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Search Traffic and Community-Generated Content

Here’s the essence of my SMX East presentation on Community-Generated Content & Search Traffic:

Search Traffic

What kind of content gets search traffic? “Quality” content? Content where an SEO expert optimized the titles and meta-tags and sprinkled the right keywords? Content that gets links? Sure, that helps, but it’s not where it starts.

Consider the following satire piece from The Onion, Florida Marlins Delay Game Until Their Fan Shows Up.

The Onion Article

The Onion Article

The piece got 11,000 Facebook likes, so I’m not the only person who thought it was funny. And indeed, they dominate the search rankings for “Marlins delay game until fans show up.” But assuming that not many are searching for that term, it’s not going to generate much search traffic, no matter how well they optimize it.

Which is fine for them, because they’re not building their traffic stream on search. They have people subscribed to their newsfeed in one way or another – I get them in my MyYahoo feed – and liking, tweeting, and forwarding the best articles.

Now consider the other extreme, our answer page for “How do you replace the fuel filter located on a Ford Mustang?” It’s a good answer, but not probably something that you’re going to be sending to all your friends. It doesn’t have any Facebook likes. Not many inbound links.

Which page is higher quality? I think that depends largely on whether or not you’re looking to replace the fuel filter on a Ford Mustang.

One of the amazing things about the internet today is that people have created hundreds of millions of pages that answer specific questions like these and that Google is remarkably good at giving you the one that best matches your search query.

Where is your traffic going to come from?

When you build out your site you should probably think about where your traffic is going to come from. Some subscribe to the “If you build it, they will come” school of content development. “If I create great content people will find it.” Maybe. But that’s not where I’d put my money. You should know where you’re expecting to get your traffic from. The Onion, Search Engine Land, New York Times … they know that they have article streams that people subscribe to and then share, like, Tweet, forward the best articles. Search traffic is an important component for some of these sites, but it’s not the primary driver.

Sites that are primarily long tail information sites, with millions of pages like “How do I replace the fuel filter on a Ford Mustang” are usually going to get almost all their traffic from Google.

So for example Stack Overflow, a great Q&A site for computer programmers, mentioned that more than 90% of their traffic comes from Google. Their CEO Joel Spolsky said that they view Google’s results page as their site’s home page.

We’ve seen the same phenomenon at Answers.com. We got amazing reviews from the top tech journalists but when I tried to explain to people what we were a great site to find information people often tell me “yeah, I just go to Google.” And indeed, most of our traffic are people who see our brand on Google, not the people who go to us directly.

By the way, in this context the term “Search Engine” is really a euphemism for “Google.” The other sites are almost rounding errors when you’re talking about long tail traffic. The reasons seems to include business decisions – Yahoo! for example tries to keep the best traffic on their own site while Google tends to send almost all of it to other websites – and technical reasons –Yahoo! and Bing just don’t seem to be nearly as good at ranking billions of pages and returning the best one for a narrow query.

When GuruNet Met Wikipedia

When we discussed adding Wikipedia as a Data Source in 2003 we decided that it just wasn’t high enough quality for us. Answers.com, which was then called GuruNet, licenses quality reference books from Oxford, Gale, Barrons, Houghton Mifflin, and others to provide a great page for each of millions of topics. We decided that incorporating Wikipedia would compromise our quality.

Fast forward a few years, and Wikipedia is eating our lunch as the most linked-to, authorative reference site. Even though we have all these great licensed sources, and now we also have Wikipedia integrated, people are linking to Wikipedia as the authority.

But it wasn’t all bad. In 2006, a man named Chris Whitten approached us. He owned a Q&A site with a great community that was building great content. He said if we combined forces we could create millions of pages that would answer people’s searches. Because we were paying attention to how Wikipedia kicked our asses we were able to work with Chris and really help a great community grow and deliver on Answers.com’s vision of the world’s greatest collection of answers. And we’ve always used Wikipedia as our model. Especially about how Community-Generated Content can become high quality, trusted, and linked-to, and how important it is to achieve that.

The community on your site

There are a few ways your community can help you build your site, and they start even before you may think you have a community:

Your community’s searches

You can look through your search logs to see what your people are looking for and not finding on your site. Answers sites build this in naturally. When users ask a question and don’t find an answer, they’re prompted to submit their question into the system, and members of the community will often answer. But you can start this process without the whole infrastructure and community in place. You can see what your users are looking for and not finding, and add it yourself. You can make the system more efficient and get more people to write the content later.

Connecting people to your story through your blog

Try corporate blogging to connect people to your story. Your blog can be a great place to have a conversation with your users. You should be encouraging comments, and encouraging user submissions. It’s also a great place to share your thoughts and knowledge back with your community. Show the community that you’re trying to give back what you’ve learned. My wife actually has two blogs for her site, The Pet Wiki: a blog written by our cat (though I’ve never seen him typing) and her blog giving insights into how to create and grow a wiki site. Especially if you’re looking for people to share their insights on your site, you need to establish sharing great content culture by contributing what you know.

My favorite example that brings this all together is a classic Why We Wiki post on Answers.com’s no.stupid.answers blog. Read it now, I’ll wait. This brought it all together:

  • The post is a poem written by one of our community members.
  • The poem’s topic is how fulfilling it is to write answers on Answers.com, using as an example a touching encounter with somebody who asked a question.
  • The post connects people to each other and the Answers.com story

So it’s community-generated content about community-generated content. A community member sharing why it’s so important to her to build up Answers.com.

Your message on others’ sites

Just as you should be encouraging people to put content on your site, you should be looking for ways to get your message on other people’s sites.

First thing to realize is how things have changed since the old days of Community-Generated Content, way back when our great-grandparents were using Wikipedia back in 2003. Wikipedia made the individual invisible, making it all about the community. And Wikipedia was ideologically opposed to any kind of self-interest. Everything had to be from a neutral point of view. In the age of social media, most sites have adopted different guidelines. As long as you serve the community’s needs, you can serve your own. See Enlightened Self-Interest and the Social Web and The Age of Anonymity has Ended.

A lot of companies are getting their message out on Facebook and Twitter, which is great. But you should also be finding other sites that are looking for good content and that can deliver both a relevant audience and SEO power to your message.

For example, when I wanted to get my message to the SEO community I wrote a post about Using Q&A sites on SEOmoz’s community-generated content section. It got my message to the audience I needed, and that piece on their site, with my message, ranks first in Google for the phrase Using Q&A sites. SEOmoz was happy because I contributed good, relevant content to their site. Their users were happy because it was exactly the kind of tips they expect on that site. And I was happy because I got my message out.

Now, for example, when people Google for “Where did Barack Obama grow up?” instead of seeing things like “in da hood” they get a good, fair answer.

Another example is this conference presentation. I tried to connect you to the Answers.com story and to deliver our message, so that Answers will keep sending me to these. I tried to connect you with my wife’s site, The Pet Wiki, so that she’ll keep encouraging me to come to these, and no less importantly, let me come home. But first I have to make sure to give the audience what it needs, so that I’m not betraying the conference, and that I get invited back.

To give a political example, back in May 2008 a Barack Obama supporter answered a bunch of questions on our site. Each answer was fair, relevant, and contained a link to a relevant page on that contributor’s site.

Also see Get People to Put Your Message on Their Sites.

Monetization

People can connect with a brand that is monetized, and contribute to it. But be careful. You’re encouraging your community to feel like co-owners of the site. So don’t be surprised if they start feeling betrayed if they feel you’re over-monetizing.

I think of everything through baseball analogies. Very few people know or care how much money Derek Jeter is making because it’s somehow not in-your-face, and fans feel that he gives his all and delivers. But when a guy doesn’t come through, or makes it seem like the money comes first, you can get a backlash. So be sensitive as you’re monetizing community-generated content.

Another point on monetization is that search ads are often perfect for sites that are getting most of their traffic from search engines. Though this is only true for sites where people are doing a search that might be related to an impending purchase. So for example Stack Overflow, where people are asking computer programming questions, mentioned that they have not had any success monetizing with search advertising.

But you’re going to want to go beyond that. And having trusted, quality content can help you get branded advertisers who don’t want to advertise on low quality sites. That’s just one more reason that most of our focus these days is on our content quality.

To summarize

  • There’s a nice overlap between the kinds of content that gets strong search traffic and the kinds of content that the community often contributes.
  • Your community is telling you what it wants. Give it to them. And help them give it to each other.
  • Help your audience become a community.
  • Leverage other community-generated content sites.
  • Self-interest is acceptable now. Serve the community, then serve yourself.
Seen Speaking at:

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