UGC: what they are and how to manage user generated content
Apparently they are three simple letters, but behind them there is a whole world that tells the evolution of the Web and also some of its distortions: today we dedicate our attention to UGCs, the acronym that distinguishes User Generated Content and therefore all the content generated by users, that freely interact with the contents of a site. Ugcs can become a valuable resource for a site, because they can create engagement and trust in readers, but if managed badly they can turn out to be a burden, if not even a problem – and just see the latest Google data on UGC spam to understand it: let’s try to see together everything about the theme and some tips to exploit these contents for the benefit of business and brand.
What are UGCs, User Generated Content
The acronym UGC takes the initials of User Generated Content: by definition, Ugcs include any form of content (text, post, images, videos, reviews) created spontaneously by individual people (and not by brand, neither directly nor against payment) and published on a social network or on normal online pages.
With User Generated Content the user becomes an active subject of communication: his contribution represents an action of support, mention or complaint with respect to products, services, articles, news or directly a brand in its entirety, using some available channels – social, but also official sites or blogs that open doors to this type of content or comments.
Precisely this Copernican revolution, which focuses on users and their messages, is the reason for the success of the UGC: spontaneous and free, such content are more easily interesting and engaging for the public, which considers them more reliable than – for example – to sponsored posts or entrusted to influencers, who have the patina of the purely commercial product.
The history of User Generated Content and the Web 2.0
To understand the extent of this change we need to remember what the Web was like until the early 2000s – UGC is starting to talk about around 2005, but it is only after the boom of Facebook and other socials that they really make their way into digital communication: users had a purely passive role, from users of content “packaged and served” by the sites, without any (or with few) possibilities of direct interaction.
The technological evolution on the one hand – the smartphone is a central tool for the production of these “contents from below” – and the interest in the public on the other encourage the spread of UGCs, and then the creation of texts, photos and videos by ordinary people: a real mass phenomenon with a high potential for creativity, information capacity and added value.
And if the citizen journalism did not have the outcomes imagined, different was the evolution of Ugcs applied to marketing, because companies and brands have (at least) understood the need to actively include users (or, better, digital interlocutors) in their communication, to build together with them a shared meaning and participated around products and services, but also more generally around the very concept of the brand and its image.
The technical characteristics of user-generated content
There are at least three distinctive features of User Generated Content compared to classic content: they are public (that is, provided through public platforms and not private systems – so sms and chat are not examples of UGC), original (they are created outside the traditional logic of content production, and therefore not by agencies, editors or professionals) and creative. On this last aspect, even when they appropriate themes and ideas already common heritage, the peculiarity of those who produce UGC is to always add something new.
In addition, as mentioned, User Generated Content are by definition free and spontaneous (although brands can encourage the creation, and we will see together how), and thanks to the new digital tools are easy both to create, by not requiring specific and precise skills, than to be enjoyed by the public, which in turn can become prosumer (hybrid figure of consumer producer). This develops a virtuous circle, in which conversations and interactions are constant and continuous, with production of comments, feedback, photos and videos that help to “make communication” on various levels and express a point of view on brands, products, companies, consumer experiences and, in practice, every aspect of online and offline life.
Examples of UGC content
On a theoretical level, any content can be UGC, including blogs, web pages, images, social media posts and testimonials: User Generated Content is in fact any content created and distributed by contributors outside the brand/site, by persons who are not official representatives of that activity.
Among the most frequent examples of user-generated content are social media posts, blog posts, a review, a video, a podcast, a photo – publicly shared online and “within reach” of everyone. The mechanism is evident precisely in social media platforms, which are based on these concepts to build their own scheme of operation, based on the creation and sharing of content completely delegated to people – According to Stackla, every day 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook, 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram and over 500 million tweets are posted on Twitter.
More in detail, these are some of the classic examples of User Generated Content that we can find online (or decide to open on our pages):
- Multimedia content. Images, videos and podcasts are now known, appreciated and even created by anyone, demonstrating that you do not need a professional production or distribution to achieve mass consumption. Visual content is one of the most common types of UGC and also the most engaging, and it comes in photo or video shares to review a product, or to witness a moment or simply to tell an event just lived.
- Reviews. Reviews are published on product pages or company pages and are an important part of the success of that article, because much of the (other) potential customers will read this information to arrive at a more informed and aware purchase decision.
- Forums and Q&A blogs. Symbol of the second phase of the Web, forums with questions/answers are now more rare and usually very vertical, while it has closed permanently for some months even Yahoo! Answers, the site within Yahoo! that allows each user to ask an open question and receive free answers from the community. Speaking of community, one of the lessons learned from the use and past experiences in the field of Ugcs is precisely the ability to use user-generated content to create virtual communities and tie participants around a theme – music, cooking, fitness or technology, stimulating the participation of all through the sharing of content.
The use of UGCs on the site
Speaking more specifically of the use of User Generated Content within the sites, there are various “ways” in which we can choose to open to the spontaneous contribution of readers:
- Comments. Perhaps the most frequent space where user-generated content can be found, which can be involved in commenting on published news, also stimulating the participation of other people.
- Testimonials and feedbacks. The same applies to the reviews at the bottom of the product page, which can be an important tool to strengthen the brand and to stimulate interest in that object or service.
- Articles. Used especially in the past, this system provided for the sending of spontaneous content made by users (but it was inevitably used as a system to distribute guest posts and make low effort link building).
Therefore, from the point of view of the “places” of the site where we can use Ugcs we have the home page (there are cases, especially abroad, where the persuasive power of authentic user-generated content is used to immediately show potential new customers the benefits of a product or service), article pages, product pages, the company blog, but also inspirational pages (for example, for articles related to the one just added to the cart) or a community page (in which to upload photos and videos UGC shared by people who use the product or service of the brand).
User generated content and digital marketing
To summarize, UGCs are literally content created by ordinary people: this mechanism is not new and there are hundreds of sites of various types that are based on this philosophy, from Wikipedia to Tripadvisor, from Youtube to Flickr and Instagram, just to mention a few colossal examples.
In all these situations, people land on the pages to read, to inquire, to discover – in short, to take advantage of any kind – from the content generated by the user, and this is precisely what should not be missing if we think of integrating this approach also on our site. We must therefore always try to ensure a double positive return to users, both to those who leave their contribution (which can be “rewarded” even through competitions or special benefits) that those who read it, because only in this way can they create a sense of aggregation and sharing.
Digital marketing has quickly understood what kind of benefits can come from a prudent and wise use of Ugcs, in particular to improve brand awareness, reach new potential customers without very expensive investments and cultivate already acquired users, get “first-hand” feedbacks on products and services, create interest and virality on some topics and succeed in channelling customers towards the execution of certain actions (Call to Action).
UGCs are truly omni-channel and work well at every stage of the customer journey, making them usable at various stages of the funnel, both in top-of-funnel and bottom-of-funnel content: in particular, several studies show that user-generated content is considered by other customers to be an excellent way to discover new products and, in practical terms, an increase of more than 20% of web conversions is estimated when sites have Ugcs, especially thanks to the fact that about 9 out of 10 people claim to more likely trust a real recommendation from another real person than what one can read on branded contents.
Why UGCs work
These results depend on the very nature of Ugcs, which put customers in the forefront and at the centre – a crucial requirement in current marketing, where companies must be able to keep up with an audience of constantly evolving trends – and do not have the “patina” traditional commercial tactics pushed and abused, resulting more authentic and transparent.
Wanting to simplify, people today do not trust marketers and influencers, but (at best) other real people and have become increasingly able to distinguish spontaneous messages from artifacts. Moreover, today interaction is required and wins, both with other people and with the brand, which conquers customers if it is well humanized. Therefore, we can no longer consider customers as passive consumers driven by “old-fashioned” and static advertising, such as television commercials or billboards, because today the user knows and wants to actively choose his destiny, moving towards brands that support this need.
UGC and SEO, benefits and risks
All UGCs (reviews, videos, photos, questions and answers, comments and other types) can bring benefits also from an SEO perspective, because they could provide search crawlers with more context and more information to understand what pages are about and how relevant they are to a user’s query, including through the use of long tail keywords chosen by users themselves; In addition, they can help create a sense of community, gather feedbacks and allow the public to obtain information directly from their colleagues.
The price of these benefits lies in the risks they carry: Ugcs can be of low quality, spam, duplicated by other sites and redundant.
The main problem for the SEO of the UGC is the control: soliciting the sharing of spontaneous contents of our users, inevitably we lose a quota of control on the result – and we have to assume that not all reviews will be positive or comments enthusiastic. Even worse is the speech related to spam, which is why many publications (and we too) pre-emptively block comments, which otherwise would require a cost for monitoring or expose to negative impacts on the ranking.
In addition, publishing so many low-quality Ugcs will not help much, and so there is also a need for vigilance to encourage the sharing of useful content that can accompany SEO efforts.
Any type of User Generated Content can be dangerous for SEO, with specific effects: for example, reviews can reveal a low average rating for the services or products served, which can become a wake-up call for potential customers and users; discussion forums and questions and answers sections can be stormed by spammers or users who create redundant discussions, creating a negative impact on SEO and user experience. Similar problems with comments, hunting ground of spammers who try to channel traffic elsewhere misleading the public.
It is also risky to ask for posts that are “free” from moderation, which could present information or opinions that negatively affect the brand or content already published elsewhere, and this also applies to images and videos (where you must also consider the copyright issue).
Most of these disadvantages are overcome with a UGC management activity, working to eliminate spam, moderate and evaluate the contents before publication (even with automated systems) or set specific commands for crawlers (such as the nofollow tag for all outgoing links, to distance themselves from any questionable destinations), but the actual positive effect on the SEO of User Generated Content must ultimately be evaluated in relation to the size of the site, its characteristics and the effort required to follow all these aspects.
UGC, Google’s position
So the topic is not all “fun and games”, and we just saw some of the critical aspects of using UGCs, especially for SEO.
Even today, for many to open to the contribution of users outside the organization means risking the appearance on the site of spam messages or of little value, free insults, attempts to manipulate information and so on – which is why we often prefer to remove this possibility altogether.
On the other hand, even Google warns against the dangers of Ugcs, for example, remembering that there is no diversified treatment in the SEO evaluation of main content produced by the authors of the site and Ugcs hosted in particular pages and sections – for more details on the topic UGC and SEO there is this article that deepens precisely the position of the search engine.
The same thing also applies to Adsense: recently Google reiterated that “user comments are a great way to stimulate discussion and involvement around the articles”, but also that “If a publisher wishes to post ads on pages where user comments are displayed, all content on those pages, including comments, must follow the Publishers Policy“, because “Publishers are responsible for ensuring that comments sections, forums, social media posts or anything else generated by users on their site or app comply with the Program Rules“, as well as “Publisher Restrictions” of the American company.
UGC and SEO, the best approach to user-generated content
Pay attention to what you publish on the site, and even more to what you host. This is how we can summarize the message that comes from the new video in the series on YouTube, which is devoted precisely to the topic of User Generated Content, i.e., freely written content by users, and how Google takes it into account and evaluates it for the purpose of the overall ranking of the site and its pages.
Google and UGC: no difference in evaluation compared to other contents
As usual it is John Mueller who takes charge of the question of a user of the vast international SEO community and turns it into a starting point for a wider reflection on the proposed topic. In this case, as mentioned, the focus is on the User Generated Content hosted on the site and, in particular, their impact on the evaluation of the page made by Google.
The user, owner of a site, expressely asks if the rules of Google ranking – simplified in “relevance and quality of contents (among other factors)” – are applied in the same way at the contents produced by users, as well.
Google analyzes and also takes into account UGCs for the ranking
The video starts with the basics and redefines the phrase UGC, which for Google (and for us) means “any type of onpage content produced by user visitors” and added after the site owner’s original publication. It comes in many forms, from simple comments at the end of an article to live discussions between users, but it also refers to entire pages written by other visitors.
So, there are many different forms of user-generated contents and there is only one thing to remember: Google treats them in the same way as the main content, a.k.a the most important content published by the original author of the page.
John Mueller says it clearly: even UGCs must comply with the standards that the site manager observes for his main and original contents, and it is therefore risky to leave too much room to external people. In fact, the Google Webmaster says that we should not allow users to publish just about anything.
To use its own words, “generally, Google does not distinguish between the contents you wrote and the ones written by users: if you publish it on your site, we will see it as content you want to publish“. As a result, what is published online in its entirety becomes the subject of Google’s ranking ratings.
How to safely host UGCs on the site
Mueller however also provides some practical advice for those who host user-generated content and do not want to risk a bad rating because of their low quality. First, he says, if you “have a higher amount of UGCs, make sure they meet the same publication standards of the contents on your website”.
There are also ways sites can safely accept user-generated content without it affecting the ranking. The most immediate and easy system is to block the indexing of pages with UCG contents until they have passed a revision – a quality control of some sort – from the operators of the site.
According to Mueller, it is possible to “prevent by default these pages from being indexed and allow them to only be indexed if you are satisfied with the quality. For example, you could block them with a meta tag robots noindex“, to be removed after revision if the content meets specific criteria established or if it is well accepted by other visitors, using systems to “collect information on the liking of UGCs by other users, which may be useful”.
UGC and links, Google’s advice
Then there is another aspect examined in the video, and that is the care and attention that the sites must devote to the management of links present in UGC sections: Mueller recommends taking precautions, which may be of the absolute type (completely disallow insertion of links by users) or more moderate.
In this regard, he reminds us that about a year ago Google introduced a new attribute for links, the rel=UGC, which serves precisely to signal to search engine crawlers that the reference link was inserted by users – and that therefore should not be taken into account for the ranking – more specific than the classic nofollow.
UGC and SEO: tips to avoid problems with our pages
As proof of the sensitivity of the topic – and the attention Google pays to it – the Mountain View group has also dedicated an infographic to the management of UGCs, which summarizes the correct approach we need to take to avoid problems with our site, including from an SEO perspective.
Particularly attracting attention is the section devoted to the list of strategies for managing user-generated content, consisting of six points plus an extra one, to which as we can refer editors:
- Publish a content policy, a set of content rules that clarify to users what is allowed to be published and what is prohibited.
- Recruit user moderators, engaging the community as support for reporting inappropriate content.
- Regularly review user-generated content, carefully reviewing pages on the site.
- Add links to report invalid content, to give users the ability to manually report a policy violation and problematic content.
- Set up an automatic moderation process: depending on the type of content on the site, filters can be created to automatically detect certain content.
- Use a CAPTCHA: Before users can submit content, we can at the very least restrict access to bots by using a CAPTCHA that gives access only to humans.
As an additional and alternative advice, if we are unwilling or lack the skills or ability to strictly moderate the content that people submit to the site, Google states that we can always change the design of the site itself. For example, instead of hosting the display of comments on the same page as the main content, we could set open comments to open in a new window, perhaps blocking their indexing to solve the root of the problem.