Every company from the one-person e-commerce shop to Fortune 1000 multinationals understands the need for SEO – but very few of those companies really understand what it is, how it has evolved, and why the next trend in SEO is smart, user-generated content.
Old-school SEO worked – Until it didn’t
The first wave of SEO focused on quantity over quality, with an eye towards churning out hundreds of variations of keyword-packed articles, artificial forum posts and comments, and phony reviews, with meaningful engagement and genuine review feedback taking a back seat to mechanically-generated spam. And before Google refined its algorithm, it was easy to trick the search engine into thinking your site was important just by repeating a few keywords over and over and throwing in enough links back to your site, even if they were placed on your own network of manufactured review websites. Today, this tired content farm tactic is still over-used and promoted by low-end SEO scammers, but at the end of the day it doesn’t provide results other than making you look foolish. This worn-out approach, still offered by thousands of providers, does not take into account the Customer Experience, it does not take into account the fact that younger demographics are more likely to want to have meaningful interactions with you, nor does it consider the fact that those same young buyers are more likely than ever to post their impressions of you online.
CapGemini, in its recent “2016 World Insurance Report” highlights the insurance industry as just one example of the need for a customer-centric strategy as opposed to the mechanical SEO approach still favored by some. The report, which focused on a Generation Y audience (born between 1981 and 2000), showed that Gen Y customers are more likely to engage using newer channels such as social media and online reviews – and that customer demographic’s strong preference for digital and social media channels often leads to a gap in service, and less positive outcomes. The pressing need, across all industries, is to meet your audience on their own terms – and increasingly, that means direct and meaningful engagement on social media and online review platforms. Real engagement and interaction – not just posting keywords and links – is what will drive growth. That requires encouraging the growth of organic reviews, learning customer trends, desires, and areas of dissatisfaction from those reviews, and then engaging directly with the customers and prospects who have posted them.
What online shoppers want
Millennials – a key demographic for almost any company – tend to be less loyal, more connected electronically, and more likely to do independent research before buying, including reading user reviews. Their expectations are high, and a recent Accenture survey noted that Millennials demand meaningful information, and a customer-centric shopping experience. In addition, the report highlights how dependent Millennial shoppers are on social media, noting that a social strategy must go beyond simply having a presence – success depends on organically becoming the topic of conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than on platforms that facilitate online reviews.
The changing Google algorithm and the move towards meaningful content
Search algorithms are no longer so easily fooled – and if you want meaningful SEO, your SEO strategy must shift from numbers-oriented “game the search engine” tactics, to one that focuses on creating high quality, meaningful and useful content, and encourages participation and comments from verified users.
The verification of users is essential here – not as a means to control what they say, but as a means to verify their legitimacy. Another common SEO tactic – and one that Google has long since caught on to – is fake review sites, and even fake reviews on legitimate review sites. Much like spinning out keyword articles, generating and placing fake reviews has long since lost its place in the canon of online marketing. An overabundance of phony five-star posts have caused consumers to grow weary and suspicious of online reviews, and consumers – especially Generation Y consumers that represent the next generation of growth – now know exactly what to look for, and they can spot a fake review a mile away. Anonymous reviews, one-line reviews, and reviews that say nothing about the company or product are easy to generate by the thousand, but you’re not fooling anybody – not even the search algorithm.
Review sites like CrowdReviews.com recognize this important fact, and are now incorporating verification protocols, assigning less weight to one-line reviews and anonymous reviews, and bringing user-generated review content back to its rightful place as a legitimate tool for engaging with real users.
User-generated content, reviews and SEO
One strong component of a good content strategy will focus on journalistic-quality, thought leadership articles written by professionals and placed in magazines that are relevant to your industry or your target demographic. Another is encouraging user-generated content on lively forums and review sites, where verified users who are not being compensated weigh in and give their opinions.
There is some risk of the latter tactic, but the rewards are significant. When your PR agency creates and places those high quality articles, naturally the writers engaged by your agency counsel are only going to say good things about you. When you open it up to the public, there is no such guarantee. Nonetheless, open it up you must. The buying public has come to expect it.
There are some SEO experts who advise against user-generated content strategies, but disavowing it completely is a poor tactic. User-generated content has gotten a poor reputation because of the quality issues and rampant spamming, but the Google Panda update has no problems whatsoever with legitimate user reviews, and companies that actively engage in a strategy of encouraging the growth of, and responding to, legitimate reviews will be tomorrow’s winners. What Panda has gotten adept at, is finding and de-ranking sites that contain review spam, and this is giving rise to a new wave of more legitimate review sites that offer consumers deeper and more meaningful insights. The importance of reviews is too big to leave to chance, but also too important to leave to the nickel-and-dime SEO providers and spammy review sites.
The next wave of marketing goes far beyond those older keyword tactics. User-generated content and reviews may not have the same level of artificially embedded keywords, but increasingly, this is the type of content that will drive meaningful growth, recognition by the search engine, and happier and more engaged customers.