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Almost a year ago, Matt Cutts asked his blog readers to Give Google feedback on “noresults” pages. According to Matt, “The #1 complaint (20+ comments) was “empty review” sites.”, and as far as his post at the time was concerned, empty review pages were in breach of the following Google Webmaster Guidelines:
Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of search results pages or other auto-generated pages that don’t add much value for users coming from search engines.
Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches…
Keeping your content thin pages under the radar
“Empty review pages”, or new pages that invite users to add general UGC for the first time have been around for an age and I imagine search quality analysts at search engine companies are always going to struggle detecting the best ones. Regardless of the noise in Matt’s post from last year, it’s more than possible to add enough value to your no review pages to avoid getting them kicked out of the index.
I recommend you tread carefully when dealing with large volumes of site content in this way, and you should construct an analytics strategy capable of measuring the impact localised to the blank pages compared to the content rich pages before proceeding. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is reduce the bounce rate on these pages and increase organic traffic too.
Adding user value to “no results”, “no deals” and “blank review” pages
It almost sounds like a contradiction in terms; adding user value to “no results” pages, but it’s a goal that can be achieved. What changes could you make to your internal pages to add more user value, improve search engine traffic and make your pages more unique?
Return a snippet of content from a parent or related page
Let’s imagine you offer a range of user reviews for tourist destinations. The destination (landing) page hasn’t been populated by a user review just yet – so why not pull snippets from the surrounding content pages? Think about filtering your data in the following ways:
- Reviews from locations within 500 metres
- Most popular / visited in the area
- Most commented within 1km
- Similar attractions within a 30 minute walk or bus ride
- Display a map with all nearby attractions
Pull images and more from related sites via their APIs
By providing the best content you can to the visitor, you reduce the risk of them leaving straight away, and that’s what a lot of your focus should be about. Entice them with a rich, related mashup of images and information from sites such as Flickr or news and blog RSS feeds that you feel are relevant. We’re not so much talking about scraping, more featuring a snippet of content the user may be interested in, with the correct attribution citing the original source. Tools such as Yahoo’s YQL can allow you to quickly and easily create exceptionally powerful and rich feeds from Yahoo properties via their API’s. YQL allows you to create mashups from Placemaker, Flickr Creative Commons, Maps, Upcoming and a bunch of others.
Video keeps users engaged very well, try this Video API list for some ideas. You could try “Enriching your site with YouTube Direct” a tool launched in November 2009, built on top of YouTube’s public APIs that enables any developer to solicit video submissions on their website, powered by Youtube.
Many site owners have private API’s in development. It’s always worth contacting them to find out if there’s anything like that in the pipeline. Try to nurture a syndication deal if it’s in your mutual best interests to do so.
Display popular and related items in the same category
I enjoyed submitting a mobile phone review of the Nexus One to a product review site yesterday. I noted the blank review page had a number of features, including “related” products pulled through via an affiliate product feed, links to “top smartphones”, a price comparison section and even links to pages that do not yet have reviews!
Related internal links of all kinds will always improve your overall site indexation. Linking internally to pages that do not yet have unique content will grow your long tail traffic considerably, while protecting your architecture from orphaning large sections of content (or just not getting it indexed in the first place). This practice carries some risk to user experience, but provided that risk is mitigated through some of the techniques outlined in this post, the traffic gains far outweigh any problems caused elsewhere.
Display popular internal and external search referrals
What’s everyone else doing on the site? Displaying internal links to popular search query results is a nice to have, and while offering a passing distraction to the wandering visitor, can also offer gains in passing PageRank to trending areas of the site. For extra points, you could consider showing how people have found your site and for which terms, taken from the server logs on the host. This method has the added benefit of allowing for a rich variety of targeted internal anchors to appear on your site.
Display latest comments made on other UGC items on the site
We can learn a lot from the blogging community, many of my favourite WordPress based blogs have their internal link structures nailed. Most recent comments is a great example, but popular pages, latest posts, the correct use of tagging and sensible category links all help too. Displaying the most recent comments made on your site is great, and displaying most relevant comments is a very neat trick.
Use Twitter feeds
Similarly to to the practice aggregating and displaying latest comments, pulling data through from your Twitter stream could make a lot of sense. It’s common practice to display what your brand is saying on Twitter (SEOgadget does exactly this over in the blog sidebar) but far less common to see what people are saying about your brand. Mentions of your brand name, retweets of items your brand has posted and the like. I suppose it wouldn’t be too difficult to feature tweets from brand advocates, regulars who mention your brand often and become trusted members of your community.
Don’t plaster “there are currently no product reviews” all over the page
This just in: users don’t want to see a page like this – they’ll leave, instantly. If you can’t enhance your site beyond a certain point, it might be better just to set your page template to
noindex,follow if you can’t find anything to put on the page. I think this is an extreme example though – there’s always something more to do and another idea round the corner. It’s arguable that terms such as “out of stock” or, “this vacancy has been filled” might trip red flags with the search engines. I tend to agree with ideas like this, though potentially only when you’re under review for something much worse than the odd blank page.
Don’t have any deals? Send the traffic to a site that has
Having been heavily involved in travel SEO for the last two years, I can tell you quite reliably that travel sites either have a lot more a lot less product data than you’d hope. If you’ve got an architecture that really rocks on long tail perfromance then you might see conversion problems emerging if you don’t have the product coverage. If you’ve got the traffic though, think about developing partnerships that end with the user choosing from a number of “product partners”, partners that may well have the product available.
Just make the page useful
We’ve established your page might not have any reviews, but you can still work to make the page useful. My price comparision background tells me that consumers will choose to return to a page with plenty of deals coverage, even if all else fails. On that note, getting as many merchants on your site as possible, with price data, date published brand logos all add to the usefulness of the page while serving to reduce the bounce rate and as a result, improving the conversion potential.