OpenTable Change SEO Strategy & Integrate BazaarVoice [case study]

OpenTable, a popular restaurant bookings engine, used to run its own reviews on its website via its own platform. However, as its business expanded, reviews became less core to the business and consequently a liability to effectively manage and develop. Toward the end of 2009, it became clear for OpenTable that it was "not our business to understand the UGC."

As anyone who has run a user generated content (UGC) portal, knows, there is a lot of work involved in keeping your community happy and empowered, whilst mitigating the risks of spammers and trolls. That said, high quality discussions and reviews are invaluable both from a user engagement and content production perspective. One key strategic advantage of user generated content is that it delivers a lot of search engine optimization (SEO) benefits, something OpenTable was keen to maximize.

Some of the SEO benefits of UGC content on your site:

  • Causes an update to the page

  • Users tend to use natural and informal language, the same language as searchers

  • Rate of content production/updates tend to reflect popularity

  • Reviews are extremely relevant to online audiences

  • Forums and social networks often link to review pages

  • Reviewers often link their social media profiles to push out notifications

  • Sharing rates are higher on reviews than traditional content

Enter BazaarVoice, a user generated reviews platform, which offered to completely take on the management and hosting of the customer reviews on the site. This included platform deployment and moderation services. OpenTable initially deployed the basic solution that BazaarVoice offered, which consisted of embedding an iFrame in place of the previous reviews section. This iFrame was a relatively simple affair that aggregated all site reviews within an embedded portal on the site. Whilst iFrames are a fantastic way of upgrading features on any website, arguably they are not a perfectly optimized solution for search engines.

In October 2009, OpenTable upgraded its BazaarVoice integration to include the full suite of 'inline' capabilities and integration of SearchVoice. Using a server side include file, BazaarVoice's review platform was integrated onto the site. As this feature uses Javascript, which not all search engines or browsers can effectively 'see', their solution was to push a pre-rendered batch version of the include daily, to the site. This meant that users with Javascript switched off could still see the content and search engines could index the reviews as an integral part of the page. Users with Javascript switched on would get a 'live' version of the page.

OpenTable started measuring the traffic impact from October 2009, and was surprised to find that even on a well optimized site, the new solution resulted in 10% increase in visitors during the period from October to January. The comparative impact on January 2010 compared to January 2009 was a 17% increase in visitors. Furthermore, the number of inbound keywords doubled, as natural language reviews directly mirrored what users were searching for.

In a briefing with OpenTable and BazaarVoice, I asked them why a company such as OpenTable, previously known for hosting reviews, would want to give up some of its key assets. Their response was that actually, such a partnership, was quite the reverse in its thinking. By outsourcing reviews, they felt they could do reviews better and use them to create a better relationship with their advertisers - in other words, they decided to make reviews a core part of their business. The response from their advertisers has been positive too - rather than wanting to dampen negative comments, restaurateurs see benefits in enabling transparency around their business - a negative comment is something they can deal with. Indeed, perhaps the truth is that, compared to the relative struggle of managing feedback, what every business really cannot deal with is not being found on the search engines.