Organic Search vs. User-Generated Content: and the Winner Is…

Gift giving can be a drag. Every year I, like many others, fret over what to get my significant other. I almost always revert to a tried-and-true purchase: kitchen appliances. This year, however, my gift-giving experience was quite different. I had run out of kitchen gadgets to neatly package. So what do nerdy search guys and gift-giving neophytes everywhere do to come up with ideas? They head to Google.

I started plugging in some ideas to find the best shopping site with a variety of merchandise so that I could perhaps buy a few things from the same place. I typed in phrases such as “espresso machine,” “rotisserie,” “apron,” and “trivet.”

On Google, Wikipedia appeared to be the number-one destination for my shopping experience; it showed up in the top search results every time. I clicked on the Wikipedia link, as so many other consumers do, but instead of finding a direct link to where I could buy a product at the right price, I got an encyclopedia with a bunch of valueless history about the product. Not to mention that it’s an encyclopedia of information validated by you and me, not even by an expert on the subject matter.

Before you get up in arms, I’m not a Wikipedia hater — quite the opposite. I love Wikipedia and think it is one of the greatest ideas delivered to the Web. Soon, however, this great idea may turn out to be a detrimental one for e-commerce marketers, as user-generated content is pushing the more-relevant organic listings off the page.

Wikipedia is showing up at the top of results not because it is an authority on the subject and relevant to the search request but due entirely to a user-generated linking farm. This excessive linking paradigm mistakenly gives Wikipedia precedence as an authority on any subject matter that shows up on the site, regardless of information validity.

Are you getting where I’m headed? Getting a little concerned? The conclusion is that if you’re banking on search engine optimization (SEO), or organic search, to help grow your business, you may want to diversify your investments. Imagine another five or 10 or more sites just like Wikipedia sprouting up with a PageRank of six or higher due to extensive links and so-called rich content. The organic listing that you or your agency worked diligently to achieve may be bumped off the first page.

Take the kitchenware space. We kept seeing Wikipedia in the organic-search results. After that the other most common options were and HowStuffWorks. Both are also user-generated content sites with huge linking networks. On the other side of the coin, in paid search, we kept seeing recognized retailers such as Chefs Catalog, Williams-Sonoma, and Chef’s Resource.

Which is more relevant? A quick review of Hitwise results shows that users are choosing paid-search results at increasingly higher rates when they are in shopping mode. Users are voting “no” on known user-generated content sites. To find relevancy, shoppers have begun to walk away from and ignore organic links, relying more heavily on paid search results. E-commerce players relying on organic listings alone are simply at risk.

Hence, the greater need for a comprehensive and well-managed paid-search campaign.

Industry-leading catalog marketers such as Chefs Catalog are the model that others need to follow. While Chefs Catalog enjoys solid organic visibility, it backs up that visibility with a powerful and expansive paid-search campaign. With tens of thousands of keywords and hundreds of landing pages, Chefs Catalog is effectively combating the threat of losing organic visibility to the less relevant, noncommerce-oriented sites that are beginning to show up on shopping-driven search terms. While Wikipedia remains present, Chefs Catalog continues to receive search traffic — and that’s how you build a scalable business.

While Google, Yahoo!, and others figure out how to level the playing field and begin improving organic-search results, it’s time to get your paid-search campaign in place to make sure you are reaching your online sales goals.

Tim Daly is senior vice president of marketing at SendTec, a St. Petersburg, FL-based provider of direct marketing services.

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