some grudges for quite some time and it was the cause of some very “interesting” but unproductive reading. The mystery of GoogleGuy over at WebMaster World and other forums was very entertaining for quite some time. The information he provided was outstanding but the mystery of his identity and authenticity was almost as intriguing. Here’s a hint to his identity, he stopped posting on the forums around the same time Matt Cutts launched his blog and started posting under his own name.

When Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch he left and many of the most prominent members of their forums left with him. This created a void at the relatively new SEW Forums and the new company used recruiter to contact major SEM agencies to try and find new moderators. The company I recently left was contacted and asked if we had anyone who would volunteer for a moderator post. There are many more example of this type of drama, but this is to be expected in a living community or collection of communities.

What about the individual forums? Back on October of 2006, I compiled some data related to the activity of what then were the top ten SEO forums. I took a look at the number of members and the number of posts at these forums since their creation. Using these numbers I determined the average number of posts per member to get a basic idea of how active a specific forum actually was. Using these same forums and comparing toady’s data, I thought I might be able to get an idea of the growth of these forums over the past 20 months.

I first looked again at the number of members of the SEO forums:

SEO Forum Growth

Two of the more popular SEO forums did not publish this data on their site. I was quite surprised at the growth of the Digital Point forums (325%), but much of that growth can be traced back to some very non-SEO portions of their content. V7N seemed to be the one forum with the most growth in membership dedicated to SEO with an increase of 194%. The SEO Guy forum, while small in the overall scheme of things actually showed a rather large growth percentage as well with 167%. Overall the average percentage of growth of the other forums was right at 60%. If you compare the growth of these forums to the growth of our industry, it does not seem the original supplier of SEO knowledge has been keeping up. In a recent article looking at SEO Job growth, Reilly O’Donnell of Onward Search showed us some interesting graphs including one that revealed that between October of 2006 and today, the job growth for SEO has increased approximately 400%. This is over 6 times the average forum growth.

Next I looked at the number of posts at the listed forums. I thought this might gage the levels of activity at these forums over the past 20 months.

Post Growth

Again Digital Point blows the grading curve with 435% growth in the number of posts clocking in at over 300,000 a months since October of 2006. Close to 4,000,000 of these posts were in a single forum dedicated to the selling and buying of web sites. My gut was telling me that Digital Point was being targeted by spammers, however when I went back to their site this afternoon, it was down so I could not confirm. Its no surprise that Webmaster World has seen the most activity of the ten with over 600,000 posts and consistent with its growth, V7N had over 400,000 posts. The average of the rest was approximately 43,000 posts in the 20 months or 2,200 posts a month.

The most interesting data of all in this little experiment comes when looking at the Average posts per member statistic. I left out Webmaster World and Search Engine Forums from this graph as they did not publish enough data to be included.

SEO Forums Change

Evey single forum except one saw a reduction in the overall activity of its members. The one exception of course is Digital Point which is one of the reasons I wanted to determine if it was being spammed. SEO Chat held up the best with only a 3.5% decrease in activity per member while growing its membership over 56%. While SEO Guy’s membership increase showed promise, many of the new members must be lurking as the activity levels of the site have dropped almost 54%. The activity levels of the members of the remaining forums dropped an average of 23% over the last 20 months.

So what conclusions can we gather from all this? These SEO forums continue to grow, but the amount of activity seen is not growing at the same rate. There is a rather obvious reason for this discrepancy; knowledge distribution. When these forums first launched, they were the primary, if not only source of knowledge on SEO and competition was mainly limited to other SEO forums. Today and for the past couple of years, publication of SEO knowledge through blogs, news sites and dedicated SEO social media sites has increased dramatically.

Many notable SEOs now publish their own blogs, people who used to share their knowledge on forums are now providing that same knowledge on their own sites. SEO news sites such as Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Land did not exist and now provide easy access to changes happening in the industry. Sphinn is a great example of a Social Media site dedicated to the industry and can probably lay claim as the focal point of new SEO knowledge today. All of these additions have distributed the SEO knowledge base and relegated the SEO forums back to primarily a conversation point as apposed to the source for SEO knowledge.

How Have Real SEOs Used the Forums?

When I first got into this field, we were all on our own. Prior to the SEO forums all we had was … nothing but ourselves. When the forums came along, it was like the clouds splitting and a heavenly beam of light shining on the possibilities. Finally we had somewhere we could discuss and share and learn about SEO. I know I credit forums with a large part of my coming of age in this industry and the IHelpYou forums in particular. The knowledge gained from the forums at that time was irreplaceable. In preparation for this article I sent an email to some friends and acquaintances in the industry to ask them how influential the SEO forums were in learning their craft. Here are a few of the responses I received.

    “Forums were the staple of my initial SEO Education. I’d hang out there most of the day and absorb everything I read.” – Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim

    “SEO forums played an enormous role in my initial SEO education. Back then, the search marketing media was far smaller and less forthcoming than it is today. Similarly, there were no best-practices or a sense of “the basics” that new practitioners learn today. The forums were a place where practitioners could exchange information or ask each other questions.” – Jim Hedger of Markland Media

    “There were probably three sites that got me started on the right path when I was learning SEO: Search Engine Watch, WebmasterWorld, and the Search Engine Watch Forums. Two of those are forums, so they obviously played a huge role.” – Matt McGee

    “Forums played a monumental role in my seo education, and still would play a large role today.” – Jeff Quipp of Search Engine People

Additionally, I asked if the forums played any other role in the success they have had “other” than education.

    “I expect most of the benefit I have received from forums has been educational. That said, it would be foolhardy to believe that even my minor participation in forums has had no effect on my or my site’s reputation and rankings… so I expect some success has been had that is hard to measure.” – Ross Dunn – StepForth

    “Relationships with others (mostly met at conferences) has to be the biggest noneducational benefit of forums. I would hope they would have the same effect today, and perhaps would be even more effective, since more people are coming together originating from online communities and engaging in activities of the physical world.” – Michael Dorausch of Planetc1

    “(SEO Forums) Helped me network with some folks and I got my first client as the result of a site review. Funny in hindsight; I charged him for a month’s work less than I now charge for an hour! I knew a loooooooot less at the time, though, so I guess that makes sense.” – Gab Goldenberg of SEO ROI

    “Forums played and continue to play a very large role in the success that we’ve experienced today, for non-educational purposes also. A great deal of what we’ve been able to accomplish is the result of friendships made through forums. Sharing knowledge, helping with social media, reputation management and the like … all greatly impacted by the friends made through forums.” – Jeff Quipp of Search Engine People

And finally I asked if they were mentoring a new SEO today, would you recommend they read the forums.

Jim Hedger of Markland Media had quite a lot to say on this topic, I’ll post a few of his points here ..

“Unequivocally; yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I want new SEOs to get a sense of the personalities that make up our industry. I want them to participate and become one of those personalities. I very much want new SEOs to feel a sense of community”

“Next, there is a lot of good sense to be found in the forums. The folks moderating and participating to many of the SEM forums are brilliant. They are among the best brains in the business. For SEOs, this is especially true in places like Cre8asite, Search Engine Watch and WebmasterWorld.”

“Lastly, the forums are the purest place of creative, collective and competitive intelligence. Aside from information on tactics and technique, I have learned more about people and the companies they work for trolling the forums than any other venue except face-to-face encounters.”

Others had some good points as well …

“I have mentored a couple newer SEOs, and generally tend to recommend they spend more time reading the great blogs more so than forums. I think Barry and Tamar do such a great job at Search Engine Roundtable of pointing out interesting forum threads, you almost don’t need to visit the forums yourself.” – Matt McGee

“Yes, go to forums if you’re going to network and make friends with the other leaders there, and especially the bloggers. Also be sure to add them on IM and/or Twitter to network outside the forum. But don’t bother for education, unless you’re a newbie.” – Gab Goldenberg of SEO ROI

Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim hit the nail on the head in my opinion with this response…

“Actually, I do mentor new SEO’s and I tell them to be careful when digesting information on forums–there’s a lot of guesswork and poor information among the nuggets of gold. Personally, I let Search Engine Roundtable sift through all of the forums and tell me what I need to know.”

For someone new to the industry today, the SEO Forums can be a very intimidating and hazardous place to be. A new SEO is not going to be able to easily distinguish the “nuggets of gold” from the outdated techniques or SEO rhetoric. There are much better places online now for a new SEO to cut their teeth and learn the industry. But once you have to knowledge under your belt, the forums are still a great place to socialize and become part of the overall community.

Dont Count Out the Forums

Yes. SEO forums are still needed, the history contained in their archives is a virtual minefield full of treasure. The relationships formed can far outweigh the drama and it is probably the only place left where you can still have one on one contact with some of the top people in the industry. Use the forums to build relationships and and expand on your current knowledge through discussion and interactivity with others. These are the original social media sites and while news types of social media have more modern appeal, they still don’t hold a candle to the type of relationship building you can do at the forums.

The fact that new SEO Forums are still forming and becoming active social communities points to the fact that these types of communities are still useful to the industry. The new forum at SEO Book is only available to paid members and while I am not a member (yet), I hear it is a thriving community. It the time of the SEO forum over? Not at all, the reason to frequent them may have changed over the past few years, but they are still a very important part of the SEO community as a whole and will likely continue to be for quite some time. All in all, if you leave the forums out of your everyday SEO life you are not living as full of a life as you could be.

There are many forums that did not get mentioned in this article new and old. If your favorite was not mentioned, please understand and give them a shout out in the comments. I know I have personally been away from the forums for too long, as a result of writing this article, I have made up my mind to get back into the SEO Forum communities and start sharing what I know and rebuilding some relationships. I hope to see many of you there soon.

I want to thank SEJ for allowing me to participate in this Blog-off. If you liked the article please take some time and share it with your friends and social accounts. If you are on a forum, I would love to get some feedback from the forums themselves. If anyone notices or starts a thread on a forums about this topic, please link it in the comments so we can read what the communities themselves have to say.

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  • Mercy

    Excellent Piece of write up! But still forums are the great place of learning at least for the beginners. Some senior forum members give valuable suggestions to the newbie’s in the forum threads / posts. Places like Sphinn, SEL, SEJ are the places to keep track of industry updates. In SEL today I have come to know abt Google, modified their definition on Doorway pages. At the same time we do need to agree that SEO forums are getting a spammers backdrop!!!

  • Robin Mastroni

    This article was very articulate and intruiguing. Very well written. I think this article is worthy of the top prize.

  • Kim Krause Berg (cre8pc)

    I tackled this very topic myself, as a forums owner, when I wrote about it in my blog a few months ago. The consensus was that forums have their place but they’re not the only source for info anymore.

    Your conclusions were based on certain user data. Ignore “members”. In reality, most members are lurkers, or came to link drop and were disabled. Each forum’s software handles autobot spam differently. Some will show as “real” people (members), when in fact, they are most certainly not.

    Forums are communities and develop over time. Some are all about self promo. Others target thought provoking discussion vs. gab. You’ll find more lurkers in forums where leaders participate due to the depth of some threads.

    This is why we don’t play the numbers game at Cre8asite. We’re not competing for anything. We serve a specific purpose that has always gone far beyond SEO. SEO topics would only limit us and for the community there, limits inhibit growth 🙂

  • Barry Welford

    I’d like to add my vote for the great job that Barry Schwartz and Tamar Weinberg do in monitoring what’s going on in the Forums. However just dropping into a Forum on one topic will not give you a sense of the real discussion that goes on in Forums.

    My prediction is that Forums will prove their worth and people will gradually migrate back to them. If you watch what is happening with the Social Media, it’s all sound bites. Often knee-jerk reaction to a single item from another participant. A helicopter vision of what is happening will show that no one has a clue where the migration from Digg to Sphinn to Twitter to FriendFeed will end. .. and there are many other diversions along the way. We’re all searching for the holy grail, but it won’t be found in the ping-pong interactions of most of the incrowd places. RSS news feeds mean that there’s just too much going on. A real conversation with only a dozen people with knowledge beats all of that.

  • John Carcutt

    First let me apologize to everyone for the length of this thing. It should probably been broken into a couple of different posts. But hey, its a Blog-off so I threw everything at it. If you read the whole thing I think SEJ should give “you” a prize.

    @Kim I agree with your thoughts on the members and how so many are not “real members”. My goal with that was not so much to point how who has the bigger list to swing around, but as part of a larger point focusing on the decrease activity per “Assumed” member. Since each of the forums with data would have some of the same types of issues I assumed the numbers would average out close.

    BTW the Cre8 forums are great, the only reason I did not have data on them is that back in Oct 2006 I picked the top 10 forums based on # of posts. Out of about 15 or 16 yours came in at 11 or 12 if I remember correctly. Thanks for the input.

    @ Barry You make some good points, I still don’t think it is a place for noobs with out some guidance however.

    OK, this is going to sound like “vote bait” (and it might be) but I thought you should all know that I informed Loren Baker a few weeks ago that if I happened to win this, I plan on donating more than half the prizes to a very specific charity.

    I friend of mine since 6th grade, recently moved his entire family (wife and 3 girls) to a small town in remote Mexico to build an operate an Orphanage. He has a simple web site is in need of help and some traffic. With some more traffic and a better optimized site, they may start getting some more donations to allow them to finish building.

    Thanks everyone who has enjoyed, shared and saved my two articles in this contest and thanks to Richard “the King” Burckhardt for Blogging-off with me. 🙂

  • Samir Balwani

    This is a great post! I love Digitalpoint and still use it. I like being able to talk to people without having to write a long post.

  • Jaan Kanellis

    Any reason was not on this list?

  • John Carcutt

    Jaan, when I did the first list back in 06, I looked at the 15 or 16 SEO forums I was aware of and picked the top 10 based on number of posts, I can only assume that they did not make the top 10. In hindsight, I don’t know why I just didn’t do them all, that was kinda dumb. 🙂

  • Tad Chef

    What about SEO Refugee? The only SEO forums I can stand. Besides that I don’t read forums anymore.

  • Eric Lander, Associate Editor

    Very detailed post John, and kudos on the research that went into this.

    My stance is very simple, and it echoes your satirical introduction. The introduction of social profiling, networks and bookmarking services have forced valuable conversations one step away from the forums.

    The increased use of blogs and RSS have also ruined it a bit for forums. I’d be inclined to believe that the paid / premium membership forums are the most useful.

  • Zoobie Joy

    I have to admit..I haven’t been visiting DP for like a month already..I guess now I was getting used to using Sphinn, Twitter and SU more.

  • John Carcutt

    Thanks Eric. I think the whole thing boils down to one main observation.

    SEO forums are no longer the primary education source they once were. Today, finding the great educational materials in forums is like hacking through the jungle of overgrowth trying to find a lost artifact. And dont forget this jungle is loaded with beasts that could harm, main or even be the death of an uninformed SEO.

    That said, I still think the camaraderie, relationships and and sense of community make the SEO forums a must for experienced SEOs.

  • root123

    I think SEO forums still serves a nice platform for the novice.

  • Marjory

    I agree. As a relatively new SEO, I’ve learned a lot in forums from just reading about all the different ways that websites can go wrong and listening to the creative solutions that participants in the forums come up with. It’s really boosted my range of experience and knowledge in a way that reading blog posts can’t do. Naturally, the information in forums has to be treated with a grain of sale but that can be true for blog posts too. Interesting post.

  • bogs

    I disagree.. im seo im learning everyday from other people… usually post to some forums.. don’t give them the exact way how to do it but instead teach them how to use SE.. “searching” thats what i usually do.. i learn alot by reading on some threads.. and of course some updates…

  • Mehul

    Wow!! What a great piece of information and so much research you have done for this post. It’s a whole new initialization for me now to start reading webmaster world and search engine watch forums.

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  • Peter Young

    It brought back some real memories reading your post above John. I started off my SEO education in the way and distant past (well not too way and distant) on the SEO forums (Cre8, WebmasterWorld and SEOChat – back in the days when even Randfish was still bloggin on them).

    Much of those early days where spent reading what people like Danny, Ammon Johns, et all had to say, what they were finding in the industry, and how they approached and tackled particular issues.

    SEO however has changed a lot in that time. For one it is considerably more commercial, not just in terms of renumeration, but also in terms of approach and perception.

    Whilst I personally think it is a shame the likes of Danny, Rand etc are not as heavily involved in many of these forums, there are still a considerable amount that are (barry and Kim on here for one), and I do think it is a way of giving something back to the industry – lets face it there are a lot of modern day SEO’s who did get their start reading and posting on forums.

    At the end of the day, it would be a crying shame if SEO lost that community feel.

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  • Nocom

    Tnx John for this post, we need better administration and moderators for forums or forums will die

  • Brad

    This is an absolute top quality article!

  • Yellow SEO

    I think forums are a great way to find out information about interesting things.. With so many users commenting about experiences, problems, cool things they found, updates, algo changes. That sometimes a forum is the quick media to pick up on a major update.