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While trying to think and type as F-16s roar past my window (it’s fleet week here in San Francisco), I’m beginning to notice an uptick in the conversation surrounding user-generated content in local search. Also known as "social search" (as opposed to the UGC that involves uploaded videos of dancing little people on YouTube), it was a pervasive theme at DDC this year. Here iMedia Connection’s Kevin Ryan (a frequent Kelsey conference panelist) weighs in with some interesting thoughts, and eMarketer has this study on the upward trends in UGC in the U.K.

Like it or not, UGC is here to stay, and it will soon become a standard feature of local search, online shopping and even IYPs. The latter’s need to implement a social layer to business listings in order to remain competitive with some local search sites was echoed at DDC. One argument in favor of local UGC forums is that they not only represent a relatively inexpensive (when compared with professional reviews) sources of content, but also possess a certain appeal in the inherent trust perceived among users of peer-written reviews and community interaction.

The downside, however, is the chicken-and-egg factor. It is hard to attract advertisers and users without a critical mass of content already in place, and it's also difficult to build a library of content without the users who will contribute content in a significant way. There is also a balancing act between serving the user with genuine content that isn’t compromised by premium placement nor overly commercialized experiences (to build traffic) and serving advertisers in ways that directly appeal to them.

Along these lines, a major challenge is having paid advertisers be subject to the whims of anyone that feels like writing a review. Negative reviews can clearly be at odds with retaining such advertisers for IYPs, especially with advertisers that have significant investments.

"I would not want to be the sales manager that has to tell a sales rep that we've just lost his $30,000 account because of a negative consumer review," said Gordon Henry, chief marketing officer of Yellow Book, during a Next Generation Leadership Panel at DDC.

On the other side of the coin there is lots of room for false positives. My colleague Steve Marshall (who moderated an IYP panel at DDC where this issue came up), recently pointed out this review he found on a social search site (names have been removed to protect the guilty, as he said):

Excellent San Diego plumbers
By [NAME REMOVED][NAME REMOVED] has excellent San Diego plumbers. Their service was exceptional and their plumbing technicians were very accommodating and friendly. Need a plumber on an evening or weekend? No problem — it’s the same low price! Need a plumbing estimate? They will gladly give you a low, up-front price that covers your specific plumbing job! Problems with your plumbing system can be scary, stressful, expensive, and even dangerous, but most plumbing problems can be avoided with the right team on your side. [NAME REMOVED] is on your side. Their plumber’s are required to complete many courses and assist many months of rigorous training before they are allowed to "solo" on any plumbing & water heater repair or installation. They are truly an elite plumbing group of whom we are very proud to have work for us. Call them today — or simply fill out their 30 second online plumbing service request form and a San Diego plumber will be at your door in minutes!

The marketing-speak and overuse of adjectives and punctuation lend to the transparency of this "user review" and make it so that most consumers will see through it. However, sometimes it will be more subtle. This fraud can have a significant effect, AdMission Corp.'s president and chief executive officer, Sarah Pate, pointed out during the leadership panel, when there is a small sample group of reviews in a given listing.

"If you have 20 reviews, negative or illegitimate reviews will get flushed out by others and you will overall get a true sense of the business," she said. "But this isn't always the case."

Indeed, a spotty volume of reviews can cause the corpus of content across an IYP or social search site to be inconsistent — going back to the chicken-and-egg dilemma. This happens often because some vertical categories are more conducive to reviews (restaurants, bars, etc.) than others (plumbers, lawyers, etc.). UGC is especially difficult to integrate with IYPs given the breadth of headings and the fact that service businesses represent a traditional sweet spot for Yellow Pages.

Chris Scotton, president and CEO of Innovectra, stressed during the IYP panel that IYPs have to strive to overcome these challenges and build in this functionality, because deeper content is necessary to improve search engine optimization and compete with portals and local search sites that will continue to build this content and capability.

Sites that have done the best job of dealing with all these challenges and creating strong social search sites include Judy's Book, Yelp and Insider Pages. These should be examined by IYPs that wish to add a social layer to their sites. Social search, its challenges and opportunities should likewise be well planted on the radar screen of any business in the local search game.

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