Search engine optimization typically focuses on the trophy terms, the high-volume keyword phrases, because marketers need to drive the highest value with the lowest effort. Unfortunately, those juicy trophy terms are great for brand recognition and customers’ initial awareness, but they typically don’t convert as well as the less commonly searched long tail phrases. But optimizing a site manually for the millions of phrases that could drive converting customers to a site just isn’t scalable or possible with limited resources. User generated content such as reviews and question-and-answer sections can solve the problem by outsourcing long tail optimization to your own customers.
The Benefits of User Generated Content
User generated content — UGC — is great for SEO for a couple of reasons. First, when customers write reviews or ask and answer questions about a site’s products, they use different words than marketers use. Customers tend to use the same words that other customers and searchers use. Enabling UGC on a site, therefore, ensures the best of both worlds: The product descriptions and category level content will be written by marketers using the brand voice, and the UGC will be written by customers using the voice of the customer.
The second benefit that UGC brings to SEO is the freshness factor. Search engines love fresh content because searchers love fresh content. A stale site that hasn’t changed for a month or longer doesn’t really offer much to returning visitors, and potentially offers less to new visitors than a site offering fresh content daily. Dreaming up, designing, developing and implementing fresh content daily is a big challenge for ecommerce sites. But UGC shifts this burden to individual customers, who help keep the site fresh voluntarily and without incentive beyond the desire to share their opinions on products.
In the old days of UGC, reviews were typically piped into a product page via an iframe or sequestered on a subdomain, which made their SEO benefit far less valuable. Fortunately, many reviews companies now embed the reviews content directly on the product pages so that the freshness and keyword value benefit the pages an ecommerce site most wants to rank: the product pages that can convert immediately to sales.
While many UGC vendors talk a good SEO story, before choosing one make certain that they will bring true SEO benefit. When researching reviews or other UGC vendors, make sure that one of the first questions they’re asked is “Will the UGC be crawlable on the product page?” If the vendor doesn’t know how to answer or says no, the SEO value of their solution will be questionable.
A UGC Case Study
In his recent presentation at the Search Engines Strategies Chicago conference, Michael DeHaven, senior product manager of SEO for Bazaarvoice — a platform for user-generated ratings, reviews and other content — mentioned some pretty impressive results for sites that were already well optimized. In particular, DeHaven noted that Evans Cycles in the U.K., a Bazaarvoice client, saw a 23 percent increase in visits in just three weeks after implementing reviews content.
DeHaven recommends that the most recent six to eight product reviews be placed on the product page itself, and then the remaining reviews placed on paginated pages in groups of 30 to 40 reviews. Limiting the number of reviews placed on the initial product page allows the freshness and keyword value to benefit the product page without overwhelming the intended keyword theme of that product page.
He aims for an 80/20 balance with 20 percent of the content on the product page written by marketing personnel and 80 percent written by customers in the form of UGC. It’s certainly something that could be tested and tweaked to find the right ratio for each individual site.
For example, the hypothetical product page “jillsfakesite.com/product/blue” should contain the six freshest reviews along with the marketing content to entice the customer to purchase this blue product. The page itself would be optimized for the product name, and in this case the title tag might read something like “Blue Product | Jill’s Fake Site.” Let’s say I have the good fortune to have 42 product reviews for my blue product. Since they can’t all be allowed to crowd onto the product page itself, a second and third page would be created to host the remaining reviews and linked to from the product page, at “jillsfakesite.com/product/blue/reviews” and “jillsfakesite.com/product/blue/reviews2.” The pages dedicated to reviews would have different title tags than the product page to avoid the appearance of duplicate content and to allow the product page to send the strongest signal for the product name. In this example we might have a reviews title tags like this: “Blue Product Reviews | Jill’s Fake Site.”
DeHaven would recommend, in this hypothetical case, using all 42 reviews in the paginated reviews pages — “jillsfakesite.com/product/blue/reviews” and “jillsfakesite.com/product/blue/reviews2” — even the six freshest already displayed on the product page itself. To avoid having the same six at the top of the first paginated reviews page, he would recommend using a different sort feature such as reviews voted most helpful or longest reviews listed first.
Common UGC Fears
Ecommerce merchants typically have a couple of fears when it comes to UGC: What if customers say nothing, and what if they say negative things?
At first the reviews trickle may be small. Don’t be afraid to ask for reviews and other forms of UGC, such as photos or usage stories, just make sure to ask at the right time. Immediately after customers clicks the purchase button is probably not the right time to ask for a review because they haven’t received or used the product yet. Perhaps two weeks after the order, or one week after delivery confirmation would be a better time to reach out with a customized email to ask how the customer likes his new, say, “blue product” and would he like to share his experiences with other customers? For heaven’s sake, don’t forget the link at this point. Make it super easy for that customer to click a link and go straight to the product review input form.
If the volume of UGC is small, remember that you can wait for a critical mass to be reached before releasing reviews onto the site. Perhaps I want to make sure that I have 50 reviews before I start placing any reviews on “Jill’s Fake Site.”
The second issue stems from a fear that customers will write negative reviews, thereby decreasing the likelihood that customers will purchase from the page even as it increases the likelihood that that page will drive more organic search visits. This is a fair concern, especially if some products have known quality issues or customer service personnel already receive a high volume of complaints. If that’s the case, the company has bigger problems than whether to include UGC on its site, frankly, and should likely focus on resolving these issues before driving more customers into a funnel that produces negative experiences.
The more common reality will be a more even distribution between positive and negative reviews. Customers typically express opinions that are strongly felt, unless the experience on a product was mediocre for a customer who has a historically strong feeling of brand loyalty. In these days of social media, customers will voice their opinions somewhere. It may be Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or one of the many opinion or Q&A sites, but if they have something to say they’ll say it somewhere. Inviting customers to engage on the ecommerce site directly at least gives the business an opportunity to listen, understand and act on the negative as well as benefit immediately from the positive.