Does User Generated Content Increase the Risk of a Spam Penalty?

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Does User Generated Content Increase the Risk of a Spam Penalty?

When it comes to pursuing your sites’ SEO activities, you are probably of the mindset that user generated content is a good thing. After all, user generated content is known as one of the many ways in which Google picks up on trust signals and decides which sites are more credible, and therefore which ones deserve a more visible spot in their search results.

While user generated content covers a wide spectrum, from photos and videos to simple blog posts, in terms of SEO there are three main drivers.
· Social sharing from your website and mentions on social networks

· Comments on articles and blogs featured on your site

· Reviews of a product or service that you offer, either on your own site or on a directory such as Google+ Local

The traditional view of user-generated content has been that it is all good for SEO. However, this powerful tool is starting to demonstrate a darker side. Not only is user generated content good for SEO, but people can also use it to generate links back to their own site. Again, while this will give their own sites an SEO boost in theory, the reality is both them and yourself could be on the receiving end of a manual spam penalty.

With all of the work you are probably already doing in order to squeeze every bit of potential out of your SEO activities and drive your site visitors and conversions, this is the last thing you need.

Google’s Warning

Thankfully, if you are to be hit with a manual penalty and use Google Webmaster Tools, you will get a warning first.

In recent weeks, two large companies, the BBC and Mozilla, have both had Google warnings sent or manual penalties applied. The problem in both of these cases is that Google took action almost immediately, and removed the offending pages of spam links from their listings. This creates an issue for webmasters and site owners; how can you then discover the problem when Google do not tell you specifically what it is, but remove the page from the search results?

Granular Action

Should you receive a warning or a manual penalty, it is obviously something you are going to want to resolve at the earliest opportunity. However, Google take ‘granular’ action, which to you and me means that they only penalize the pages that they believe are guilty of user generated spam or unnatural links.

Of course, if you allow comments on every page of your website, as a popular blog, article site, or ecommerce one might do, then it might give you a bigger problem.

Google Penguin and Panda Updates

While both of the highlighted cases and any relating to other websites have thus far resulted in manual penalties, Google have been very open about their objectives for future Penguin and Panda updates when it comes to further clamping down on spam. Matt Cutts, Google’s head of webspam, has indicated that the company is moving towards redefining spam, meaning that future updates could see many sites with user generated content being hit by algorithmic penalties rather than manual ones.

At the same time, Google have also said that they are not going to publicize large-scale algorithm updates in the future, so it will become increasingly down to site owners and webmasters to be vigilant when it comes to what user-generated content is actually on their pages.

What Happened?

If you have a manual warning, clearly it is a priority to find the source of the problem and deal with it. As we already know, Google do not immediately tell you what the offence is or where it has happened, they simply give you the warning itself. Part of the reason for this is that Google have been wary to tell people what they penalize for, lest they be guilty of merely empowering spammers by giving them what amounts to a do’s and don’ts list.

What steps could you take to resolve any problem?

· Investigate yourself, remove the offending user generated content, and then file a reconsideration request relating to the manual penalty

· Ask Google for specific feedback on what has been removed and why, although it can take a number of weeks to receive a response

· Do nothing; file a reconsideration request, and Google will respond explaining the problem, meaning you can then solve the issue and repeat the process

In most situations, prevention of something negative happening is better than a cure. What are proactive steps you can take, to ensure that you do not either suffer a manual penalty now or by an algorithmic one as Penguin and Panda become more targeted and refined in the coming months and years?

Identifying and Dealing with Bad User Generated Content
Identification
This step is the easiest of all. We have all had a comment on our website or blog that is blatantly just there to build a link for the commenter. Spammers will take two common approaches:

· Posting a comment as their brand name or a keyword as they target specific anchor text

· Posting generic comments such as, ‘Thanks for the great post’ without actually discussing the content of the article/blog or trying to contribute to the forum

How to Deal With It

You can take several steps to deal with bad user generated content. Doing so, particularly if you have a large community of regular visitors or readers, can take time, but it is worth it in the name of not receiving a Google penalty.

Moderating your user-generated content will be your task; how you do it is up to you. Proactively monitoring user generated content means that any comments on your website or blog are held until you approve them for display. Reactive monitoring means checking your posts at regular intervals and either removing them or adding ‘nofollow’ tags to the links.

Conclusions

As powerful as user-generated content can be for your sites’ reputation and SEO performance, if targeted by spammers and those looking to build links quickly, you might become liable for a penalty.

Take responsibility for ensuring that all of your user-generated content is of high quality; remember that Google will view any external links from your site as a personal endorsement, and you only want your name associated with the very best ones.