The joys and woes of user-generated content
At SMX Local and Mobile earlier this week in Denver, I spoke on the SEO Best Practices for Local Search panel about how to harness the power of community to maximize your local search marketing opportunities. And by that I mean I talked about how to get your visitors to do the hard work on writing local content for you. I focused on engaging local communities, but most of what I talked about would work for any site expanding into user-generated content.
Sometimes there’s math
If your site is locally-focused, you likely want to be found in major search engines for geographic location + topic queries (or a single location + multiple topics). As Microsoft noted during Searchification day, 32% of queries have local intent and 67% of local queries start at a major search engine. You want to be found for that 67% of that 32%. Um, sorry. Didn’t mean to get all mathy there. The point is that you want to dominate local searches for fun and profit.
But there’s a slight problem for being found for every location + topic query. You don’t have content for all of those combinations. And it sounds really exhausting to write all that content yourself. And you’re not a writer, you’re a business owner just trying to be found online.
So what do you do?
What not to wear, er I mean do
Well, if you sell products, maybe you upload a manufacturer database. Or you try autogenerating content for each city. That makes things pretty easy. Denver has many fine restaurants throughout the city. You can’t go wrong with Denver nightlife. Try Denver’s great snowboading. Miami has many fine restaurants throughout the city. You can’t go wrong with Miami nightlife. Try Miami’s great snowboarding. You could pull in search results to fill up the pages, like the apartment ratings site (since overhauled) that didn’t have any ratings in Gypsum, CO and backfilled with search results about Gypsum… the building material. Or I suppose you could also just put the exact same content on every city page.
You try one or more or all of these things.
You rank for nothing.
You have filled your pages with content. Why doesn’t it rank? Because it’s not unique and it doesn’t add value. Duplicate content between your city pages gets filtered. If you use the same product descriptions as other sites, the search engines see no reason to list your pages alongside those others. And for some wacky reason, building materials don’t seem super-relevant for something searching for apartment reviews.
Learning from Tom Sawyer and his fence
There’s got to be another way. You notice the shiny new trend of user-generated content. It’s unique, useful information and it’s totally free. Awesome.
So you dive into this social networking revolution. Users can add profiles, reviews, photos, videos, friends. They can discuss all of this amongst themselves.
You launch with great excitement.
And then you watch as the tumbleweeds blow through your site. What went wrong?
So it turns out that user-generated content is a lot of work. You need to engage vocal users early and get them excited about the site. You need to give users a compelling reason to contribute. And you need to seed the site with content so that you don’t launch empty. People mostly only want to be first on Slashdot. You also need internal oversight – someone to keep things moving along, making sure it’s all headed the right direction.
So how do you make your tumbleweeds spring into flowers of eternal bloom? Your barren wasteland filled with joyous fountains and tumbling waterfalls? Well, first you stop with all this blooming spring water stuff, because that just doesn’t even make any sense.
You can compel visitors by being compelling, as it turns out
You need to compel users to spend time on your site and the only way to do that is to be compelling. So do that first. How you do that depends on the type of site that you have. Think about (or talk with your users) about what it is you have that no one else does. Why do visitors need to come to your site rather than anyone else’s? If you can’t come up with anything, then you may need to work on your site a little before sending out the party invites.
Phil Stelter of Range and I were having dinner the night before the conference and while he has been rename “Pil” in honor of the silent “h” in Sphinn, he still had a good point. “User-generated content isn’t like Field of Dreams. Building it doesn’t mean they will come.”
Once you have some value to your site, you need to seed the content a bit before asking others to contribute. You can partner with other content sites (for instance, review sites) to get this content. Just keep in mind that this puts you back into the non-unique content space and those pages are unlikely to rank in search engines. They still may be valuable for seeding purposes though, so you may find that they’re still valuable for your needs. Or perhaps you can create a mashup of content that adds unique value on top of each separate component. You can also hire writers to write content for you, although in that case, you should consider how to disclose it (if the writing is for something like reviews). One way is REI’s model of both expert and user reviews – each on their own tab.
You can also launch with an invite-only beta and get a small group to seed the content for you. The difference between launching publicly with no content and launching to a small invite-only group with no content is that the invited group expects that the site will be empty and they’ll know that it’s their job to start testing things out. They’ll much more happily post to empty pages.
So, how do you go about an invite-only test? Identify the early adopters and influencers in your niche. Often these are bloggers who are fairly easy to find. You can also check out local or topical forums and find those who post early and often. For instance, I live in West Seattle. The West Seattle blog is run by bloggers who are obviously completely engaged with the local community. They know everything and they blog it all. If I were looking to jump start user-generated content on a Seattle community site, they would be the first ones I would try to get involved. You can find testers like this everywhere: on social networking sites, at conferences, on Wikipedia.
These are your users who are the most knowledgeable so will likely provide the best contributions, will contribute the most, and who will spread the word about your site to others.
Once you’ve got a group, I recommend pulling them in with flattery. Let them know how awesome they are and how they can help you with the site. Let them have input during the test phase, and encourage them to contribute lots of content. You may want to leave the test phase by asking your early testers to invite others, rather than opening the site up to everyone initially. This may get your testers talking about your site and providing a bit of buzz.
Sphinn did a great job of using early testers to seed content. Danny invited a bunch of us to kick the tires and see what we could break. We posted the hell out of that site and when it opened to the public, the tumbleweeds were long gone. And we spread the word in our blogs.
You also want to consider incentives for those who add content. Some sites have been successful with cold, hard cash (such as discounts on future purchases) but that can encourage spam, so watch that closely. Better incentives can simply be things like reputation points, elite badges for top posters, moderator positions. People tend to post online for the fame and glory. So give them a little.
Amazon does this with their top reviewers program. And for years, online forums have been rewarding top posters with special titles and icons.
You should also consider your focus. Don’t start too big. What’s the core to your site? Start there and expand.
You also need internal oversight to keeps things going and ensure quality. You might be able to do this with outside moderators a la Wikipedia. Or you could use the Spock model of allowing the community to vote on content. Digg, of course, lets users either vote stories up or bury them. You may end up hiring someone internally. What works for your depends on your site.
Amazon does it by letting you rate the reviews of the Buffy DVDs.
You may want to participate in social networking on other sites, blog, comment on other blogs, jump in and get involved in the community. You can get a better dialogue going with users this way, but you have to be willing to let whoever does that for your company have an honest voice. Because corporate speak over sincerity goes over as well that one time on Buffy when Angel turned evil and gave Buffy a demon arm in a box for her birthday and then she opened the box and the hand jumped out and tried to strangle her.
Before you get all this going, you should definitely set up some goals and ways to measure them, and you should have a backup plan in case the best laid plans don’t lead to the eternal spring fountain. You may need to adjust your site’s value add, your incentives, the group you’re engaging. The most important question to ask is are you building what people need? That’s the best way to keep them coming and coming back.
ETA: I’m thinking of checking out Search Marketing Expo Social Media in NY October 16th and 17th. It seems to be focused primarily on making the most of social media and social networking, but may also dig a bit into engaging community. Who else is going?