The Dynamic Duo Of User Generated Content And SEO

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While less than 9% of Internet users contribute the majority of user-generated content (UGC) (Rubicon Consulting, October 2008), most regular Internet users have at one time or another placed a blog comment, asked a question on a forum, or written a product review. Online UGC has been growing in incidence and importance over the last few years, but it’s only recently that search marketing practitioners have seriously considered the impact of UGC on SEO, and actively tried to harness its power to boost search engine rankings, exposure, and enhance site usability.

The following data illustrates the growing importance of UGC:

1. Consumers are relying more on UGC in purchasing decisions.

  • Online product reviews and evaluations were cited by 83% of shoppers as influencing their purchasing decisions on some level (Opinion Research Corporation, July 2008).
  • Nearly one-half of adults in the US read ratings and reviews at least once per month (Forrester, October 2008).
  • Eighty-one percent of online shoppers reported consulting reviews at websites during the December 2008 holiday shopping season (Nielsen Online, December 2008). Almost two-thirds (63%) felt that having multiple reviews for a product was important.

2. Marketers are relying more on UGC to effect conversions.

  • A case study of a large electronics retailer website showed that visitors landing on user review pages spent 50% more time on site, viewed 82% more pages, and converted 60% more often than visitors landing on other pages (BazaarVoice Case Study of 30,000 monthly SearchVoice visitors).
  • The April 2008 e-tailing group’s 7th Annual Merchant Survey revealed that product ratings and reviews are found on the websites of 62% of those surveyed (up from 54% in 2007) and they are ranked as “very to somewhat valuable” by 57% of retailers (up from 48% the prior year). 54% indicated they plan to add or increase customer-generated content.

3. Offline sales are increasingly influenced by UGC.

  • According to eMarketer, for “every $1 in online sales, the Internet influenced $3.45 of store sales,” estimating the total amount of offline sales influenced by research on the Internet at $471 billion (February 2008).
  • More than 75% of those using online reviews for offline purchases indicated that the review had a significant influence on their purchase. Hotels ranked the highest at 87% (comScore/The Kelsey Group, October 2007).

Purely from an SEO point of view, perhaps the most telling statistic is that 26% of search results link to user-generated content (Nielsen Buzz Metrics). The fact that users are increasingly turning to UGC is compounded by evidence that search engines are displaying this information. Given the mounting evidence of the significance of UGC, it is becoming vital that online marketers actively investigate and integrate user-generated content into their online mix if they wish to remain competitive.

To help you decide on a user content acquisition approach, it’s important to understand the ways in which the different types of UGC can help bring traffic to your site.

If you sell a product online, or offer a service (such as those provided by a travel agency), there are specific areas of your business that benefit from enabling and incorporating UGC. Scalability is open-ended in terms of how you include, display, and manage UGC — depending primarily on the type you opt for. The smallest of businesses can benefit from customer feedback, even if they choose not to take it online directly.

For businesses, UGC results from one or two motivations, each of which may have a number of different manifestations. The two are: 1) a desire to inform other consumers about the product; and, 2) an effort to inform the producer about the product. A combination of the two may also be at work.

Customer Reviews

Probably the most common example that comes to mind when one thinks about a business the ways users provide feedback about an online product or service offering is the “customer review.” Customer reviews are enormously important, as they have proven to be the primary medium used to facilitate the transition of the traditionally powerful word-of-mouth referral system from offline to online.

The first step is to integrate the UGC. For product reviews and commentary, there are two main approaches to enable UGC integration on the product page itself, which is the most relevant place to put them. The first is to list a few reviews on the page with a link to a full review/feedback page, and the second is to simply include a hyperlink on the product page linking to the reviews. If you choose the former, ensure feedback is provided by registered purchasers if you sell online, or via registration or captcha requirements for non-purchasers.

There are, of course, numerous other strategies you can use:

  • Use featured reviews, where you place the reviews that receive the most “votes” or highest rating in a defined top area nearer to the fold, perhaps included by date (be subtle). Never place your most-positive reviews at the top and your negative reviews at the bottom; users may become wary of manipulation. If you’re getting a lot of bad reviews, think about your offering or the associated service, investigate and rectify the situation.
  • Invite “opt-in email” purchasers to review the product with a non-monetary incentive to do so.
  • Ensure that reviews that pass your basic spam tests go live immediately. Timely updating is important to rankings, since fresh content encourages more frequent crawling by the ranking algorithms. Frequent caching impacts positively on search results. Use Google’s Webmaster Tools to check the visibility of your site’s pages on Google on a regular basis, if you don’t already.
  • Minimize bounce rates. Those who surf to a review page are usually more qualified than those who bounce or leave somewhere in their visit without clicking to the review page. They have already moved along the pathway in their quest to find a product to satisfy their need or want. Time spent on site is usually greater with reviews than other types of content, and conversion rates are higher than for those who only visit the product page.

Potential online purchasers of goods and services are looking for specific types of information, depending on which products or services they are interested in purchasing. They may ultimately purchase on- or off-line, but the point is; are you providing your users with what they want in terms of feedback, or are they sourcing it somewhere else?

Consumers want to know what’s great about a product. If positive reviews include objective emotional feedback, the review can speak to potential consumers who are looking for the same kind of experience. For example, a book review written by a mother highlighting the positive emotional bonding she experienced sharing the book with her teenager will be a sure hit for many moms trying to connect with their children. For the past few years, the Edelman Trust Barometer consistently has reported that “a person like yourself” is the most trusted category by those surveyed — outscoring experts, analysts, the media, government, and educators.

Don’t silo negative and positive feedback into separate areas. Negative feedback must be included with positive. In most cases, the majority of feedback will be positive, unless it is a really bad product or service. Even when a product is discontinued, Amazon may retain product information along with the accompanying reviews. Bear in mind that negative consumer feedback provides authenticity and an opening for brand evangelists to offer alternative solutions. iPhone is a good example — consumers comment to potential iPhone purchasers that even though the surface scratches easily, you can simply buy a case to protect it. Negative feedback can thus also provide ideas for R&D.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and Customer Support

Other forms of UGC are directed more at those who make the products, rather than other consumers. However, they can also be integrated into your site and dealt with in a similar fashion SEO-wise. Two types of UGC can be particularly powerful additions to your site and contribute to increased ranking — FAQs and customer support. They allow you to use the questions you receive from buyers, and even their complaints, in a positive way.

Enabling an advanced UGC-based FAQ hub can provide a more satisfying and valuable user experience while facilitating R&D via disclosure. It can also increase the actual number of purchases due to easy question-response detection and direction, and decrease product returns, since customers will know more about a product before they purchase. Be sure to include such post-sales service UGC as a primary link off the main product page.

Even before they buy, consumers want to know about post-sales service. Those who are perfectly happy with their purchase may have questions that FAQs can help answer, and having stellar post-sales service may well be the close for another sale.

Consumers want to find information themselves online. Even if you don’t actively provide feedback online via chat-based support, offer a full FAQs portal where people can not only find answers that are actually frequently asked, but also post specific questions for publication and follow up by the company.

Remember to use the feedback received from customer reviews to build up the FAQs section on your site. By answering the most common concerns and problems consumers have had with your product/service, you not only provide a more positive experience for visitors, but you can also reduce the load on your customer support and technical help people. Be careful to categorize everything appropriately. Feedback may be related to features, pre- and post- sales service, tech support, and other specific silos. Employ sectioning that works best for your offering and feedback to be both transparent and brand-aware.

Live Q&A with a tech support member dedicated to all FAQ and other support issues should be enabled, with the option to allow the question and to be published online, incognito, or with some or full disclosure at the users discretion. If you service multiple time-zones, ensure you have staff to deal with the potential service requirements. Make sure your terms of reply and your ownership of issues is clear.

Specific Strategies For Optimizing User-Generated Content

Optimization can take many forms — UGC helps you rank higher in search engines, particularly through manipulation of the long tail. Effective navigation and internal linking based on a UGC acquisition and inclusion initiative will make the content more visible on your site and more useful (or applicable) to visitors. The two are not mutually exclusive, and by working together, they increase your visibility in the SERPs and rocket your conversion rate and ROI.

Make a concerted effort to apply accepted SEO principles to pages on which the UGC will display, as well as the primary pages within your remit that link directly to them, but resist changing the actual UGC itself. Target optimization tactics at the review page’s URL, title, meta description, and header. Then let the UGC flow freely, within reason of course, dealing with issues of spam and editorial necessities. Some specific procedures include:

  • Hard code keywords in the page template, including the page title and URL.
  • Make sure the URLs are static and keyword-rich if you are using out-of-the-box UGC software. Use mod_rewrite if necessary.
  • Employ header tags (e.g., H1).
  • Ensure that optimized product or service reviews are easy to share. Employ badges if necessary.
  • Silo your UGC accordingly if you are planning to target specific keywords with your category structure. Give your website’s users a structure they can follow.

As well, optimize the review and FAQs pages themselves. Conduct keyword research on the product or brand, targeting words of negative and positive association. As an example, here’s an approach geared towards the iPhone. I conducted some preliminary keyword research on iPhone looking at very generic research phrases like “good iphone,” “bad iphone,” “great iphone,” and “iphone fail.” The insights I discovered from this research included the following:

1. Some people are concerned about iPhone email failing.
2. iPhones are generally identified as being “good” with mobile messaging by users.
3. A common question asked — “Is the iPhone good overseas?”

How might you deal with this information on an iPhone-type website?

1. Create one optimized page for each issue, including commonly used misspellings at the keyword level and with a usable paragraph intro at the header level with the actual point of the page.
2. Link to each page from a hub area on the primary product page.
3. Generate external buzz and links to these pages by monitoring online conversation around the primary topic and answering and linking back using nofollows where warranted.

As the number and type of questions grow, specifically silo them into more targeted pages. Each page should be traditionally optimized (title, META data, URL, headers, and alts), leaving the long tail and the rest of the optimization to run naturally from the consumers themselves.

Again looking at the iPhone example, a search on “iPhone issues” and “iPhone problems” shows an obvious theme around the keyphrase “iPhone 3g issues” (including charger, network, server etc.). Here you would create a primary page around ‘iPhone 3G Issues’ with information and links to a page on each area of concern, using best SEO practice in the URL, titles, META data, copy, etc. Again the number of pages and the folder level depend on search volume and brand rather than term/issue ubiquity requirements, along with other macro-marketing concerns.

Problems With UGC And How To Deal With Them

We have seen what UGC can do for your website, but what about some of the concerns and problems you may run into with UGC? What can go wrong and how do you fix it if it does?

To help site owners manage the potential avalanche of UGC headed their way, a number of platforms have been developed to add UGC elements to websites. Ensure that whichever option you choose has been stringently evaluated for adequate spam management. Most content management systems enable spam monitoring and blog creation, but setting goals, expectations, and limitations is up to you. If you are unsure, it is advisable to check the full disable functionality of any CMS or blog software.

Anonymous commentary or feedback must always be run through a spam detection program to prevent spammy blog or review commentary prior to live publication. Include a link to your definition of what constitutes spam, and let users know to contact you by email if their legitimate comments don’t show up online within a specific period of time so you can see what the problem is. Never allow profanity, blasphemy, or plain vileness to get through. Filters will sort for that, so don’t make the mistake of enabling all comments to run live immediately — it’s within your power, and it’s your brand at risk. Transparency is good, but enabling hate is not. Make your filters as transparent as possible — that’s what the filter is for, and that’s what the disclaimer supports. You can’t stop what other sites say about you, but to some extent you can ensure that your commentary, while transparent, is palatable.

It is absolutely vital to monitor your online presence, and take the initiative wherever possible and/or necessary. For example; if a well-known industry blog writes about your product in a less-than-flattering manner, detecting that mention of your product or brand name quickly is imperative. This allows you to be proactive in two ways:

1. Copy the negative feedback from the blog onto your own product site with a link to the blog post. Provide immediate, genuine company feedback, including a link to the other reviews or UGC (hopefully positive) on your site.

2. On the offending blog itself, post a comment to the effect that you have seen their post, thank them for their time, and urge them and their other readers to view your full response and other user commentary on your product review page via a link.

While there are numerous online reputation management tools, the best free one is definitely Google Alerts. If you are prepared to spend some money, then TrackUR.com is a far superior paid service that is relatively affordable.

Conclusion

The boost of interest in UGC and the need to implement it has intersected very nicely with the desire to monitor both positive and negative commentary around the web. Monitoring what is being said about your business on the Internet and in the blogosphere also enables businesses to discover what people like and don’t like about their company, brand, product line, specific product, customer service, affiliate, brick-and-mortar store, and more. It’s a great way for a business to be knowledgeable while at the same time proactive, assuming the strategic ability to deal quickly, diplomatically, carefully, and positively with both brand detractors and evangelists. Apply the basics of SEO to this content and position it wisely on your site for an extra boost to your brand and your reputation.

About the Author

Laura is President of SEMCanada.org: The Canadian Search Marketing Series; and Senior Search Analyst for Epiar Inc. Since 2001, she has provided SEM consultation services for large brands including Hyatt Hotels, Rolex, Pampers, and Microsoft Partners, as well as numerous smaller brands.

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