Why SEO matters for user-generated content

Lately I’ve been surprised to hear people say something to the effect of “when it comes to social networking and UGC, SEO doesn’t matter” in a number of different conversations. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, SEO is more important to a successful social networking and user-generated content than for editorial content.

UGC, including media uploads, blogs, profiles, comments, message boards, and the like, is nearly free content. Unlike editorially-generated content, which requires writers, editors and sundry other creative professionals and associated payrolls, UGC is as simple as making a space and inviting people to join the conversation. Once the technical framework is in place and people have joined it, they’ll begin contributing their own content, whether it’s MySpace profiles, Amazon book reviews, or Yuku message boards.

I write “nearly free” because the community voluntarily creates this content – the only incremental costs come from supporting the infrastructure, which becomes cheaper every day, and policing the community, a cost that can be spread to the community itself in the form of volunteer editors and “digg down” or “flag as inappropriate” links. In addition to being nearly free, UGC is also generally low quality and has relatively limited appeal. However, a business that can cheaply monetize a large body of UGC has a nice asset on their hands. Cheap monetization means the niche audience that appreciates a particular piece of UGC can find it without any editorial effort – the best way to achieve this is SEO.

The often-unstated assumption of “no SEO for UGC” is that the user-generated content isn’t valuable. It’s ugly, mostly pointless, not shaped for general consumption. But 1 million ugly MySpace pages don’t lie – people want to create and consume UGC. 20 million people might want to read Hilary Clinton’s professionally ghost-written book while only 2 people want to read this blog (thanks for being here!), but if I can find a way to make those 2 page views pay more than they cost, it’s a small, good business decision to write a barely-popular blog post. If you can aggregate a lot of those small, good business decisions it really starts to make sense. UGC is valuable beyond echoing editorial content – it’s often the only way to build a library of truly niche content. If you’ve ever used Google to troubleshoot an obscure problem with an electronic device, you probably found your answer on a message board, written not by the device manufacturer but by a fellow consumer. If you’ve ever read wikipedia you’ve gloried in ugly, mostly pointless, barely factual information.

With SEO in place, every piece of UGC becomes as valuable as possible. A single piece of editorial content might generate a lot of page views, but it’s often cheaper to “create” many UGC pages and if each one gets 100 page views you have some great traffic numbers. The only way this long tail content strategy works is if the 100 people in the world who care about your photo of a rare bird that landed in your backyard can find that photo. And that depends critically on SEO.

Editorial hierarchies don’t work when it comes to UGC (and some people would argue that they don’t work for editorial content either). There’s no point hiring a bunch of editors to review all of the photos on Flickr and categorize and rate them – it would take forever, cost too much, and most of the photos are crap anyway. “Should this one go into the ‘blurry drunk party’ category or ‘dysfunctional family gathering’?” While the photos can be organized according to tag-based taxonomies, favorites, and the like, the cheapest option to make meaningful sense of all those photos is search. More specifically, Google search. Just let the user tell Google what she wants and they’ll find it in the pile, with no special effort, engineering know-how, or server load on the site that’s hosting the photo.

UGC SEO is a slightly different game than editorial SEO. With editorial content, you’re typically trying to get to the top of one very big heap (“We want to be the number one search result for ‘motorcycle’!”), but with UGC you’re getting to the top of many very small heaps, which is a lot easier and generates traffic that is generally far more relevant to your site (“We’re the number one search result for any combination of ‘motorcycle’ and a city name!”).

Searchability is a fundamental concept of long-tail economics – it depends on a perfect consumer who can access every part of the tail with equal ease. Without Google, the blockbusters continue to survive on marketing and reputation, but the quirky UGC stuff needs placement on the search results page before it can become valuable on it’s own.