UGC might not be the first topic that comes to mind for most SEOs. That’s a conversation for social media, brand, content, and community managers — but not so much SEOs, right?
Well, not so fast. Imagine being an SEO for a site where organic traffic kept growing because high-quality, new content pages just… appeared. When you fine-tune user-generated content for SEO, it’s honestly a little bit like that. That’s why UGC has surprising and substantial potential to benefit SEO!
It all comes down to building a pipeline for user-submitted content, automating that pipeline to minimize manual lift (while maintaining manual control), and applying rules and systems to ensure search engines only find high-quality, relevant content.
We’ll break down SEO UGC best practices for each piece of the equation, how to weigh the pros and cons of UGC for your SEO strategy, and why taking a narrow view of the types of content that count leaves traffic on the table.
First things first, determine if launching or optimizing a UGC plan will benefit SEO. Before the dev team will build the automation or marketing leaders buy into your strategy, there needs to be compelling justification.
That’s a matter of identifying the opportunity based on who your target audience is — but also broadening the scope of “user-generated content.” Yes, it’s definitely hashtag-driven social media posts generating social proof and testimonials for user-generated content marketing. But it’s so much bigger, and so much of it can drive traffic in search!
Your favorite playlist on Spotify? If it’s created and made public by another user, it’s SEO-friendly UGC. The skis you were looking at on eBay? The listing page is a seller’s UGC with organic-traffic value. The brand reviews page you checked before you made your last purchase? Yup, you guessed it.
So before making any assumptions about SEO benefits through a UGC content strategy, start by thinking through a few key questions that help gauge a site’s potential for ROI:
This is the fundamental question that drives any sort of marketing, and UGC marketing is no different. Any segmentation work in hand should inform the UGC collected and published. Which segment is most likely to engage with UGC and which segment is likely to submit authoritative content?
An eCommerce clothing retailer might have one customer segment made up of trendsetters and another that’s more likely to follow trends. The former is equipped to create strong, differentiated UGC, while the latter will eagerly engage with what they create.
Most sites leverage content to drive organic traffic, nurture leads, etc. The content that users engage with today can set you down the right path for tomorrow. Finding that content comes down to looking at the right metrics, depending on where the page sits in the SEO funnel:
Why is user-generated content so important in SEO? When automated UGC collection and publishing are working well, it’s a huge opportunity for scaling SEO with low-effort traffic and built-in linking incentives.
Capitalizing on all of that potential takes a lot of upfront work, but a big piece of the puzzle is determining whether it will pay off. The notion of using UGC to rank for long-tail keywords might be tempting, but a strategy focused solely on long-tail keywords can be risky.
If you’re creating hundreds of indexable pages to drive minimal amounts of organic traffic and backlinks, that’s going to be net-negative for your site’s long-term SEO.
Digital consumer intelligence fueled by search marketing data helps pinpoint the types of content the target audience is looking for — and the demand for them.
Do the keyword research, trend analysis, and other discovery from the get-go to determine whether the SEO juice is worth the squeeze. If there’s not much keyword volume for relevant terms, is there still a good chance that UGC-based pages will lead to a wealth of backlinks? This also informs the level of scale that makes sense for the business.
First and foremost, content should provide value and a great user experience. There are types of content that simply aren’t going to make sense for other users to create. For instance, a functional medicine clinic isn’t going to publish medical advice written by patients — that needs to come from doctors.
But what about first-hand accounts of healing or what it’s like to live with a specific illness? These are topics where stories from patients may actually resonate more than any content written by the clinic. Patients have the kind of experience necessary to create authoritative content on the subject for the end user: other patients.
Plus, they might be willing to share those stories, knowing that others will benefit from learning about their experiences.
When automated publishing goes wrong, it can detriment SEO for a variety of reasons. Don’t worry — we’ll get into the potential SEO pitfalls later in this article and how to avoid or fix them. For now, let’s focus on a few questions that can indicate potential SEO issues in the way a site handles UGC.
It’s easy to get caught up in looking for growth opportunities as an SEO. Sometimes, the biggest opportunity for boosting performance is in resolving problems.
How different sites handle UGC management runs the gamut. It includes everything from full automation to full human outreach and curation — and a little bit of everything in between. At the end of the day, the best answer is the one that’s right-sized for SEO scalability based on opportunities identified in the discovery phase.
Maybe full automation isn’t right for your site. Maybe it is! There are still a number of ways to build smart automation that makes the process more resource-effective, from permissions and rights to moderation, publishing, and maintenance.
If the right systems aren’t put in place from the get-go, there’s a chance the team will spend their time bogged down in manual moderation and curation, without time or resources to go back and optimize the process.
For some types of UGC, there are tools available to help automate, moderate, and publish content. However, most are focused on customer reviews and user-generated images for eCommerce. They also tend to fall short when it comes to optimizing the on-page and technical SEO elements of any published URLs.
Just because a user submits content doesn’t give a site legal permission to reuse it. That’s why permissions and rights management is one of the most foundational elements of a UGC program, but also one of the most important. There’s no detour around having a lawyer craft or, at the very least, review your approach.
The level of sophistication and resources within permissions and rights management is a matter of scale. (e.g. A site like YouTube is going to have much more robust processes by nature.)
Some sites conduct manual outreach to obtain UGC and permissions, whereas others have it built into a submission process onsite. Either way, the creator must confirm and explicitly give permission for a site to publish, promote, or share the content.
Some of the details needed to cover the bases include confirmation of ownership, guidelines for tagging and accreditation, and republishing permissions (when, where, and how can you use the content). Stated ownership doesn’t always equal real ownership, so sites also need protections and processes for these types of copyright complications.
In an automated system, much of this is often handled via disclaimer(s) in combination with a user-confirming action like a checkbox.
Note: Popular UGC tools usually offer rights and permissions templates that are created and vetted by the platform itself. However, most of these platforms are focused on collecting photos, videos, and reviews. So for other types of UGC, it’s likely you’ll need a more custom approach.
Permissions and rights management might cover the business legally, but what about brand perceptions? SEO often plays a top-of-funnel role in generating brand awareness, which means UGC that’s available in organic search could be the first impression for potential customers.
Not all of the content submitted is going to be appropriate, and the stuff that isn’t should get weeded out somehow.
Brands have to set their own boundaries, which might be available already thanks to brand persona work. Family brands are probably going to have different views about what’s appropriate versus more zany or irreverent brands. It’s pretty clear that a children’s learning brand is going to set very different limits than a trendy adult underwear brand.
Figuring out where a brand sits within that spectrum creates a fence around the playground. Once boundaries are set, you can reflect them in your automation via rules and guidelines. This is really just a continuation of the thinking used in the discovery phase to determine SEO potential.
UGC moderation starts before content gets published. Depending on the scale of a program, that sort of moderation can take up a lot of human hours. Automation cuts down and can even nearly eliminate manual moderation through a system of rules that ensures problematic content never makes it into the pipeline.
Users are powerful allies in identifying problematic content that makes it through automated, pre-publishing measures. Creating a system that allows users to flag inappropriate content - and delineate why it’s inappropriate - can at the very least curate a pool for manual review. In large-scale, fully automated UGC publishing, this type of flag may even automatically remove the content from the site.
UGC isn’t just a potential issue when the content hurts your brand. If you’re automatically publishing content to indexable URLs - or sometimes, even when curating it to publish - there’s a good chance some of the content that users submit doesn’t provide much value.
Over time, that’s likely to open the site up to a potential thin content issue for SEO, which we’ll get into in just a bit. But just as importantly, subpar or sparse content makes life more difficult for your team and falls short for users.
Luckily, users will do a lot of the heavy lifting if you set them up for success. A thoughtfully crafted submission process shepherds the contributor into a better submission with considerations such as:
The more you ask users to do, the less likely they are to do it. The same logic applies to your UGC collection process. Sites can find their sweet spot by testing different forms against one another or keeping an eye on the completion rate of a form and refining it over time.
Depending on how important UGC is to your brand, there could be an opportunity to boost the rate of submission with different kinds of incentivization, including:
The crux is creating a value exchange that’s in line with your brand and enticing enough to encourage submissions. Music streaming platforms and stock photography websites are great examples. Artists are willing to submit content on the basis of the reach or return they could generate by being a part of the library.
When a well-tuned content pipeline meets automated, SEO-optimized publishing, that’s when the real magic happens. But the SEO wizardry behind it requires a solid UGC strategy for handling both indexation and optimization in an automated system.
The biggest pitfall to avoid in automating user-generated content for SEO is creating a “set-it-and-forget-it” system without enough quality control. That’s because automation without rules is a little like autopilot without GPS — and it puts a site at risk of issues like thin content.
At the end of the day, the size of the risk is dependent on the scale. Publishing a dozen subpar, indexable URLs isn’t going to hurt a site with thousands of pages. Publishing hundreds of subpar, indexable URLs can absolutely have a detrimental effect over time.
But when users are creating and submitting quality content, it’s possible to map their efforts to key on-page SEO elements. In fact, bringing an SEO lens to the areas where users can do the heavy lifting should play a significant role in how the submission form is set up.
That can look something like:
Seeing how industry leaders are handling automation shows the real–world application of this mapping. Just take this UGC content strategy blog post published on Medium, a prominent self-publishing platform for long-form articles.
The title, user/author name, and brand join to automatically generate an SEO title for each article published on the platform. “A Complete Guide for Your User-Generated Content Strategy | by Saumya Verma | Medium” is the SEO title for the article in the image below.
Meanwhile, the opening text of the article body is used as the meta description. It cuts off due to character limitations: “This is the first part of our blog series on user-generated content where you can learn everything that brand and social media marketers need to know about using user-generated content in their…”
By automatically generating a meta description, Medium ensures that a large swath of pages on the site isn’t missing metadata. Then for an extra layer of quality control, they allow users to override the automated meta description if desired.
Note: As an SEO, you might be thinking that both the SEO title and meta description are longer than the best practice. This is a great example of the sort of trade-offs sites have to think through as they set up systems for SEO scalability in large-scale UGC publishing. Longer-than-ideal metadata isn’t perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than no metadata.
Internal links are automatically generated via a sidebar of other articles and an endcap of articles by the author. They are part of the universal template, which ensures that UGC links to other URLs and orphan pages don’t become an issue. It’s automated internal link-building.
Increasing the quality of content and automating on-page SEO is one piece of avoiding thin content. But the real safeguard against a thin content issue is how a site handles crawling and indexation in an automated system. That goes double for large sites, where there’s a crawl budget risk to unchecked indexation.
In simplest terms, the goal is to set up a system where search engines can only find and crawl quality content that’s relevant to user search intent. That can happen via:
No matter which of these approaches a site prefers, the ability to manually override indexation is crucial. That way, valuable pages don’t end up in the noindex pile and content pruning is easier if it’s needed in the future.
If you think about it, VRBO publishes troves of user-generated content: each listing is created by a user and has its own unique URL. With so many listing URLs, VRBO has some decisions to make.
For one, their crawl budget isn’t big enough for every URL on the site to get crawled regularly. Additionally, organic search users are generally looking to find multiple options in a specific area and narrow things down (e.g. they’re usually farther up the funnel when they use a search engine). They’re more likely to search for “places to stay in Chicago” than they are to use hyper-specific, long-tail search queries that map to individual listings.
That’s exactly why VRBO uses their robots.txt to ensure individual listings without search value can’t get crawled and indexed. Meanwhile, they allow category pages of listings for individual cities with search value to make their way into search. They know these pages are the most valuable and relevant for users.
Adding structured data to your pages isn’t a must… yet. But as SEO continues to evolve, it’s potentially a significant advantage. Even better, just like on-page SEO elements, it’s possible to map user-generated content straight into your schema markup.
The presence of microdata gives Google greater context into the contents and purpose of a URL, creates rich SERP results with more information, and increases the chances of landing prized search placements such as featured snippets and free merchant center listings.
There are different schema.org taxonomies based on the type of content. Most of them provide some opportunity to leverage user-generated content for more robust microdata. These include taxonomies for articles, blogs, events, recipes, reviews, and more.
Most eCommerce sites collect reviews and show them on product pages, which is a great example of making UGC work harder for users and SEO. Outdoor adventure retailer Evo takes things a step further by piping reviews into their microdata to create a more compelling organic SERP result.
It also has the added benefit of displaying the same review info in free merchant center listings (organic results in Google Shopping).
By running the URL through Google’s Rich Results Test, we can see the markup made up of data from user-generated content.
While an automated program can have immense upsides, it’s all a matter of weighing up the benefits of user-generated content for the business. Embracing a broader scope of what types of content can count and determining what the audience needs will gauge the potential for submissions and organic search gains. From there, these UGC best practices can create a scalable system that grows and maintains itself.