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Google’s latest product reviews update and how it could affect eCommerce brands

On Thursday 8th April 2021, Google began rolling out its product reviews update in which it aims to reward review content that “share(s) in-depth research”.

And while this change isn’t part of Google’s core update, some sites are already starting to feel the effects, such as major hits to traffic and huge drops in rankings. As expected, those affected mostly look to be third-party review aggregators. Many of these are focused on affiliate sales for revenue, rather than being retailers themselves.

Like any Google update, this one is incredibly nuanced and will impact each brand and website differently. So, what will the update actually include, and how can your business benefit?

What does the update include?

This is pretty straightforward. Google will now reward (read: rank higher) review content that’s more in-depth than some of the standard, “thin” content crowding the web. It’s intended to increase visibility of high-quality reviews.

We already know this kind of content is important. Research shows that 72% of consumers won’t make a purchase without reading reviews first. And now with its newest update, Google will make what it deems better review content more readily available to users.

Fortunately, Google is open about what it considers high quality. This is outlined in its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, which is a document that its team of assessors use to determine how valuable a page is to its target audience.

Here’s an extract:

Characteristics of High-Quality Pages

High-quality pages exist for almost any beneficial purpose, from giving information to making people laugh to expressing oneself artistically to purchasing products or services online.

What makes a High-quality page? A High-quality page should have a beneficial purpose and achieve that purpose well.

In addition, High-quality pages have the following characteristics:

  • High level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)
  • A satisfying amount of high-quality MC (main content), including a descriptive or helpful title
  • Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information.
  • Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page
  • Positive reputation of the creator of the MC, if different from that of the website”

This is just as appropriate for review content. Actual first-hand, expert knowledge of how a product works and measures up to the competition, impartial views and a deep look at capabilities are important, as well as a clear view of the author and publisher’s credentials. Either way, it should go far beyond just stating a product’s specifications or regurgitating information from the manufacturer.

Here’s an example of a review we’d classify as meeting these requirements:

The article dives into the Nanit Plus Smart Baby Monitor for Women’s Health Magazine and breaks down the user’s personal experience with the product.

In addition to a simple star rating, the reviewer (who is easily identifiable as journalist Edward Lane) details all the monitor’s individual features and how he and his child interacted with them. For a relatively big-ticket item—with all the accessories, the price can exceed £400, whereas a standard monitor can be picked up for a fraction of this—this kind of insight is incredibly valuable.

It’s important to stress though that this change is not a part of Google’s core updates. It’s an independent change, which likely means Google is testing it out to see how it resonates with users. So, while the change has been implemented now, it’s still unclear whether or it will be rolled into the main algorithm. We would expect this to eventually be the case, though.

What impact will this make?

The change is likely to impact sites and their rankings in a few key ways.

First and foremost, if your site currently ranks high for review content, but that content doesn’t conform to Google’s new standards, you could be in trouble.

For most eCommerce businesses though, this update should be more about the opportunities it represents.

There’s now an even stronger argument to focus on creating review content on your own site. This is particularly relevant for non-DTC retailers, where long-form, detailed and impartial content can have a real benefit to their audience.

An interesting example of a business ranking high for review content is this blog post by UK book retailer Waterstones. This post ranked on the first page for “best books 2021.”

The post lists a range of titles coming out in 2021, and links to their individual profile pages on which users will find a wider selection of customer reviews. So, while Waterstones itself isn’t offering the impartial reviews, it’s collating content with existing reviews to do the work for them. We should point out though that it’s helpful Waterstones is one of the authorities on the UK book market, so their word is very trusted.

For other eCommerce brands, this won’t be as straightforward. Editorial decisions will need to be made – will your best-selling brands appreciate honest reviews of their products? Could this damage relationships you’ve worked some time to build? This won’t be an easy balance to strike.

For other companies—particularly those in the DTC space—it may be that reviews start to rank higher for brand name searches.

Let’s go back to the Nanit review. At the moment, the Women’s Health Magazine review is the only page of its type in the first page of search results, and relatively low down at that.

One outcome of this update could be that reviews such as this rank higher, or more reviews are given space in the results at the expense of transactional pages. Scenarios like these may well be tested as part of the update, and if Google thinks they’ll provide a better experience for searchers, they’ll be around to stay.

What can brands do to cope?

It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical side of things here. However, the strategy for most businesses will be simple – either get great reviews for your own products, or see if you can publish them for the products you sell.

For the former, the best focus may be Digital PR. Building the right relationships, carrying out outreach and finding the best publishers for your audience will be the most effective approach to take. There are also considerable benefits here in terms of backlinks and other signals, too.

For potential publishers, you’ll also want to consider your own site and its capacity to host these kinds of reviews. Is there room to feature your own version of long-form, in-depth reviews?

If you’re a marketplace, as mentioned, you’ll have to bear in mind the need for impartiality in your reviews. This is something you’ll have to weigh up internally with the relevant teams.

Though this update isn’t set in stone, it’s worth incorporating high-quality, long-form reviews into your marketing strategy regardless. Even without Google’s push, they offer enormous value – it’s just that the case for them now is even stronger.

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