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User-Generated Content Can Hurt Site Image

User-generated content adds value to a site, but it comes with disadvantages for advertising and marketing as well.

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The term user-generated content is popular among media sites and closely tied to the hyperlocal concept.

It is helpful to understand that user-generated content is not new or innovative, nor did it originate with Web sites, but it is an important part of any online operation.

UGC Definition and Examples

What exactly is UGC? It is messages posted on forums, comments in blogs, press releases for news feeds, events for calendars, photos and videos for galleries, and social media integration, all provided by people who visit the site.

“Do newspapers allow letters to the editor to be published without prior review? No way, and for good reason.”

Consider that reader-generated content for newspapers includes letters to the editor (not unlike forums and blogs); press releases for news announcements; events for calendars; photos for press releases and Photo of the Day, etc.

The parallels are strong. Do newspapers allow letters to the editor to be published without prior review? No way, and for good reason.

A letter to the editor that contains libelous or inaccurate information can get the newspaper sued and damage its credibility with readers.

Readers who see the errors will trust the paper less and potentially cancel subscriptions or read it less often. The potential monetary damage via a lawsuit is high and can bankrupt the paper if serious enough.

Go to a site for reliable information and discover frequent uses of the “F” word, pornographic photos, racial slurs or any number of other offensive postings. Why should anyone ever go back to that site?

UGC Moderation

The big question for any site with user-generated content is whether it should be moderated or unmoderated.

Moderated user-generated content requires a much higher labor commitment, but it protects the image and credibility of the site because of accuracy, reliable sources and tightly controlled editing.

Unmoderated UGC requires minimal labor but carries with it a high risk because of inaccuracies, libelous content and other problems. Unmoderated content damages the quality and credibility of the content and eventually the overall site itself.

Sites with moderated UGC have fewer postings with higher quality. Unmoderated sites usually have many more postings with lower quality.

Despite the risks of unmoderated UGC, sites that allow it often hope to create an edgy, youth-oriented brand.

Social Media

Sites have the ability to display Facebook comments, Twitter feeds and other social media functions on their pages, which means that UGC has become yet another bridge between Web sites and social media sites.

At least some evidence indicates using the likes of Facebook and similar sites will lead to a modest number of posts that also have safer content. But it doesn’t prevent someone from creating a fake Facebook account and posting content that is damaging.

The advantage here is that social media controls are in place that can allow a site to manage the postings that appear. The downside is that the widgets used to display the postings usually require javascripts that slow the load time.

Advertising Impact

Advertisers shy away from controversial UGC, and it often produces poor results with contextual advertising such as Google AdSense because anyone posting content isn’t worried about optimizing the post.

I ran a TV station Web site that generated more than 1 million unmoderated posts in a matter of weeks over a controversy about an Indian tribe that went whaling with harpoons.

The site was buried in every swear word, threat and vicious attack you can imagine from people all over the world.

The result was all cost and no benefit. It also slowed the site badly and prevented people from seeing or clicking on many of the ads.

The same moderated forum would have resulted in far fewer posts and an enormous amount of work, but also far fewer attacks and more long-term loyalty among the site visitors.

Brand Impact

Unmoderated comments that contain insults, libelous claims, swear words and similar content will create a bad impression with well-behaved visitors and damage the site’s brand and image.

If a respectable brand matters at all, it is essential to moderate comments either before they go live or as soon as possible after going live. Otherwise, the risk is too high.

If the brand is supposed to be edgy, then it still pays to watch out for more serious trouble including death threats, which have been known to happen.

Manage the content from your site visitors to create value for your advertisers, your brand and your readership. If you don’t manage it, you will destroy value for all three.

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