SEO 101: User Generated Content Isn’t Always The Answer

From the archives…

This just in. A lot of user-generated content sucks. As it turns out, not everyone makes a living as a writer, journalist, videographer, or director precisely because most people aren’t very good at it. And those people who are good tend to do it professionally. Ergo, the promise of leveraging the content of the masses to propel your online business is a myth. Or, perhaps it’s not so much that people produce crappy content, it’s that they don’t create content at all. They create profiles perhaps, but not content.

So, let’s forget this whole “user-generated content” fad, stash it with the mood rocks where it belongs, and start spending time on something that’s actually valuable. Like making zombies out of our Facebook friends.

First, this isn’t really a startling revelation. We all know that most content on the internet is blinking text and cat pictures (and not the awesome lol kind). The web itself started as user-generated content and there’s a reason we’re all glad that Google ranks results and doesn’t just assume all sites are equally good and show them in a random order.

Second, most YouTube content may suck, but that’s not really the point. YouTube’s business model wasn’t to get people to upload videos of stellar quality that YouTube could then charge people to view because of the awesomeness. YouTube’s business model was to get a lot of people to upload videos of any quality so it could get lots of users and page views as a means of getting acquired by Google.

Chuqui notes that a small percentage of a community create the content for it, and while that’s absolutely true, that’s missing the point a bit as well. Which is that the larger percentage who never create still show up. And in these days of ad-based monetization, you need people to show up. Profiles may not technically be content, but again, they keep people showing up and interacting with each other (and with the site’s brand). Do you create content when you throw a sheep or write on someone’s wall? Maybe not, but each sheep hurled at someone’s virtual head builds the community just a little more, and to a large extent, that is the point.

Community is perhaps the greatest value in user-generated content, but there’s other worth to be had. We (as a collective whole) may be bad at writing, singing, and videotaping ourselves dancing, but we know what we like. I can’t imagine planning a vacation anymore without checking out reviews online. I may not trust the judgement of one person, but if 400 people hated a hotel, I figure I can trust a least of few of them. If your site draws a community and aggregates this information for me, you’ve got another visitor, even if only 1% of your users contribute and they’re mostly pretty bad at it.

16 thoughts on “SEO 101: User Generated Content Isn’t Always The Answer

  • Jack Yan

    Well said, Vanessa. As the internet grows and more people post stuff online, it also follows that in an age when we can’t ensure that all kids are literate by the time they leave high school, most of the posted stuff will be ill-informed, poorly conceived and of little value. It also accounts for the increase in flames on blogs, forums and elsewhere. This part of our century will not just be about reading what others think of a hotel, for instance, but about filtering the stuff that falls into the junk category. (Today, for instance, I searched for one word at Flickr and 19 of the top 24 results were the same Viagra ad.) We do it for emails, and we’ll do it with user-generated content.

  • Larry Hosken

    User-generated content sucks attention.

  • David Payne

    I think there are a number of companies that are starting to catch-on to the idea that user-generated content needs help in two areas.

    1. Make it easier to contribute to the group. I see companies like that make the process of contributing a much more gradual process. If you want to just tag something, then tag it. If you want to tag it and leave a star rating, do that too. If however you want to write a nice paragraph about something, they accomodate that as well.

    2. Make novice content more professional. did something pretty cool. They created a place where everyday people can spend less than $20 and make their home videos and digital photo albums semi-professional. How did they do it? They recruited editors and paid them. Novel idea, I know. 😉

    Maybe PowerReviews will get more than 1% to contribute and StudioNow will make the novice submissions more professional.

    David Payne
    Business Development

  • FoolsGold

    The obvious experiment would be to take a vacation without having read any reviews and then afterwards wade through some of those senseless, shallow and contradictory reviews and see if it would have made any real difference to you. Just how much better a hotel room would it have been? Would a different restaurant really have been all that much better just because of some user’s review posting? How many reviews were utter garbage before you found the few nuggets that you do value?

    Community? Yes, I guess its like young mothers getting out and having coffee together at a bakery. Its the sunshine, the fresh air, the break from the routine, the shared goals and interests … its not really the content of the comments they make to each other. Most of those comments will probably be rather useless.

  • Michael

    I’d agree that most people don’t create content, and fewer create content of any quality. When one talks about UGC most people are usually thinking reviews, comments, videos, blog posts, and photos.

    One form of content that may be beneficial to some in niche markets are classifieds. I never thought of them as UGC and really didn’t see the value until after the traffic came.

    What’s neat is the content is niche specific, rich with keywords, and oftentimes localized. It’s not glamorous like videos or intelligent articles, but it’s content that drives a significant amount of traffic on my site, and it serves the community well.

  • FoolsGold

    “… I searched at Flickr and 19 of the top 24 results were the same Viagra ad. We do it for emails, and we’ll do it with user-generated content. …”
    So perhaps the solution would be to confine yourself to a User Generated Community that is somehow free of Spam. Know of any? Know of any that will remain that way? Even if its not an ad for viagra its liable to be some rather worthless comment. Look at all these ‘missing persons’ sites that are filled with ‘prayers’ or ‘well wishes for the family’ or other equally worthless drivel.

  • Igor The Troll

    Vanesa, you are right on the money. Many people think, a little story, and some links will propel you into fame, but this is absolutely false.

    It takes years of hard work to get a proper subject going for the Website, a common theam, that you develop and build over years.

    I see this like the finance theory of market development.
    You have your incubation, you have the stars, that grow, you have your cows that produce return on investment, and you have your mature companies, that are going down the drain.

    So my cycle of Websites is the same.
    Travel Agent Thailand is still in growth but after 7 years it is getting closer to maturity, of course this can change with infusion of funds and expenssion.

    Travel in Asia is growing like crazy, and the readers are inreasing, but it is very hard work based on my travel experiences. Everything is unique with no duplication what so ever.

    Igor The Troll This is new, and many people may have trouble understanding what it is about.

    Like Vanesa Fox Nude when it first came out I am sure a bunch of people were turning heads and saying WTF…but you stuck to your guns and persevered, and now your Website is a magnet for SEO community.

    Yes content is vision, if you lack it, might as well flip burgers…because it is not going to happen!

  • john andrews

    More confusion, eh Vanessa? User generated content sucks… with regards to what exactly?

    If you have no content, UG content is good for “seo”, right? (that was 2005?).

    If you want to host content sans liability, UG content is good, right? (circa 2006?)

    It all depends on what your goals are.

    What scares me is that throughout history, good content creators have been underpaid and underappreciated as “systems” built up around them to manage and monetize their creative output. Same story here, albeit still very young. Will the future web empower the creatives or enslave them (again)?

  • Edward

    I think we should borrow something from China… there should be a group of Internet and Blog police who can shut down websites that are.. basically rubbish! Then these people can go out and do something more interesting with their lives rather than pretend they are authors!

  • greg

    yea, user generated content sucks that is why you shouldn’t allow comments 🙂

    to be fair there is a time and place for user generated content. i think editorially reviewed user generated content can provide another piece to sites with well-written professionally prepared content.

  • Vanessa

    My post is not anti-user generated content. I’m saying I like it! 🙂

  • Boris

    Good, bad, or indifferent… I think I’ll flip a coin to see which is right today!

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  • FoolsGold

    >if 400 people hated a hotel, I can trust a few of them.
    You would probably only read a few of the reviews anyway. The recent reviews might be good ones.
    >even if only 1% of your users contribute
    >and they’re mostly pretty bad at it.
    Suppose they panned the hotel for reasons unrelated to your particular interests? How many reviews are you going to wade through to tease out their reasons and evaluate their judgment?

  • Sebastien Lahtinen

    User generated content can be great when it’s of good quality. It’s absolutely great to hear from your peers whether a particular product or services is good/bad but how do you know this isn’t just the manufacturer’s representatives, or their friends? This is why you can’t *trust* UGC without understanding its limitations.

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