Eli Schwartz

Content creation for search is expensive and complex, so therefore marketers are always looking for shortcuts that will unlock scalability while reducing expense. Throughout my career in search the one idea that everyone always seems to gravitate to as the “secret” formula to create content without actually creating content is UGC (user generated content).

 Having your users create the content seems like an amazing win-win. Your users will be engaged and they will be helping you create content – for free. There’s only one problem with this logic, and it happens to be a fairly big problem. It hardly ever works. Users rarely feel motivated to create content and when they do, it’s low quality and lacking of any substance. Or worse, you get flooded with UGC, but it’s all bot written spam that you need to devote resources to moderating.

But, there’s an even bigger problem with using UGC for search is that from my experience it never seems to drive traffic. In every attempt I have ever participated in to create UGC as a content hook for search crawlers, even with substantial amounts of content – only dribbles of impressions and clicks came from this content. Additionally, in my research of other sites that have loads of UGC, this content does not seem to be what draws in the majority of the search visibility.

My assumption is that Google is able to parse out what is UGC vs non-UGC and can weight the authority of the strings accordingly. One person’s unqualified opinion in a comment on a page does not earn the level of authority that will outrank another page with similar content but written by an author on the site.

I have only seen two notable exceptions to this rule: Tripadvisor and Amazon. Tripadvisor benefits from the extreme long tail that is hardly ever tackled by other sites. Think queries like “boutique hotels with heated pools” or “hotel beds that could fit for 5 children.” Tripadvisor helps this indexation along by adding in tag categories which will highlight reviews that contain the word “pool” or “platinum”.

Likewise, Amazon is similarly able to generate visibility on those long tail queries because they are the most authoritative site that might have content around “battery life” for example of an electronics product. It’s not that they have authority as Amazon, it’s simply that they are the only ones with the content. Up until recently, I had thought this was completely organic but then I noticed in my app after a purchase that Amazon was encouraging me to write a review with prompts on keywords to use.

I don’t think this is at all sneaky and is actually something that other sites with a desire to create UGC should learn from. This is even more useful if the UGC is useful for potential customers considering a business such as on Yelp or Google My Business. Encouraging the review writer to include specific wording beyond generic platitudes will go a long way into helping people make decisions from the content.

In summary, UGC isn’t to be considered any sort of silver bullet for SEO success that will unlock hidden growth without needing a full content library; however, if you are going to attempt to use UGC for SEO, here are some good best practices to follow.

  1. Encourage users to use key phrases that will be useful for your content purposes. If you want them to review specific aspects of your products or services, prompt them with how you want them to review it.
  2. You can take it even further by asking them to answer questions like “how long did the battery last?”  Or “did our technician arrive on time?”
  3. Ask for UGC in an offline format such as using an email or survey and then publish the content manually. This obviously is not as scalable as just using straight UGC, but it does eliminate many of the downsides of low quality or spam content.
  4. Incorporate the UGC into the body of the content and do not just leave it at the bottom of the authored content. From an algorithmic standpoint, this might make it more challenging for a search engine to determine which content is UGC should they even want to demote it.
  5. Finally, in everything you do make sure your basics are covered. A) Have a blacklist for spam and vulgar words. B) Remove any and all links embedded within content as there will rarely be a reason for UGC to link elsewhere. C) Moderate your content before it publishes.

If UGC can be helpful to your KPI’s you should absolutely use it as a strategy, just know it’s true value and upside potential.