Tips for Allowing User Input to Improve Search Engine Rankings

By Bruce Clay

Letting users contribute content directly to your website is important for SEO and meets at least two goals simultaneously: It adds more content to your site and stimulates higher user engagement. Although you might feel nervous about letting other people write text that appears on your website, the advantages make it definitely worth considering. And you can still hold the reins to make sure your site contains accurate and constructive information.

The primary SEO motivation for allowing user-generated content (UGC) is to add unique content to pages that would otherwise contain only duplicate content.

One of the best applications of user-generated content is reviews. Letting users write their own reviews of your products and services is a fantastic way to get content on your site. Users write about your products in their own words, which become natural-language search terms. Including user reviews might help you capture long-tail queries (search queries for long, specific phrases that indicate a serious, conversion-ready searcher) if you make sure those pages can be crawled by the search engines.

It’s great for business, too. Facilitating online user reviews of your products or services can help you sell them. Consumers also trust user-generated content more than traditional sales copy. After reading reviews, people are often more likely to purchase because they have more faith in what they will receive. Educated consumers also make better customers, with less potential for returned merchandise.

Website owners often fear that people will write bad things about their product or service and negatively impact their brand. However, statistics show that the majority of user reviews are positive. For instance, the online-reviews website Yelp says that 85 percent of reviews are positive. Similarly, the site Bazaarvoice claims that 80 percent of all reviewers award four or five stars.

That being said, you can always expect a few people (or spambots) to write defaming, nonsensical, or offensive comments that don’t belong on your website. To take care of unwanted reviews, you should

  • Monitor your user-generated content, either automatically using a service, or manually, so that you can remove the offending entries.

  • Consider tracking the IP addresses of reviewers so that you can identify someone who leaves a truly malicious comment.

  • Consider requiring a CAPTCHA (an interface that asks the user to type the characters displayed) or an account login for anyone who submits a review. The drawback is that your security gate may dissuade people from participating, but it would give you assurance that you’re dealing with real people only. (Note: Too much UGC spam on a page can actually cause search engines to consider the page low quality and demote it in the search engine results pages [SERPs], so this is worth policing.)

  • Allow users to comment on other people’s reviews (with a link such as “Was This Review Helpful?”). Then the reviews can become self-regulating to a certain extent.

Negative feedback can often help a business, so don’t shun it entirely. Negative reviews help people understand the product’s limitations and further build trust. (“It didn’t work for them, but their situation is different than mine.”) Online reviews can also alert you to cases where your products or services truly did fall short so that you can address the problems.

When a disgruntled user has a legitimate issue that you read about in the user-generated content, you can immediately contact the person to resolve it. After the person’s issue is resolved, she might be so happy that you end up getting another, completely positive review of your customer service.

Another interesting thing to note about negative reviews is that they can actually help build trust. Many people say that they don’t trust a product that doesn’t have anything but positive reviews. Negative reviews actually validate the user’s sense that nobody’s perfect.

Besides reviews, you might consider adding these other types of user-generated content to your website:

  • User forums online: These discussions can become free-for-alls, but they also allow significant user interaction and provide you with excellent feedback from your user group. You can decide whether to participate with “official” responses or not. Depending on how they’re handled, responses from a company representative can either hurt or help the brand.

  • Comments: News sites do this all the time. After an article, they put a Comments link and let people respond. The number of comments can even make the article appear more popular, relevant, or interesting.

  • Social media timelines: You can display a live social media feed right on your website, in a sidebar or elsewhere, to show what people are saying related to your brand or subject. By adding just a bit of HTML code, you can embed live-streamed views of Twitter tweets or Instagram posts that mention your brand or a particular hashtag (a word or phrase beginning with a pound sign (#) that people include in a post to identify the topic).

    This content would not be spiderable but could nevertheless provide social proof to site visitors that your brand is worth talking about, and it could also build engagement with your social media community.