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  • Celebrate Your Community with a Year in Review

    The end of the year is a time full of celebrations. It’s also a great time to celebrate your community’s most impactful members and discussions. While digging up the data to find these users and topics can be time consuming, we’ve made it extremely simple with our Yearly Review plugin.

    The Yearly Review plugin is an automated way to generate a “year in review” topic at the end of each 365-day period. Once the year is over, the plugin will automatically generate a topic (in a category of your choosing) with statistics celebrating your community’s top users and discussions over the last year.

    year in review screenshot

    You can find some examples of these yearly reviews over on our community, https://meta.discourse.org.

    By default, these automatic reviews include data about:

    • Users who:
      • Most Time Reading
      • Most Topics Created
      • Most Replies Created
      • Most Replied to
      • Most Likes Given
      • Most Likes Received
      • Most Visits
      • Users who have been granted a featured badge (the badge is set by the yearly review featured badge site setting)
    • Topics which were:
      • Most Read
      • Most Liked
      • Most Replied to
      • Most Popular
      • Most Bookmarked

    Running the Yearly Review Plugin

    yearly-review-settings

    If you’re interested in running the Yearly Review plugin, be sure to install and configure it prior to the end of the year.

    Here’s how:

    • As a self-hosted site – install the plugin as per our plugin install instructions and enable it under the Admin → Settings page.
    • As a Discourse-hosted customer – simply configure the plugin via the Admin → Settings page as it’s already installed for you.

    It’s really that simple. With the end of the year approaching, we at Discourse wish your community efforts the best of success. Have fun celebrating your community!

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  • Handling SEO for Discourse Communities

    If you are concerned about how your community is performing in search engine results (SEO), there are a number of questions to keep in mind when looking to optimize your community software of choice. We frequently get asked questions in our support inboxes and in our public community about how Discourse handles SEO. In this article, we’ll aim to demystify the most common Discourse SEO questions, including:

    If you’re new to search engine optimization, be sure to check out our primer on community SEO before diving in here.

    Ready? Let’s go!

    Titles, Descriptions, and Other Metadata

    meta on Google

    One of the most common questions we get asked is how admins can customize title tags, descriptions, and other HTML metadata elements to affect how the page appears on a search results page. At the most basic level, Discourse auto-generates these elements based upon content on the page. The title tag is generated from the site or topic title, the description from the first post content, and so on.

    It’s not possible to set custom values on each individual page’s metadata aside from editing the appropriate settings or content fields themselves. For example, if you’d like to edit the title of a topic as it will appear on Google, edit the topic title. The next time Google crawls the site, it will pick up the new title. Editing topic titles to accurately reflect the contents of the topic is a common practice all community managers should be doing. Topics generally get more (and better) responses if the title accurately reflects the content of the topic.

    Descriptions are a little trickier for two reasons. First, the description is generated automatically from the contents of a topic’s first post. To adjust the description means you’ll need to edit the contents of that post. If you’ve set expectations in your community’s guidelines or terms, this shouldn’t be a problem; however, if you get too aggressive with editing posts solely for SEO purposes, you may upset your community members by altering their voice too much or removing information they found important to include.

    The second challenge with descriptions is that Google and other search engines often create their own descriptions to show on the results page. The search engine will often pick the most relevant piece of content from the page that correlates with the search term. This is because search engines are primarily concerned with your content’s relevance to the user’s query, and they’re smart enough now to know what’s on the page.

    This brings me to the most important thing to keep in mind about SEO: relevance is king. While honing your title, description, and other metadata may enhance your click-through rate from the search engine results page (SERP), the most important thing you can do is ensure your community is generating quality content that is relevant to what people are searching for.

    Sitemaps

    sitemap plugin on discourse.org

    Sitemaps are an XML file containing a list of the paths to every page on your website. It’s often stated that having a sitemap is crucial to your SEO efforts because they allow search engines to crawl your site more effectively. However, we’ve found this advice to be only part of the picture.

    Our experience has shown sitemaps as unnecessary for small to medium sized communities. The reason is simple: Google is extremely good at indexing pages and finding absolutely everything it can about your site. Since we’re a single-page JavaScript application, we’ve also added a static HTML view with no JavaScript to Discourse to help web crawlers index your site even faster (and users who have JavaScript disabled to still see the site’s content).

    That being said, if you have a community with thousands of topics and posts, inevitably indexing the site will take longer since crawlers need to find every link manually. It’s at this scale where a sitemap can dramatically speed up this process. Our official Sitemap plugin is available on our Business tier hosting and up for this purpose, and for self-hosted sites, the plugin is freely available and fully open-source.

    A brief note about what’s indexed on Discourse sites – there are a few cases and places where your Discourse site will not be indexed. This includes if your site is set to login-only (no content will be indexed), or if your site is public, certain areas like user pages will not be indexed to avoid indexing duplicate content.

    Let’s Talk About Subfolders

    There’s mixed advice regarding one hotly debated SEO topic: hosting a site as a subfolder vs. on a subdomain. The main contention between the two is ranking – does a site rank higher as a subfolder under the main domain, or is there no noticeable difference?

    Both Matt Cutts and John Mueller of Google have said in the past there’s essentially no difference between a subfolder or subdomain in Google’s eyes.

    But others, such as Rand Fishkin, founder and former CEO of Moz, have shared case studies of sites that migrated from subdomain to subfolder and saw a bump in traffic.

    On the other hand, Ahrefs, another SEO tool, recently shared a few case studies showing the opposite effect.

    ahrefs graph showing GitHub traffic

    GitHub changed their blog from a subfolder to a subdomain, and then again to a dedicated domain. Looking at the above graph, you can see a dip in traffic after the migrations which is expected, and is caused by reindexing. However, once search engines caught back up, not one method showed to be better than the other at driving traffic to the site.

    It’s also important to remember that domain is not the only factor affecting your SEO performance. We’ll state this point again – relevant content that other people link to (backlinks) is the primary influence on your site’s rankings. If your site isn’t all that helpful to those that find it, you won’t rank well, period.

    Also, the Ahrefs article linked above references multiple other factors that can affect ranking, such as:

    • Temporary signal changes
    • Tracking or measuring issues
    • Blocked pages
    • Redesign
    • Internal linking changes
    • Removed/updated content

    To summarize, Google says there’s no SEO benefit to hosting in a subfolder, and studies with conflicting evidence are unreliable because there are many variables affecting the SEO performance of a given site.

    How does this impact your Discourse site? First, we’ve recommended Discourse sites use subdomains over subfolders for years now due to the fact that search engines aim to treat them in an equivalent manner.

    Also, while hosting a Discourse site under a subfolder is possible, it adds quite a bit of technical complexity. Subfolder requires a special proxy, correct routing of traffic to the right places, and often introduces more technical problems and increased downtime in case of issues in our experience.

    The beauty of open source is you have the choice to do what’s best for your site! However, we highly recommend Discourse sites, whether hosting with us or self-hosting, use a subdomain for its superior supportability and stability in light of the indeterminate impacts on the site’s search ranking.

    Migrations and Redirects

    redirects page

    We frequently migrate communities onto Discourse from other platforms, and a common question that we are asked is whether their Google rankings will be affected because the URL structure has changed. In short, the answer is no, but there are a few technical details to keep in mind.

    In our team’s migration process, we work with our customers to determine if URL mapping is needed for the import. Discourse has a built-in redirect function solely for this purpose. If your old community has a URL at example.com/community.php?tid=555, we’ll create a redirect during the import process so it properly maps to the new topic URL at example.com/t/-/1234 The next time your site is crawled, the crawler will follow the redirect to the correct URL and update it in the search engine’s database.

    Another detail to keep in mind is whether your community’s primary URL is changing in the process. If it’s staying the same, you have no work to do aside from pointing it to the new hosting location. However, if the URL is changing from something like example.com to community.example.com, you will need to set up a server-side 301 redirect from the old domain to the new one (including passing along the full path and query parameters) so Discourse can properly parse the redirect. Once this is done, again, search engines will re-crawl the site, follow the redirects, and update the records in their data.

    Focus on the Highest Value Items

    If there’s anything you take away from this post, it’s to focus on the key components of SEO first, namely relevance to a user’s search, and handle the other technical elements of SEO as you are able. If your site has content that’s relevant to a searcher and other sites link to it, Google and other search engines will rank it. Other elements, such as metadata or sitemaps, while important, are not nearly as important as the content’s relevance.

    Did we miss anything? Have any additional questions? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion linked below.

    Comments
  • How Let’s Encrypt Uses Community to Provide Free Support To Over 40% of the World’s Internet

    As part of our ongoing series of interviews with customers, our latest is with Sarah Gran, who manages everything about communications at Let’s Encrypt and Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), Let’s Encrypt’s parent company.

    In this deep-dive, Sarah shares how Let’s Encrypt has been able to scale support for free to over 40% of the internet by leveraging the power of communities. The community being discussed here is their Discourse-powered community community.letsencrypt.org.

    Let's Encrypt Logo

    The raw answers have been edited to improve readability, which makes for a more cohesive story and narrative experience.

    What is Let’s Encrypt?

    Let’s Encrypt’s goal is to get the entire web completely encrypted. Before Let’s Encrypt issued our first certificate back in December 2015, only 39% of website page loads were encrypted. Now, five years and 2 billion certificates later, 81% of website page loads are encrypted. This is due in large part to our work in Let’s Encrypt.

    Let’s Encrypt provides Domain Validation (DV) Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificates for free, in an open and automated way. We do this to reduce financial, technological, and educational barriers to secure communication over the Internet.

    Why did you decide to build a community forum?

    Clay Shirky once said that you’ll make more accurate predictions about the quality and longevity of services in a Web-driven world “if you ask yourself not what’s the business model, but rather do the people who like it take care of each other?”

    We have seen this to be true within our community. Our community forum has proven to be a robust resource for information about Let’s Encrypt certificates. But more importantly, it is one of the kindest communities on the Web. We work really hard to make sure everyone feels welcome and the expectation of tone and demeanor permeates the discourse among our community members. We are incredibly proud of the community we’ve brought together.

    How has your community been useful in achieving business goals?

    Our community is an essential part of our operational model in two major ways. The community helps with:

    1. Troubleshooting and support
    2. Ideation and research

    Troubleshooting and Support

    Community members provide help to people looking to get or maintain Let’s Encrypt certificates, they help us troubleshoot problems. This has made it possible for Let’s Encrypt to become the world’s largest Certificate Authority (CA), serving over 46% of websites, without a paid support function. By not having a paid support offering, we are keeping costs manageable for us to operate viably as a nonprofit and we make it possible for anyone to get a certificate from us, regardless of their ability to pay.

    Ideation and Research

    Our community topics inform us of trends which help discover internet wide problems, and they provide valuable feedback on changes as we grow as a CA. Watching the community also ideate, develop, and build solutions to problems with various ACME client software is fascinating. Community members have been able to suggest changes that others can implement. Several ACME debugging tools have been developed that allow community members to assist and fix problems faster.

    What apps and tools do you use in running your community?

    Our team uses Discourse, Slack and Google Docs to help run our community. Using a combination of these three apps, we converse about and write draft topics and/or responses to discussions in our community.

    Our Site Reliability Engineering and Communications teams monitor the community forum on Discourse for issues or topics that need attention. If any issue comes up, we’ll ping the relevant team member(s) in Slack to let them know. We use Google Docs to workshop replies.

    This shared workflow and workspace also gives us extra benefits, like being able to get feedback on tone from a bigger team. We work hard on the tone of our responses because we understand the topic of TLS certificates can be complicated and nuanced and that can be intimidating.

    If we want to make TLS certificates ubiquitous, we need to work with and welcome people of various experiences and skill sets. Using these apps and tools together makes this easier.

    How do you use Discourse?

    Discourse is used to run the community to help people who are trying to get or renew a TLS certificate from Let’s Encrypt. While the process of getting a TLS certificate is automated, there are often varying factors specific to a person or company’s setup for which they may need help from Let’s Encrypt. Using Discourse allows us to leverage our community members’ wide breadth of knowledge on our certificates to help people who need guidance.

    We also use the community forum to disseminate important information about changes coming to how Let’s Encrypt works. We encourage all subscribers to log in to the forum and subscribe to our API Announcements topic in order to know about upcoming changes. We also have categories that allow people to provide input and feedback on our Issuance Policy and Issuance Tech, and to request new features. These categories give us a channel to discuss and understand our community’s needs.

    We use stock Discourse, the one custom thing we have is the status.io banner that pops up when an incident or maintenance is going on.

    How do you use Slack?

    We use Slack for team communication. It allows us to quickly chat or notify relevant team members about posts in the community they need to work on or stay informed about.

    It also helps us communicate about topics that need a watchful eye and make group judgement calls if it needs moderation.

    How do you use Google Docs?

    Google Docs come in handy when we want to respond to a question but need the input of several ISRG staff. We paste the question or topic from the forum and workshop a response together. This allows us to have the right expertise “in the room”.

    We also use it as a way to provide the whole team an opportunity to review answers for technical correctness and general clearness for readers.

    TL;DR Summary

    Let’s Encrypt started their community in August 2015 to help strengthen and scale support for their subscribers. They knew that success would be defined more by how the people who like it take care of each other, and less by the business model as Clay Shirky once said. Six years later, this is still true for them as they now serve 46% of websites without a paid support function. Instead their community helps them scale this support in the kindest way possible.

    We work really hard to make sure everyone feels welcome and the expectation of tone and demeanor permeates the discourse among our community members.

    Comments