February 21, 2010

User Generated Content Offers Significant SEO Benefits

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 2010)

In many previous columns, I’ve shared how to calculate important SEO KPIs like keyword reach, page yield, and non-brand traffic. In this column, I’d like to share how we used these metrics to inform our point of view around user generated content (UGC) as a tactic to increase organic search performance.

The power of UGC reviews

In recent years, multichannel retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and many others have embraced user-generated product reviews as an effective social media tool to increase conversion rates. The benefit is that in exchange for giving customers a forum to share their product experience (positive or negative), the merchant receives unbiased “voice of the customer” content that helps sell prospective customers. (And be honest, you have to respect a brand like Cabela’s willing to allow comments like “this thing sucks” live on the website.) All kidding aside, brands need to consider the risks with these systems and have a strategy to achieve high customer adoption. But in nearly every case we’ve encountered, the process works very well.

The SEO issue for most retailers is that their UGC product review functionality tends to rely on AJAX, iframes or sub-domains for presenting the “voice of customer” review content. These methods make it difficult or impossible for engines to match up the rich user-generated content with the actual product pages themselves—eliminating nearly all of the potential SEO value. I’ve encountered this issue frequently over the years in helping retailers increase their organic search performance through our product which optimizes such landing page content for SEO benefits.

So anecdotally, we had seen consumers adding descriptive phrases and shorthand to client pages as (crawler-friendly) UGC , which Google matched on when other consumers searched for the same phrases—apparently increasing long-tail organic search traffic at no marginal cost. For instance, one multichannel merchant’s “under armour hooded sweatshirt” landing page gets top rankings for about a half dozen derivatives of “UA Hoodie”—not because the merchant, or the Under Armour brand, use that shorthand on the page; this page gets found because end-consumers added the “UA hoodie” phrase to the page through their UGC product reviews. And that’s one phrase. Multiply by dozens of reviews per page. Across thousands of pages. Refreshed frequently… It all adds up to goodness, right?

Some providers of this UGC review functionality argue for keeping UGC reviews off-page as a benefit, possibly because their technology tends to rely on AJAX for easier implementations. Some SEOs also favor this approach, as it theoretically preserves page keyword density and prevents theme dilution. But our hypothesis was that UGC may in fact be more useful embedded on-page to grow SEO results organically over time.

We know the task of researching keywords is time-consuming, and a potentially infinite task for a large site. We also know optimizing pages for those phrases can take not only political willpower but months or years to actually prioritize and execute. So if outsourcing this content optimization to customers for free, through UGC, extends your brand’s reach up the funnel, acquiring the very people searching the web for your type of product, we would have a brilliant strategy. Unless adding this content to the page does in fact dilute keyword density and ultimately harms performance!

Research results provide some clues

We approached the answer to this difficult question using a three step process aimed at developing a data-driven point of view.

First, we studied the SEO effects of UGC across 10,000 unique client product pages over a 30 day period. Roughly 33% of these had UGC reviews embedded on the page, 66% did not. What we found was that product pages with embedded reviews were crawled as much as 200% more frequently, with as much as 250% broader keyword reach, and as much as 200% more organic traffic. That was impressive on the surface, but not necessarily a causal relationship.

To understand causality, we applied a suppression technique to the UGC reviews on a test segment of pages. Essentially we made the reviews invisible to search engine spiders. We compared the performance of these pages against a control group over 60 day period. The results after 60 days of suppression were clear: Removing the UGC reviews from the test segment pages caused significant performance degradation. The average quantity of referring search phrases to each page (“keyword reach”) decreased by 50%, and average non-brand organic traffic dropped by 31% per page during the 60 day period.

To complete the process, we reversed the suppression technique at day 60 by re-embedding the UGC reviews on the page. 30 days later (day 90 of the trial), the average keyword reach of each page had rebounded to pre-suppression levels (offsetting the 50% loss during suppression). Meanwhile non-brand organic traffic also rebounded to pre-suppression levels, and even exceeded them by an additional 12% .

Our conclusion

Based on these side-by-size page comparisons, we believe it is reasonable to conclude that product pages with UGC review content embedded as HTML (as opposed to AJAX, pop-ups, subdomains or other) do indeed cause a page to receive greater crawl frequency, nearly twice as many referring search phrases, and two times as much non-brand organic traffic, as product pages without review content embedded on the page.

Does this mean you should implement UGC purely for SEO benefits? Probably not. But the data makes a compelling case that UGC can act as a form of free keyword research, and create opportunity for large-scale advertisers to smartly outsource the “optimization” of their organic landing pages to the very people looking to find them—your customers.

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