Is the age of user-generated content coming to an end? The democracy and immediacy of public involvement in everything from news to product reviews has added diversity and relevance few could have dreamed of 20 years ago. But what’s the effect of this on business and are we now going back to good old-fashioned experts?
A fascinating argument this morning from Helen Edwards in Marketing says we are. She argues the tide is turning on sites such as TripAdvisor – which influences one in four of our travel decisions – as consumers and businesses come to understand the ephemeral, temporary and artificial nature of glib, biased and unverifiable reviews from people they’ve never heard of. Comments “sag under the weight of their own banality,” as she has it.
I tend to think that in a wider context UGC is here to stay: there’s now a human, public element to so much of our media world. Whether its customer reviews, video replies on YouTube or the twittersphere, the generation of children passing their GCSEs today won’t remember a time when it wasn’t possible for them to comment on just about anything, and there’s no going back. The problems with TripAdvisor and its verification of comments perhaps aren’t widespread across the web.
But Edwards is on to something when she attacks the fallibility of measuring influence on these platforms and actively trying to game it. The media world is obsessed with metrics: how big, how small, how many people, how many were women aged between 35 and 44, how many are in the ABC1 social groups. These characteristics of the audience are in effect the fluctuating currency of media – the things that determine how much your banner ads and TV spots are worth.
The industry’s attempts to game their TripAdvisor rating is ironically the very thing that devalues it. “The decline really sets in when hospitality brands begin to chase the metric directly, rather than improving what it purports to measure. They hustle guests for five-star reviews, and offer incentives to remove bad ones,” as Edwards puts it.
Is the online content industry similarly guilty of chasing metrics through better SEO, more misleading headlines, banal Facebook comments, infuriating picture galleries where each pic has its own page… just to come home with a bigger metric, rather than build an actual audience? Every month the online ABC figures tell us who is up, who is down, who is stable. But who knows who their readers are? Who has deep enough engagement in specific metrics to build real relationships with advertisers, both human and robot?
Back to print?
All this might help explain why Google bought the travel guidebook publisher Frommers last week, one that employs scores of experience writers to find the best coffee in Kathmandu or the cheapest hostel in Hobart. That’s book as in, actual books by the way. Google wants to provide a review for every significant place on earth – using both UGC and professional content – to provide useful information streams its customers can feed their adverts into. That Google sees a business model in selling ads against professionally created content in 2012 is significant indeed.
Journalists and professional travel writers can take heart from this – but not because the old model is coming back. The distributed network effect of TripAdvisor, into which anyone can and does say anything they like, is undeniably powerful. Professionals who can curate, create and organise the best content is what we need.