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User generated content is a form of online content that is created by users or a website's audience rather than by someone affiliated with that website or business.
The term “user-generated content” refers to any type of online content that is created by users or unpaid contributors rather than a brand or business. Also referred to as user-created content, UGC has become increasingly popular as the internet itself becomes more accessible and more prevalent, with users turning to various websites and social media platforms to share the content they’ve created and to engage with other people. UGC may seem simple, straightforward, and possibly even inconsequential — but, like many other search marketing terms and concepts, that isn’t actually the case.
UGC has become important in the context of online marketing, and has even become a marketing sub-discipline in and of itself. Though businesses and brands by definition cannot create UGC, they can greatly benefit from it by incorporating it into their marketing strategies. By creating content, users are engaging heavily and clearly with a given brand, and even promoting their business on their behalf. In this way, UGC can have a huge impact on your digital marketing activities, including your search engine optimization efforts.
First and foremost, you must understand what UGC typically looks like. Any type of online media or content created by users, fans, or contributors for a website, mobile app, or online platform is considered to be UGC, but certain mediums are more common than others. Popular examples of UGC include (but are certainly not limited to):
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely already encountered UGC in some form. Between browsing social media posts from friends and reading product reviews for something you want to purchase, you probably spend more time with UGC than content generated from brands and businesses online than you realize. One recent study found that millennials spend 30% of their total media time on UGC alone, viewing it for over five hours every day. While you may not spend that much time with UGC, it’s difficult to avoid in your day-to-day online activities.
UGC can be a double-edged sword, equally capable of having both positive and negative impacts on your brand and your SEO efforts. The very things that make UGC so appealing are also what can do the greatest amount of damage. To make the most of UGC in your overall content marketing and SEO strategy, it’s crucial to understand what your brand stands to gain from it — as well what you risk losing.
Historically, though, UGC did have a direct effect on SEO, as it played a hugely important role in link building. SEOs and link builders would post a comment on an article, a blog post, or a forum that contained a link to their own or their client’s site. Search engines would consider this to be a backlink, passing authority and link juice to the linked domain. This used to be a highly successful way to build links, until Google’s 2012 algorithm update, Penguin, targeted and penalized manipulative link building tactics. Links built through UGC in this way are now considered a form of black hat SEO and may end up having a negative SEO effect rather than a positive one for the linked domain.
Further, many editors, site owners, and webmasters have taken further steps to address links built in UGC: the nofollow tag. Many sites have placed a blanket nofollow tag on their UGC content, including comments sections, reviews, and forum posts. Using this HTML attribute indicates to search engine crawlers that the host of the content does not endorse the link. This prevents (or, at the very least, dilutes) any link juice from passing to the linked page. Though you’ll likely still encounter built links in UGC content, particularly in comments on articles or blog posts, they likely come from bots or black hat link builders, rather than trustworthy SEOs who focus on ethical, sustainable practices.
The relationship between SEO and UGC continues to evolve to this day. In September of 2019, Google posted on the Webmasters Central blog about an update to the nofollow attribute. In their post, they announced the introduction of two new link attributes: sponsored (for sponsored links) and ugc (for user generated content). These tags are meant to work in conjunction with the existing nofollow tag to signal to search engines which links should be included or excluded in search.
Additionally, they will be used by Google “as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems,” including looking at how language is used in anchor text and identifying inorganic linking patterns. Essentially, the new sponsored and ugc attributes can be used to help train, teach, and educate Google’s entire search algorithm. All in all, Google doesn’t anticipate the new attribute to have a major effect on link building in UGC. They think it may even be a “further deterrent” for this black hat tactic, as well as spam, and explicitly state that UGC links won’t be considered a ranking factor.
As always, you can still use UGC and its new attribute to support your SEO. UGC in and of itself is a powerful tool that is highly complementary to SEO, and can be hugely beneficial for your business’s online presence — and your bottom line — so long as you use it wisely.