For more than 12 years, I've worked with consumer-generated content as a core component of my strategic SEO work. About half of that time was focused on the search optimization of job postings for a well-known job board. The other, more recent half focused on consumer content in the form of end-user reviews.
Throughout the latter period, I was responsible for the organization and optimization of content written by millions of people, about an infinite number of topics, whose writings were to be published, unedited, on some of the world's most popular websites.
At first, working with this vast, seemingly uncontrolled content asset felt a bit overwhelming. Then it hit me: The people writing this content were the same ones performing search queries. So, the sentences, paragraphs, and ideas written by the masses had the potential to become crowd-sourced search optimization.
As you consider your strategy of working with consumer-generated content, keep the following points in mind.
1. Consumers and marketers use vastly different lingo
It's a simple reality that marketing professionals are constrained. Often, professionally written marketing content is eloquent, on-brand, and powerful, but it also often completely misses valuable search keywords.
For example, when doing some optimization work with an online travel agency, I discovered that branding rules blocked the use of the word "motel." However, in certain markets around the United States, that is the primary search keyword that people used. By excluding the word from their marketing materials, the site may have been missing out on as much as 20% of the combined hotel/motel keyword search opportunity.
Opportunity: Use consumer content to help reveal the words that brand guidelines restrict marketing professionals from using.
2. Reviews do not belong on an island
Consumers now expect review content to be available and readable, without a click, on product or service detail page (and, in most cases, users will stop reading after about 7-8 reviews). Search engines understand that consumer desire and will show preference to Web pages that render review content by default, without a click.
Opportunity: Do A/B tests to see whether revenue per visitor and search traffic improve when review content adheres to this principle.
3. Consumer content can be repurposed
As long as you have legal rights to the content, it is completely acceptable to repurpose reviews, questions, answers, opinions, photos, videos, and other types of consumer content in multiple places where it can provide a desirable user experience or help guide the consumer decision process.
For example, on a home improvement website, a video showing the proper technique for using a circular saw may be relevant on both a How to Build a Deck page and a product page for the saw itself. Similarly, product or service review content may be relevant on both the category- and product-level pages of websites.
Opportunity: Look for valuable pages that do not have consumer content, such as category-level pages. Pursue the deployment of modules that provide a relevant user experience while also adding a significant amount of valuable content.
4. Content written by consumers has a shelf life of 30-90 days
I'm often asked, "How much review content is enough?" The simple answer is this, "Enough that your end users will be satisfied." For CPG products, most consumers will trust reviews for about 90 days; for hospitality, 30 days is the point where people's trust starts to decline. Use those timeframes to guide your content collection strategies.
In addition, note that from an SEO perspective, the more fresh content, the better. Therefore, allow users and search engines the opportunity to follow pagination links to find older content that contains long-tail SEO potential.
Opportunity: Make sure that you have a content generation strategy in place that provides a constant flow of quality consumer-generated content.
5. Search bots need help identifying social content
If two sentences are side-by-side in a webpage and there is no labeling to indicate who wrote the sentences, is it reasonable to expect that an algorithm will be able to identify the type or role of the author? No. That's why the world's major search engines collaborated in 2011 to define the structures found in schema.org.
Without properly structured data, such as schema.org microdata, search engines cannot identify the difference between professionally written and consumer-generated content. And, if structured data is improperly formatted, search engines will not reward your Web pages with the special treats, like Rich Snippets in Google.
Opportunity: Work with a technical SEO professional and deploy the labeling system (itemprops) recommended in schema.org; in most cases, microdata will be the easiest and most reliable.