Leveraging User Generated Content to Scale Your SEO

Posted by
David Zheng
 April 3, 2014

It seems like every few months a new “SEO is Dead!” article pops up somewhere online and causes a huge kerfuffle. Here’s the truth: SEO isn’t dead. SEO is not likely to ever die. It’s going to keep chugging along, governing how web producers build and publish their sites.
So why all the panic?
Because the rules that dictate SEO keep changing. For instance, right now, Google (we could try to be fair and include Yahoo and Bing here but really—everybody knows Google is running the show) is laser focused on User Generated Content or UGC.

What the Heck is User Generated Content?

User Generated Content is, technically speaking, an umbrella term given to content like guest blog posts, videos, blog post comments, product reviews, social media posts, and “other types of media that was created by consumers or end users of an online system or service…” that is made readily available to other users of the same sites, social media portals, etc. (Source: Webpopedia)
In layman’s terms: user generated content is content that is created by a website’s users, not its producers. For example, most of the videos uploaded to YouTube are user generated content. Wikipedia is entirely user generated (and moderated) content. Those tweets and Facebook and Google+ updates? The reviews you see posted on Amazon? The bazillions of comments you tell yourself never to read? All of those fall under the UGC umbrella.

Why Do I Need to Care About User Generated Content?

The short version of this answer is “because Google tells you to.” The longer answer is a little bit more nuanced and before you understand it, you have to understand Hummingbird.
Hummingbird is Google’s latest algorithm “update” and it has taken all of the SEO rules that web producers and internet marketers have internalized and tossed them out the window. Once upon a time SEO was an easily manipulated numbers game that was designed to suit the producers of web content. Hummingbird, on the other hand, is programmed to favor the user (the searcher). It is designed to be intuitive and to feel interactive.
For example: a couple of years ago if you wanted to figure out who the President of the United States was (yes it’s a terrible example, but it’s the easiest to illustrate), you would fire up Google and type in “US President” into the search box. Then you’d have to scroll through pages with lists of the country’s presidents, sites selling commemorative coins and other products, etc.
Today you can type in “who is the President of the United States?” hit enter and viola! A picture of Donald Trump and a link to his Wikipedia page pops up at the top of the first page of the search results.
The hope is that, eventually the user will be able to build searches on each other. For example, in the future—once a user is presented with the President’s name and a page about him, the user can type in “who is he/she married to?” and a picture of the President’s spouse and an info page about him or her will appear.

What Does This Have to Do With User Generated Content?

Hummingbird is programmed to favor the user and to be highly skeptical of anything that could potentially be a marketing ploy or something designed to skew search results. This means that the algorithm is going to give more weight to content submitted by other users than content that has been published as part of the original site.
Really—it’s like you: when you search for information on a product, which reviews do you trust? The ones that have been curated via social media posts and an onsite review form or the reviews that have simply been copied and pasted from emails and other points of contact into the websites design?

But People are Lazy and I Can’t Get Them to Comment or Follow Me. Help!

This is likely because you aren’t encouraging your site’s traffic to share their feedback. One of the easiest ways to do this, believe it or not, is to encourage the negative feedback as well as the positive feedback. People love a producer who is open to complaints and criticism.
Hint: This also gives you ample opportunities for reputation building!
Another great way to encourage user generated content is to:
ask questions- engage your users in though provoking conversation

hold polls – again, you’re looking for engagement, but polls can also help you discover what your users are really thinking

run contests – who doesn’t want to win prizes?!
The very best way to get people to comment, review, etc though—is to respond when they do. Remember: the web is a conversation. If you aren’t responding to comments or reviews (positive and negative alike) there is no incentive for people to spend time creating them.
Think about it: do you like to talk to someone whose attention is obviously elsewhere or, worse, who is just waiting for you to finish talking so they can start again?

How Else Do I Get User Generated Content?

Responding is just the first step in the inspiration for user generated content. Engagement is the second. Chances are, you’re already collecting some form of User Generated Content. You undoubtedly have a contact form on your site. Your site’s blog probably has a comments section. You probably have social media accounts. You’ve got the channels already in place.
The trick is proving the source of these streams to Google and this is where most users fall flat. If you’re staring at your site and thinking “there has to be more I can do.”
Instead of staring at your site and thinking “okay, any time now people! Start contributing!” You have to actually invite people to do so:
Consider, for example, the recent rebranding of MSNBC’s website. While last year the site was pretty much just a straightforward portal for video and stories run on the network, this year the site is set up to be an interactive community and social network. Each show has its own “area” and users are encouraged to upload news stories they think are interesting and to interact with each other. The site even has a new slogan: Lean Forward.
Another example of success in User Generated Content is the Doritos Crash the SuperBowl Campaign. Doritos encouraged users to create videos and then provided a portal through which those videos could be uploaded to the primary site. They got more than 2,000 submissions and tons of fantastic press.
How you engage your site visitors and encourage them to create content for you is up to you and the audience to whom you’re trying to market. Some will relish the chance to share information in a forum setting. Others like sharing photos (Instagram, anyone?). Still others simply like the chance to hang out in a well moderated comment’s section (John Scalzi’s blog, The Whatever is heavily moderated and has one of the most respected content sections on the web). You can encourage people to share podcasts, artwork, blog posts (the site Medium is solely UGC), etc.

Indexable UGC

It’s great that you encourage your site’s readers and product users to send in their feedback. It really is. However, if the only method they have of doing this is via a contact form or through an email address, Google won’t ever see it. Even if you copy and paste everything you’re sent on to a review page, Google won’t trust it because, technically, it was published by you. You need to have a method of displaying user generated content right there on your site immediately after it is submitted. This is called “Indexable UGC.”
Typically this is done on the coding side of your site. Moz has a great article on making comments made on your Facebook wall indexable. There are dozens of other tutorials just like this one out there if you are determined to do the coding yourself. Or, you can save yourself a migraine and simply ask your site’s coder to help make your user generated content “indexable” (“crawlable” is an acceptable synonym here).
Finally, remember: user generated content doesn’t just benefit you. It is of tremendous value to every person who spends time on your site and really—isn’t that the goal, to give as much value as possible to every person who happens upon your site?

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