Good User Generated Content Doesn’t Just Happen

It needs human intervention on a major scale

I use user generated content on my websites almost every day. I blog photos from Flickr, post relevant YouTube videos, solicit information from readers and get tip-offs from them. Some fans of my sites even go so far as to send me topless pictures of themselves with their dogs – which, if they are tasteful, I post.

Abigail Stewart and Pippi photographed by Howard Christopherson of Icebox Studio.

And yet, for some reason, despite all this, I have written at the top of this website that I’m sceptical about the potential of user generated content or UGC, as it’s known in Web 2.0 circles. What I should really say is that I’m sceptical about the potential of pure, unadulterated UGC because I spend an awful lot of time sifting though mediocre and bad UGC to find and add value to the good stuff. Make no mistake about it — creating the final UGC-heavy product is an editing job in every sense – a new type of editing job for the evolving world of online but a full-fledged job nonetheless.

UGC that is of value to readers and therefore to a publisher or any other kind of business just doesn’t happen on its own. There either have to be humans assigned to work on it, in an editorial capacity as I do, or other humans to invent ever more responsive technological systems that allow sites to showcase the best UGC as, for example, Amazon does. Without either of these things or some combination of both, your UGC will almost certainly be worthless.

Over the next few days, I’m going to take a look at UGC in news reporting, local search, and arts and entertainment coverage. I’m starting with books, movies and restaurants.

Amazon, pioneer in UGC, never stops introducing innovations and improving its product as this example from its “The Other Boleyn Girl” page shows:

Readers rate the “helpfulness” of the individual book reviews so that you can read the “most helpful” first and skip the other stuff, which is a great time saver. This system is heavily dependent on automatic and constantly-evolving technology.

Amazon’s subsidiary IMDB is another top site which uses UGC. It’s not got all the bells and whistles of Amazon but there are a number of filters to help users find what they want without scrolling through masses of inferior and/or irrelevant reviews.

Compare this to Cinema Clock’s UGC. This Canadian company ranks extremely well in major cities if you google phrases like Montreal movies or Vancouver movies, but it’s done little to maximize its UGC so even though it has a good critical mass of reviews: — 77 for “The Other Boleyn Girl” as compared to 64 on IMDB — you’re unlikely to spend much time on the site once you know when your show is playing.

Given that Cinema Clock offers Canadians something they need that IMDB doesn’t — namely local show times — it should have done more with its UGC because if IMDB, with its huge reader base, moves to show local movie times in Canada or promote this feature elsewhere, Cinema Clock and other similar local sites will be dead in no time.

Trickier than the movie and book market because it must rely mostly on a smaller pool of local users, as opposed to users everywhere, is the restaurant review market. I hear Yelp is good and it’s certainly successful at attracting enough people (chicken or egg?) in its original markets but I have yet to find anything with the necessary critical mass in either Montreal or Toronto. Chowhound will sometimes have an interesting discussion going about a certain restaurant but it’s hit or miss. The rest are non-starters or I can’t find them.

My feeling is that if you want to get a good local restaurant site up to the necessary critical mass, you’ve got to use strong seed content to get some buzz going along with active moderation otherwise you’re doomed to be one on those many, many operations with a template for every restaurant in town and no copy of interest to anyone.

Even Torstar Digital’s experiment in this type of social media, which launched last summer with a very big powerful brand behind it, has had less than stellar results. In an interview with Profectio, Candice Faktor, General Manager of both and so much as admits it:

We were the first Canadian large media company to organically create a user generated content / social network site in Canada and as such we have learned a tremendous amount about launching new ventures in the web 2.0 space…

The venture has been very successful to date from a growth and internal learning perspective. The site has grown significantly, achieving record-breaking traffic growth month over month.

The stats, the stats please:

As of Dec 2007, the site was at 130,000 unique visitors / month, 7,500 faves had been created, and we had over 350,000 pageviews. Our recent “my fave day” promotion, awarding the winner with $2,500 towards their local favourites, has doubled our user base and content on the site. We only recently added advertising on the site, and we have Olive Canada Network repping the site. So far, the advertiser response to the site has been very encouraging, they especially like that Ourfaves content is positive and highly contextual.

All that brand, all that advertising and only 130,000 uniques per month?! What’s missing here? Try, good content. Doesn’t matter whether it’s UGC or expert generated, what matters is that it’s good enough to keep people coming back and build some word of mouth and Google rankings. And to do that you need people who understand not just web 2.0 and airy-fairy UGC dreams but content. The readers aren’t fooled so why do so many wannabe Web 2.0 entrepreneurs keep fooling themselves. I know people in their basements who get 130,000 uniques in two hours a day for one tenth the budget.

The glass-half-full version, of course, is Toronto still doesn’t have a top-ranked, great restaurant site with UGC as part of the mix so there’s a slot to be filled for an entrepreneur with an editorial budget.

Update: Genuine VC’s “All That (Content) Glitters is not Gold” makes some good points about UGC including this, which definitely applies to “Just because users can create a collection of content, it doesn’t mean that it is in turn valuable to consume it.”

Part II of this series: UGC and News is now up

3 thoughts on “Good User Generated Content Doesn’t Just Happen

  1. Did you see the recent article in Newsweek called the “Revenge of the Expert”? It’s worth a look (and mentions


  2. Interesting about OurFaves. We – iBegin Toronto were the first UGC site in Toronto, and even though we have had to place a moratorium on the site (for various reasons), we still pull in roughly 250,000 unique visitors. And with nothing like to back it.


  3. Anonymous, I did indeed see that Newsweek article, but thought it was kind of silly. It’s my experience that expertise in the form of credentials is no guarantee of anything beyond the credentials.Now that being said, I do get kind of pissed off when outsiders think there’s nothing to content creation and that they can do it all by their inexperienced selves.At the same time though, I acknowledge that the media experts have completely blown the transformation to digital so they need to eat a very large slice of humble expert pie.Bottom line: It’s not as simple as “experts good, amateurs bad.”Ahmed, it’s actually amazing that OurFaves does so badly given not just the backing but also being on the front Page of the Toronto Star’s digital edition every day. I’ve updated this post to add an interesting link.


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