Handling Blank Review Pages for Better Traffic and Conversion

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:

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 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 performance 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.

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13 thoughts on “Handling Blank Review Pages for Better Traffic and Conversion

  1. jaamit says:

    Great stuff Richard. There’s nothing more annoying than landing on a price comparison or reviews site where the page has no content. There’s a thin line to what you’re suggesting – you could do it badly so that the related content is irrelevant to what the user is looking for – I’ve often found this with sites like DooYoo and Kelkoo where there’s loads of content but no actual matches for the damn product I was looking for!

    Amazon started pulling in reviews of related products a while back and to the most part I think this works brilliantly especially when the review is for a different colour or very slightly different variation on a model. But when it goes wider than that it can create a negative experience – I guess the key is be very upfront in your design to show what exactly the review is for.

  2. Hey Jaamit,

    You’re right there is a thin line. I too, find it difficult not to get annoyed by extremely content thin (or content irrelevant) site pages.

    Many SEO’s have this problem – they need the traffic, but don’t have all of the content. Search traffic is very addictive – once your blank reviews are driving plenty of it, it feels counter intuitive just to “switch it off” – so what do you do? I’ve been there myself – it’s not easy!

    But yes – I totally agree with what you’re saying, and upfrontness definitely helps. All that said, it’s definitely possible to not have the thing a user came to your site for and still monetise that traffic. :-)

  3. Nate Wood says:

    Great post Richard.

    I think there’s also a lot of value in taking the site taxonomy and crafting this into a templated piece of content that can sit within these pages. Not only does this content change with each product, but if done well can potentially invite the first review of the product. If used in collaboration with some of your additional recommendations here, I think you can really start to craft a very nice looking page that doesn’t make visitors want to run screaming from your site on first viewing.

    Another factor here that I’m not sure that you touched on is design and layout. Almost every empty review page that I see on my digital excursions are ugly, and the emptiness highlights how ugly and rather spammy the page looks. Thinking about the aesthetics of the site, from homepage all the way down to longtail product page, can help with keeping that visitor onpage that little bit longer to properly assess the value.

    A study by Gitte Lindgaard in 2006 (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/conferences/ace-netc/lindgaard.pdf) showed that a typical visitor will assess a page beauty, and therefore their engagement with it, within 50 milliseconds of opening the page. Nasty design for these pages just lowers the immediate trust, and so struggling to find good content just re-enforces this desire to not engage with the page as the seconds tick by.

  4. Excellent comments Nathan and thanks very much for that link. A blog post worthy link in it’s own right!

  5. Andy Beard says:

    Just to add if you are using 3rd party content, unless you are 100% certain of the source then you need to nofollow or use javascript in some way for the links.

    Random links to unverified sources can totally kill site trust

  6. I don’t think anyone would put all this time and effort in to build a better experience only to link out to bad sites. If you’re syndicating content you’d always check the partners first.

  7. Nate Wood says:

    Tiffany’s comment really made me think of this post on SEO Gadget: http://seogadget.co.uk/seo-is-dead-long-live-seo/

    When building comment spam links, it’s usually best not to simply cut and paste the last line of the post above it!!!!

  8. Nate Wood says:

    I’m really pushing content syndication arrangements for my clients right now. There’s no reason why you couldn’t enter into a professional agreement with content providers. As everyone has their own need to build links and referrals, it’s a win-win situation. For a little extra effort to customise the content for your site the owner of the content gets some links back to his own. You get unique content. And the best thing is that once the relationship is open the chances for it to become a legitimate 2 way street are fairly good.

  9. I’m sorry Nate, “Tiffany” has been escorted off the premises…

  10. Nate Wood says:

    I think it just makes Paddy Moogan’s post that much more relevant. Comment linking isn’t dead, but as with all linking techniques do it properly and add real value. I love it when these real life examples of how not to do SEO rear their ugly heads at highly appropriate moments!

  11. Christina says:

    Engaging topic you have and the conversation is really good. It really helps a lot if people really do read your blog including comments shared by your reader. I don’t really write blogs or should I say a professional blogger but I do read a lot of stuff that helps my way promoting my site and your article just gave me an idea I haven’t tap, if I don’t have great deals to offer send them to one that has. Thank you.

  12. Perfect SEO says:

    Very useful information shared thanks for the post

  13. asif says:

    thanks for post a great helpful article

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