Putting UGC in perspective

The piece by Marie-Catherine Beuth in Le Figaro last Friday, “Renault, champion of blog conversations”, naturally attracted my attention.

It is based on survey by Oto Research published a little more than a month ago. Tubby Dev gives a quite detailed summary.

So what’s it about? A white paper (commissioned from Oto Research) seeking to put figures on a number of questions brands ask themselves about the Internet, and particularly about the scale of the user-generated content (UGC) phenomenon.

I’m not going into the results – see Tubby Dev for that. The point I’m really interested in is the same one Marie-Catherine Beuth discusses in Le Figaro: brands’ “share of voice” compared to other sources of information on the web: UGC, retailers, the media. Is communication on brands dominated by the brands themselves (the brand websites), UGC (web users), retailers (e-commerce) or the media?

To measure this, Oto Research studied Google’s 100 top results for inquiries on 110 consumer brands. The results are summarised in this pie chart:

Brands apparently produce barely more than a quarter of the communication regarding themselves and UGC is the primary source of communication. Such are the findings of Le Figaro and the Oto Research white paper.

A very attractive notion, don’t you think? Music to the ears of all web 2.0 gurus in consultancies and on the Internet, right?

Except that the methodology and the findings are… rather debatable.

The survey is based on the Google hits produced by enquiries about 110 brands. The 100 top hits.

Do you often go to the tenth page of results, yourself? Remember that little study showing that 62% of Internet users stop at the first page of results? And even though habits might have changed, one thing is for certain: what matters is the first 10 Google hits, not the first 100.

By looking at the first 100 hits, we’re surfing down the long tail. Nothing surprising about finding a lot of UGC there. In fact, I could look at the first 1,000 Google hits on the 110 brands surveyed and find that 90% of the content is user-generated! (And the terrified advertisers would rush over to buy web advice from me.)

To get a better idea, I took the principle of the survey and shortened it to the first page of hits for the 10 companies which, according to Oto Research, draw the most comments (from bloggers, according to the survey’s methodology).

The 10 brands most discussed on the web in France are: Renault, Nokia, Canon, Orange, Samsung, Peugeot, Panasonic, SNCF, France Telecom and Philips.

And when you look at the sources of the first page of Google hits on these brands, it breaks down like this:

From this perspective, which is much closer to real Internet usage, these 10 brands control more than 50% of the Google content relating to them. That’s a lot more than Oto Research’s 27%. And UGC, on the first page of results, dwindles to a much less impressive 10% – nowhere near the 30% in the Oto Research survey.
Four fifths of these 10% are Wikipedia and none are blogs.

This doesn’t mean that UGC is irrelevant. But we’re back to one of the basic points we make in this blog: it’s not because the UGC phenomenon is important that we should exaggerate its influence. The web 2.0 hasn’t changed everything; we shouldn’t confuse long tail and web uses, quantity of content and visibility of sources, visibility and influence.

Opinion systems evolve. But not as much as some would have you believe (not coincidentally they are usually web consultants, which I am too but not exclusively).

At least this type of survey keeps things in focus: blogs are essentially a niche media; Wikipedia is a reputation tool (a few of us keep insisting on this point and we’re not done arguing); the influence of UGC is usually through consumer feedback on e-commerce websites; forums are hyperactive places.
Have a look at the survey anyway, particularly at what it reveals about « sector noise ». “The sectors that generate the most word-of-mouth and messages on blogs are the car industry (27%), equipment (25%) and travel (6%)”, Le Figaro points out.

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