Migrating phpBB to wpForo – SEO, Traffic, and Rankings Over Time

I had made an earlier post about running phpBB within cyberpanel.  It was more about needing to upgrade from phpBB 3.0.x due to php 5.x not being supported in openlitespeed.  I was still using an old version of phpBB as it was modified for SEO.  Unfortunately, the person who wrote the SEO mod has not supported it for a long time.  He did release a working version of an SEO mod for phpBB 3.2, but did not really support it.  Some other people have sort of taken over, but the mod is not been anywhere near as well thought out as the 3.0.x version of the SEO mod.  I worked with three sites that had phpBB boards.  One still gets a decent amount of traffic for a select number of posts.  The other two get far less traffic.

One site I did convert to a WordPress blog, essentially importing all of the forum threads into posts, and all of the replies got moved into comments.  I essentially did it all manually.  The traffic really doesn’t seem to have changed that much, and it seems like a reasonable option.

One site I completely left alone – leaving it running on my former reseller hosting account under cPanel.  That site is still running under php 5.x, but I know that can’t last much longer.  This is the site that still gets a decent amount of traffic.  I am leaving that long until I have a better sense which other options are available and which ones actually made sense to do.

The third site I updated to run phpBB 3.3.x with the available SEO mod.  Like I said earlier, the mod is not nearly as complete as the 3.0.x version.  There are a few links that are not properly redirected and there are some links that shouldn’t be able to get spidered, but they do.  This site has been getting low traffic for a while now, so I can’t really tell if the switch to 3.3.x affected traffic any.  It did preserve the same URLs, which was the biggest reason I wanted to switch.  The other big change from an SEO perspective would have been the theme.  With 3.0.x I had to use the native desktop theme and then a different theme for mobile, detected based on the user agent of the visitor.  I prefer having a responsive theme as 3.3.x has, but I am never sure which version Google prefers.

I made the post that I switched the site over on April 22, 2022.  It has now been a bit over 4 months since I made the change.

December 20, 2020 – April 20, 2021:
Google search:  1607
Bing Search:  133

December 20, 2021 – April 20, 2022
Google search: 668
Bing Search: 100

Year on Year % Change:
Google search: -58.43%
Bing search: -24.81%

April 30, 2020 – August 30, 2021:
Google search: 330
Bing search: 104

April 30, 2021 – August 30, 2022:
Google Search: 159
Bing search: 88

Year on Year % Charge:
Google search: -51.82%
Bing search: -15.38%

So basically traffic was dropping around 50% year on year, and changing it to phpBB 3.3.x did not reverse that trend.  I suppose the conclusion I can make is that the software is not responsible for the drop in traffic, which is what I assumed going in.  The good news is that the trend did not accelerate after changing software.  In other words, if I decide for site #1 to switch to phpBB 3.3.x, I probably won’t have any major loss in traffic compared to what I’d have had if I leave it with 3.0.x

Nonetheless, I don’t really like that phpBB 3.3.x SEO mods are not actively supported to the extent that I think they need to be.  I’d rather switch to a solution that is actively maintained.  I debated many different options, as I have done in the past.  I was mostly interested in switching to Discourse.  I tried running it in a container under cyberpanel with a reverse proxy, but was struggling to get it to work.  I kept seeing the strong recommendation to run Discourse on it’s own server / VPS, and that just didn’t make sense from a cost perspective.  I probably can still figure out a way to get Discourse to run within cyberpanel, but I decided to pursue other options.

There were a few factors that went into my decision.  First was my impression of SEO results, equal with usability.  Usability includes usability for me to maintain and configure the board and second is usability for visitors to add topics and posts.  Third, which may actually be the most important, was ability to transfer data from phpBB to the new forum.

Switching over was a bit more involved than I thought.  Many of the conversion scripts between forum software are outdated – which can happen quickly as only one of the two software packages has to change the database structure to break a conversion.  My choices in order based on what I could tell for SEO and usability seemed to be Discourse first, Flarum second, wpForo third, and then phpBB (with SEO) last.

I tried Discourse as I said above.  I activated Docker, and found there were multiple versions of Discourse available.  Only one of them allowed me to set the port, which is necessary to do a reverse proxy.  I’m just learning ports and reverse proxy settings, so I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing.  The one version that allowed me to select the port did not include the database – I would have had to install that separately and I gave up at that point, as I wasn’t even sure the Discourse version was being actively maintained, etc.  There may have been better ways for me to install it without the Cyberpanel Docker manager, but I moved on to explore other options.  Maybe I should have persisted.

Next I tried Flarum.  I got it installed without any issues but importing the data was not going well.  The available script was for an older format of the phpBB database.  Looking in the Flarum forums, they suggested first converting it to another forum, and then importing it to Flarum.  I wound up creating subdomains for the various forum softwares, and seeing which ones imported the phpBB database best.

It turns out the myBB actually did the best job of importing from phpBB.  I’ve briefly tried myBB in the past, but I found it was a bit cumbersome to manage.  I knew I didn’t want to use it as my long term solution.

I was able to import from myBB to wpForo pretty well, but not from phpBB directly.

I was eventually able to get Flarum imported from wpForo, but all guest posts were listed as “deleted” for the usernames.  As I had a lot of guest posts on this particular forum, I really did not like the way it looked.  I also was not sure that I liked the use of tags instead of categories.  The forum had three distinct forums, and it seemed Flarum’s use of tags just didn’t look great.

Ultimately, I decided I liked wpForo’s feature set the best, combined with the ability to fully important the threads.  I’m VERY familiar with running wordpress sites and wpForo allows many of the wordpress features I’m use to work within wpForo.

After converting from phpBB to myBB to wpForo, I figured out how to make the forum appear on the home page, I then migrated the subdomain to the main domain – had a few glitches there, but ultimately got those worked out.

The most annoying part was redirecting all of the old URLs to the new URLs.  Ideally I could have written a script that would take care of all of the redirects.  I’d have to use the php table from my phpBB SEO which has the custom URL, and then 301 redirect from that to the new URL in wpForo.  I don’t know enough coding to feel comfortable writing that up.

So instead, I installed a “redirection” plugin in wordpress.  It will show me any visits to pages that show as a 404, and then easily enter in the correct destination URL for that 404.  It is a tedious process as I have several hundred topics that needed to be redirected.  I started with the threads that get the most traffic and have slowly been working through the rest.  I’ve seen which pages Google identified as 404 in the search console as well as which 404 visits are identified in the redirection script.

Overall, I find wpForo is much easier for me to manage than phpBB, although it’s only been about a week since I made the change.  The forum has only had a few new posts over the past year, but I have it designed mainly as a resource for the older content.  It is likely that much of the old content is losing its relevance.

Essentially this wound up being a test process for my one forum that continues to get a decent amount of traffic.  Eventually I do need to update it as I am going to move it off of the current host, as I’ve found the server overloaded and too slow.  Moving to my VPS at vultr would require I abandon php5, which is probably a good idea anyway as it probably has vulnerabilities.  In theory, I could try to fix phpBB 3.0.x to run on php 7.  I’ve managed to update another script from an older version of php to a more recent one, but phpBB is a much more elaborate script and I may run into multiple issues that take a while to fix.  Additionally, one frustration I’ve always had with phpBB is the amount of spam.  I found the best way to combat spam was with a question / answer check, but over time, someone would add the answer into a bot that would send tons of spam signups.  I would then have to change the question and answer screen, which gets annoying over time.  Also, I never really liked the process of updating phpBB – having to upload files, etc.  It isn’t the worst, but I do love wordpress with clicking a button to update scripts and plugins.

I’ll be following the search traffic to my forum I just moved to wpForo to see if there are any marked trend changes.  Ultimately, the best SEO is to have good content.  If I do add some new content, I imagine that would improve my search traffic more significantly than just changing the software.

January 2022 (phpBB SEO 3.3.x)
Google 194
Bing 25
Yahoo 7
duckduckgo 4
Total:  230

July 2022 (phpBB SEO 3.3.x)
Google 28
Bing 25
Yahoo 7
DuckDuckGo 3
Total: 63

August 2022 Traffic (phpBB SEO 3.3.x)
Google 27
Bing 19
Yahoo 6
DuckDuckGo 4
Total: 56

September 2022 Traffic (wpForo – switched first week of September)
Google 43
Bing 15
DuckDuckGo 6
Yahoo 0
Total: 64

January 2023 Traffic (wpForo for about 4 months)
Google 64
Bing 13
Yahoo 6
duckduckgo 4
Total:  87

I see that January 2023 traffic compared to January 2022 is way down – but I am guessing that is more a content issue as opposed to a formatting issue.  wpForo has been a little bit of a learning curve, and I’m not sure I love it yet.  I also think that the content I have is just so old at this point that it doesn’t add much value for visitors.  At least not on that particular website.

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