Adding user-generated content (UGC) to a site can help increase natural search for any type of site - not just a retail site. What's more, it can drive traffic to much more than just the product pages. Optimizing UGC for a site involves targeting many search types, driving new content to the site, and using search results to improve future search campaigns. A variety of content will help drive searchers from different phases of the purchase cycle.
Optimize UGC to Power Many Types of Searches
Let's say a searcher is looking for motorcycle insurance. If he's not sure where to start, he may search for "motorcycle insurance in Colorado." An insurance provider with a community Q&A page may have discussions about how buyers determined which company or policy to choose. Or they may let their customers write their own stories about how they purchase, use, or like their current insurance provider. Another searcher may look for "top-rated motorcycle insurance" or "motorcycle insurance reviews." A well indexed category page that shows top-rated motorcycles will show up under this query, leading the searcher to a page of top-rated options. Indexing this aggregated review content not only lures a searcher to a site, but also builds consumer trust for the brand - people want to hear from other people like themselves.
UGC also helps a retailer's product page stand out. Product specs may read the same from one site to the next, but user reviews, stories, and Q&A captured on a retailer's site will always be unique.
Encourage Users to Keep Contributing
We all know that search engines prefer plenty of fresh content. While it's hard (and not advisable) for brands to constantly change their product copy, it's fairly easy to find new ways to ask your users to share their stories. Creating a campaign that asks, for example, "How my Samsung TV made my Super Bowl party rock" or "My first triathlon" (for a sports-related brand) engages all types of customers and prospects and fuels many types of searches. If you have long-term customers who are very involved on your site, ask them to share their knowledge by showing them all the open questions shoppers have about products they use, making it easy for them to answer them.
Asking for reviews is a natural way to drive new content, and it's important to index more than just the first page of reviews for each product - not all review providers allow for this. Since it's easier to display and index just the first page of reviews, most brands just do this, but indexing "page two" of reviews is an easy way to increase crawlable content from 10 reviews to hundreds of reviews that lead directly to the product page. This also helps very popular products - those that tend to have many reviews - rise to the top of searches.
The goal is to drive traffic from trusted sources directly to a brand's site, so it's important to ensure all SEO tactics are working to drive such traffic. For example, content aggregators work to increase their own search value, so product reviews that syndicate to shopping sites, for example, can directly compete with the search value of reviews on your site. This is an important point - you'd rather your reviews bring searchers to your site, not an aggregator's or a competitor's site.
Use Search Results to Inform Future Search Campaigns
UGC can uncover search keywords and results you may not have considered. For example, a computer company may call all their portable computers "notebooks," but searchers and reviewers may use the word "laptop" to search for or describe the same products. Analyze how UGC impacts search; look for keywords that appear in UGC that don't appear in any product copy.
When building content volume, let consumers add or share content directly from their Facebook and Twitter accounts. As more and more of this content is indexed by Google, even more long-tail search terms will come to light; make sure to include these in future keyword campaigns.
UGC Impacts More Than Just Product Decisions
While retailers have long seen the sales benefits of product reviews and other consumer-created content, other industries now let consumers contribute to their sites. These types of searchers may not have such a clear-cut path to purchase. As financial services and insurance companies let consumers give their first hand opinions, they can let this content drive natural search - a huge opportunity for industries where trust is very important to consumers.
Today, a search for "top-rated mortgage companies" turns up online articles, and "health insurance reviews" reveals third party aggregate review sites. Companies can - and should - use these queries to drive traffic directly to their sites. When this content is indexed for consumers in every stage of the decision-making process, the companies with the most UGC will win the search competition more often. And different types of content will attract online researchers and leave a positive impression.
It's important to think about and optimize for all types of shoppers - and all types of searchers - when indexing UGC. Customer reviews, community Q&A, and stories shared online are changing the way consumers shop - and search.
This column originally appeared in the March 2010 edition of SES Magazine.
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Sam Decker is founder and CEO of Mass Relevance, the leading enterprise social curation company. He speaks and consults on digital growth strategy, based on years of experience in technology and social markets. He has written two books on word-of-mouth marketing and is an award-winning blogger (www.deckermarketing.com). As former chief marketing officer of Bazaarvoice, the market leader in hosted social commerce applications that drive sales, Sam worked to help brands present the right user-generated content at the right time in the purchase path, bringing real value to the consumer and the business. Prior to Bazaarvoice he drove Dell's customer segmentation, their customer-centricity strategy, and led Dell's consumer website, building Dell.com into the largest consumer e-commerce site at $3.5 billion in annual sales.