Lessons from Winners & Losers in Google’s Product Reviews Update

A Single URL or Multiple?

On April 8th, 2021, Google announced it was releasing its Product Reviews algorithm update.

The update is meant to reward “product reviews that share in-depth research, rather than thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products,” according to Google.

The question is, what does that actually look like?

What should you include in product review content now?

Let’s explore real-world examples of pages that gained and lost rankings at the hand of this update, and the lessons learned along the way.

What Is the Product Reviews Update?

Google has said that the Product Reviews update is not a core update.

However, in the announcement, it does state that Google’s advice for core updates also applies to the Product Reviews update. How interesting!

Actually, it makes a good deal of sense.

Core updates are about Google taking a more qualitative look at a page or a site in order to determine its authority and even relevancy.

That means Google is going deeper into the “tone” that certain word choices conjure up, or how aligned the content of the site is to its overall objective, and so forth.

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All of it is meant to offer the user more substantial and highly relevant content.

In fact, the recent December 2020 Core Update had Google refining its ability to offer highly relevant content to new extremes.

Highly relevant content means that the content is nuanced and substantially detailed in nature. That is the exact same construct being applied to review pages with this update.

In other words, the core updates as we’ve come to know them and the Product Reviews update are two peas in the same algorithmic pod.

That’s why pages here underwent extreme ranking losses/gain and displayed a level of volatility that is usually reserved for core updates.

And that’s why, as you’ll soon see, the patterns I pulled out of the Product Reviews update are quite similar to some of the patterns we’ve seen in core updates in the past.

My Approach to Analyzing the Update

When analyzing Google updates, I try to focus on the page level.

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I do value big data and it can certainly be helpful in understanding which niche an update impacted. However, I like to see what sort of content Google is now rewarding and which types of content are being devalued.

To do that, we look at relationships between pages during an update. That is — for a given keyword, are there pages that have an inverse relationship?

If one page shoots up the SERP and another falls off, what’s the fundamental difference between those two pages from a content perspective?

If you look at enough keywords, it is sometimes possible to pull patterns out of these inverse page relationships.

In this particular case, I went through a few hundred keywords looking for inverse page relationships. Out of those keywords, I found roughly two dozen that showed a very clear and distinct inverse pattern between ranking pages.

To be clear, what I am about to share is based on my qualitative analysis. It is not a definitive study based on deep data.

With that said, here are five examples that are representative of the overall trends as I saw them.

Analyzing Pages Impacted by the Product Reviews Update

Understanding what Google is trying to do with an update is obviously extremely important. To me, the best way to do that is to apply the ol’ noggin to the pages Google has rewarded, relative to those it has demoted.

It’s analyzing what’s different about each page and why that would matter. Sometimes seeing a pattern around this is easier with one update than another.

With this particular update, the content patterns were pretty obvious; at least, when compared to other updates.

Here are five keywords that exemplify the patterns I found when looking at this update.

1. Best Built-in Microwave

Rank Fluctuations for Best Built-In Microwaves.

Winner: Best Reviews

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Loser: St. James Gate

The first thing that struck me here was the fact that the St. James Gate page was not thin or anything of the sort.

It started with a nice write-up on the space-saving advantage of a built-in microwave and balanced that with the fact that it costs more than your standard microwave:

Initial content on product page.

There’s nothing thin or spammy or anything of the like here. It’s legitimately good content.

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The problem is in the next section on the page.

The first look at products here is a listing of the three most recommended microwaves. Everything looks fine until you actually read the product descriptions.

They are filled with marketing language aimed at pushing the sale via the affiliate link:

Review Content with a Sales Tone.

It’s obvious what the site is trying to do with the content here. It’s a sales pitch.

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They picked out three products to focus the attention of users in the hopes of driving affiliate revenue and they are not shy about doing it.

This is not the language of a review and Google knows it.

Google treated pages on finance sites the same way during the September 2019 Core Update. There, we saw sites with too much marketing language on YMYL informational pages get pushed off page one of the SERPs in a big way.

What we’re looking at here is the same thing. Google knows from profiling the words being used in the description that in reality, this is not review content; it’s marketing content. As such, it pushed this page off of page one of the SERP.

It’s really a shame in a way because the rest of the page is wonderful.

Here’s what a typical product review looks like:

Strong example of a product review using specs.

Notice, the tone here is totally different. It’s strictly informational. There’s a stark contrast between this content and the heavy sales pitch in the supplemental content.

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In contrast, the content on the Best Reviews page is strictly informational all the way through:

Review content in table form without sales tone.

From a pure on-page content perspective, the difference between the Best Reviews page and the St. James Gate page is that the former did not use review content to push the sale.

That’s not to say there is no opportunity to buy something. Rather, the content that comprised the review was not created to encourage a sale.

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Both of these pages were quite deep. Both pages had elements like buying tips, product features to consider, etc.

Buying guide for microwaves.The Buying Guide found on the Best Reviews page

That’s important to note because in some of the cases below, the inclusion of these elements was what made the difference. Here, however, both pages had all these elements.

In my opinion, the ranking gains and losses are directly related to the tone of the content all the way through.

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2. Best Freezerless Refrigerator

Rank fluctuation data for the keyword freezerless refrigerator.

Winner: Refrigerator FAQ

Loser: Amazing Home Decor Co

This case was not as obvious as the first example.

However, when you dive into it a bit the underlying causality behind the ranking shifts for this keyword are pretty much exactly the same.

Initially, I thought that the reason why the Amazing Home Decor Co page lost ranking was due to its relatively unattractive design. However, the Refrigerator FAQ page was not much better from that point of view.

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Again, I was stuck having to read the actual content on the page. And there is a clear difference between them.

Let’s begin with the Amazing Home Decor Co page. It starts off well and from a look at the Table of Contents it seems like a pretty decent offering:

Table of contents on product page.

The page opens up with information on freezerless fridges and then moves on to product reviews. Everything looks pretty hunky-dory from a topical perspective.

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In fact, the Refrigerator FAQ pretty much follows the same format.

Why, then, did one page lose big in the rankings while the other jumped?

Have a look at how the Amazing Home Decor Co handles its product reviews.

Thin product reviews.

For starters, the content here is pretty thin. Think back to the Best Reviews page from before, which offered a quick review but provided more content such as pros and cons, etc. The review content here is on the thin side.

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To muddy the waters a bit more, there are more detailed reviews down the page — but for the same products already listed in the initial table.

Product review content pushing a sale.The Amazing Decor Co page showing a more detailed review of the products found on the initial recommended products list

What you have above is a really nice review, but why not present that off the bat? And if not, why don’t the links in the initial table jump you to the full review instead of to Amazon?

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There’s nothing wrong with having a short snippet up top. But if you’re going to do a full review, shouldn’t the user know it’s there without having to scroll down?

Why push the user to the sale if they haven’t even seen the full review yet? Those links in the initial set of short reviews should have been jumplinks.

Am I being too picky here? Could be.

However, note that the yellow highlights in the images above are not mine. They exist on the page.

Also, look at the CTA with the exclamation mark. It’s basically screaming, “buy me!”

Contrast that with how the Refrigerator FAQ page handled its CTAs:

CTA on product review page.

The page tells you straight up that you’re leaving the site and headed for Home Depot (obviously, with the intent to purchase).

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By the way, the Refrigerator FAQ page also listed a set of products underneath a write-up of why the appliance might be a good buy.

Except here, instead of a superfluous review for no reason other than more affiliate links, the site listed the products as… jumplinks.

Product listings as jumplinks.The initial list of reviews is used as a Table of Contents on the Refrigerator FAQ page

3. Top Freezer Refrigerator Reviews

Rank fluctuations for the keyword top freezer reviews.

Winner: Bellingham Electic

Loser: The Wirecutter by the NY Times

At first glance, the ranking shifts here make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

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You have a highly authoritative site in the NY Times with a phenomenal page losing rankings to a page nowhere near as polished.

How could a national publisher lose out to some local appliance site?

It’s why I love this example.

The NY Times page does everything right. The content is full and the review process transparent. I mean, there’s even a section entitled Why You Should Trust Us!

Why trust us paragraph in review.The Wirecutter by the NY Times review page highlighting their review processes

The NY Times page did remain on page one of the SERP, because it does offer some really wonderful content.

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It’s not so much what the page did wrong. As I see it, it’s what was missing from the page despite how hard it tried to be comprehensive.

Have a look at what the Bellingham Electric page leads with before getting to the reviews themselves:

Buying tips in a review.

It’s not long or fancy, but these three tips on what to consider before buying a freezer are helpful to a reader.

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While the NY Times page does allude to some of the same content, it does not have a formal section that helps the reader understand what to consider before buying the appliance.

In fact, the Bellingham Electric page offers a whole video on how to buy a fridge, including a link to a downloadable checklist on how to prep for the delivery of an appliance:

Buying guide video in a review.

The other thing to consider with these two pages is how they handled the actual product reviews.

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On the NY Times page, the specs for a given appliance were included within the write-up in paragraph form:

Product review with specs in-paragraph.

The NY Times page discusses each product three times. There’s an initial paragraph, a deeper cut later on (as seen above) and even a carousel listing all options together.

For the record, the page’s format with multiple write-ups together and content about how the reviews were conducted was a bit confusing. It oscillated between the reviews and how the reviews were gathered.

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Despite the product being mentioned three times on the page, you don’t get specs.

Even where you get a compare and contrast, specs are not listed:

Product review comparison.

Contrast that to the Bellingham Electric page. Though the content format might not be as sexy as the NY Times, you do get this:

Sample of specs in a review.

It just goes to show that you could do a fantastic job covering the appliances from multiple angles but with this update, Google wants to make sure the most important information for searchers is there.

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That’s not to say that pages without specs can’t rank. Some do.

However, in this instance, I do feel that the fact the Bellingham Electric page had specs made it stand out relative to the NY Times page that didn’t.

4. Best Camping Air Mattress

Rank fluctuations for keyword best camping air mattress.

Winner: Road Affair

Loser: CNET

CNET lost rankings at the hand of the Product Reviews update? How could that be?

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After all, CNET is all about reviews, isn’t it?

One look at the page tells you why CNET fell out of Google’s good graces in this instance:

Savings listed in review content.

This is the same problem we noticed earlier: it’s a listing of products without helpful content for the user.

You have a review page here where the content in the initial view has nothing to do with reviews! Savings are great, but is there anything about a discount that tells you which product is best?

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With the above-the-fold content being what it is here, you have to ask: is this a sales page or a review page?

To make matters worse, there really is no deep review content on the page at all:

Review content that does not offer details.

I understand that these might be the most trusted brands, but where is the content for the keyword in question?

There is literally nothing.

From the perspective of a user looking to learn about mattresses on the market, how is this page helpful? What good reason is there for the page to rank for the keyword? I can see none, despite how strong the domain might be.

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The Road Affair page is not perfect, either. However, it does a lot of things really well.

First, even though the page goes for the quick sale with a shortlist of products all pointing to Amazon, it does so in a way that brings value by pulling in the rating stars and affordability:

Table of reviews including ratings.

While I think you have to be careful with this sort of page element (as evidenced by the examples discussed earlier), it can work.

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In fact, it clearly does work as Google even plays with showing the table as a Featured Snippet:

Reviews inside a featured snippet.

It’s a good lesson for these kinds of pages. You can try to “make the sale” – just do it in a way that brings value.

Also, do it on a page that is otherwise substantial. This table doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of a page that includes information on what to look for in a good camping mattress:

How to buy guide inside a review.

Moreover, the page has really detailed reviews that break down the materials used in the construction of each mattress and how that impacts the usage and durability of the product:

Highly detailed product review.

Again, notice the importance of including a “buying guide.” It seems to me that it goes a long way towards Google considering the page for higher rankings.

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While I don’t think this page is perfect, there are a lot of really strong elements on it.

By the way, this page from Outdoor Gear Lab does well on the SERP, but not as well as the Road Affair page.

This is despite it having a much fuller review table along with some really nice metrics for assessing the products. It even goes into great detail on how they measured the metrics.

What it doesn’t do is offer information on how to go about deciding which mattress is best for you.

In other words, while a page might be very substantial, it needs to be substantial in the right places.

Does going into paragraph-after-paragraph on how you assessed the products help users learn which product to buy?

5. Best Facewash for Oily Skin

Rank fluctuations for keyword best facewash.

Winner: Medical News Today

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Loser: Today

I don’t want to sound repetitive, but that’s kind of the point when you’re looking for patterns.

Why did the Medical News Today page start ranking for this keyword?

There are probably a lot of reasons but an important one is that it includes a buying guide:

Buying guide for health product.

At this point, I think it should be clear that walking your readers through the categorical considerations that go into making a purchase is very helpful when it comes to ranking well.

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That’s especially true as the reviews themselves are not what’s causing the page to start ranking.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the product reviews, but they’re nothing special either:

Health product review.

Having the buying guide seems to really make a difference. The medical accuracy of these reviews is important, too (more on that soon).

Oh, and guess what? The page from Today (which as a domain is no slouch) has no buying guide.

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Not only that, but the reviews are on the thin side and don’t offer much value:

Thin review for a medical product.

I think it’s also important to note that there’s a medical intent bound up with this keyword. That’s why the Today page takes it from the angle of “15 dermatologist-approved face washes for acne-prone skin.”

However, unlike the Medical News Today page, it doesn’t actually offer much depth in terms of the medical intent.

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In fact, the Today page uses medical experts to try to “make a sale.” That’s a real no-no for me.

Medical News Today had reviews all about medical accuracy and the medical relevance of the product. The Today page tries to use medical authority to sell products.

It’s a little sketchy and certainly not trustworthy, especially within a YMYL context.

Important Lessons Learned From Our Product Reviews Update Analysis

On the macro-level, you have to offer actual product review content. Trying to disguise a sale as a review won’t bode well for your pages.

This means the use of strong sales language or the listing of products without any actual review content is a no-go.

In that way, the Product Review update is very similar to the core updates in how specific it is. As with core updates, things like tone (i.e., sales tone) and overall content quality/authority are a major part of the equation.

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Practically speaking, you can help your pages succeed by adding:

  • A buying guide.
  • Product specs.
  • Deep, rich review content.

If one thing stood out, it was the fact that Google seems to really like the idea of a buying guide being on review pages.

It makes sense. It’s one thing to know which product has which specs and whatever features, but how do you decide which of those specs and features matter most in your situation?

How do you know what to look for?

Having a buying guide or buying tips answers that need.

Conversely, I saw a lot of pages that went into the science behind their reviews. Showing how you calculate your metrics or what criteria went into the review process, while very transparent, didn’t seem to move the needle.

This also makes sense.

It’s great to have that level of substance and transparency but in terms of helping the user choose a product or learn how to choose a product, how relevant is it?

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I’m not saying don’t have that content there or that it has no impact.

From what I saw, and from only what I saw, pages that had such content but lacked a buying guide were left in the dust (all other things being equal).

Are We Due for a Shift in the Affiliate Space?

You might argue that an update like this is another nail in the coffin for affiliate sites. To that, I’d say recent core updates have done the same so it’s nothing new.

Moreover, is this sort of update the death of affiliate sites, or is this a signal to them that it’s time to mature a bit?

Was the shift away from the gimmicky marketing of the 1980s the end of marketing? No.

It was a message that people’s tastes, preferences, and overall outlook have changed.

While the web as it was may have been hospitable to overtly direct affiliate content in the past, I don’t think that’s the right approach anymore.

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Users are far savvier and are approaching the web with a discerning eye.

Rather than take something like the Product Reviews update as a hostile act, let’s see it as Google reinforcing that on-page content must be representative of and answer the need consumers are looking to solve.

More Resources:


Image Credits

Screenshots taken by author, April 2021

Sources:

local_offerevent_note April 27, 2021

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