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The delights and dangers of monetising user generated content

Content is the cornerstone of web publishing, but can be expensive and time-consuming to produce. No wonder the idea of having your website users provide the content for free is so appealing. From forums to free-ads, dating sites to microblogs, User Generated Content (UGC) has been a been a popular strategy for publishers since the earliest days of the web. In fact, it sometimes seems that UGC has taken over the web, with the most popular online destinations such as Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia all being dominated by the content of their users. Even traditionally created and edited sites, such as newspapers, now boost their content with vibrant comment sections.

Monetising User Generated Content might at first glance seem like a license to print money. Many publishers have made the mistake of thinking that they just need to accept all content and run ads around it, and have come unstuck by ignoring the risks.

The content is theirs… the risk is yours

When you sign up to ad networks (be that AdSense, Ad Exchange or others), you agree to only use their ads inline with their content policies. Every demand source has their own rules for what is acceptable and what isn’t, but almost all have some restrictions on the content you can monetise.

It is always the publisher’s responsibility to ensure that ads only appear alongside acceptable content. That doesn’t change because someone else made the comment – the responsibility still lies with the publisher.

Bigger concerns

Opening up your website for others to add content can get you in trouble with more than just ad networks. Spam, copyright theft and libel all become risks when you allow others to post comments to your site. The possible fallout from those problems is certainly more significant than losing your AdSense account. But the rest of this article will stay focused on the issues around ad serving.

Why do these content policies exist?

Ad networks have content policies to help them attract advertisers. By ensuring that their entire publisher network meets common standards they can sell that space to like-minded advertisers. A brand taking ads out on a family-safe network doesn’t want their ads showing alongside inappropriate content. Whether that content was published by the site owner or a user of the site is irrelevant.

How can publishers reduce the risk of monetising user generated content?

Every site is different. But there are some common approaches that can significantly reduce the risk to the ad publisher.

Don’t get greedy – You don’t have to monetise every piece of content. Making your own (usually automated) assessment of risk on a piece by piece basis then choosing which to serve ads on can remove the risk without slowing down the inbound content. An approach we like is to flag risk indicators and pass these as key-value pairs into DFP. We can then choose what networks to serve under what conditions.

Risk indicators might include content that: is posted by a new user, contains images, matches certain keywords or topics, has been flagged by other users, appears in certain sections of the site or unreviewed content etc.

Have a means for users to report issues– Your users aren’t just useful for adding content, but for reporting bad content too. Having a prominent report/flag option available to users (and ensuring that reports are actioned) is a basic but very effective safeguard.

Use moderators – Moderators can pro-actively look for issues or react to user reports. Community sites can often recruit volunteer moderators who are happy to help to ensure that the quality of the site remains high.

Have a clear content policy – Users posting content should have a clear understanding of what is acceptable when they post. If you have reporting/flagging options then the rules should be equally clear to general users. Where sites are using moderators unambiguous rules become even more vital, allowing moderators to enforce them with confidence.

Constantly review what slips through – No system is perfect, but reviewing and constantly updating systems helps to respond to changes and continually improve.

Need more help?

OKO are experts in policy and in how to practically apply it in tricky situations. If you are looking to monetise your UGC in a safe sustainable way then why not talk to one of our expert team and find out how we can help.

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