Google’s Product Review Algo Update – What Does It Mean For Content Creation?

Google’s algorithm updates have a time-honored tradition of shaking up the SEO world. There are few things that affect the industry more than tweaks to how the search giant ranks pages. These updates often turn rankings into a topsy-turvy rollercoaster that shuffles search rankings across sectors and industries alike.

While Google constantly tweaks their algorithm-sometimes as much as once per week-they’re usually small changes resulting in minimal impacts. The exception, however, is with core updates.

One such update was released in December of last year. Given the history of volatility with core updates, this particular change stirred plenty of controversies, dropping just in time for the holiday shopping season. And, as usual, it caused quite a few ups and downs across multiple industries.

On April 2, Google shook things up again with a product review update that’s changing how marketers and creators publish product reviews.

Google’s Product Review Shakeup

With April’s update, Google is setting its sights on “thin” content. The update makes it much more difficult to rank for pages that simply summarize a bunch of products. Instead, Google is rewarding pages with content full of quality information, in-depth analysis and excellent research.

Right now, this update only applies to English-language product reviews, but already it’s had a profound impact. Even though it’s not a core update, it’s causing the same sort of shakeup normally reserved for bigger, broader algorithm changes.

This isn’t the first time Google has taken aim at thin content. On February 23, 2011, the search engine launched its now-infamous Panda update. Panda was a significant algorithm change meant to address the increasing prevalence of thin and spammy content produced by so-called “content farms.”

The update worked, rewarding high-quality content and causing a substantial drop-off in lower quality, churned content with little substance. All in all, just under 12% of search queries were affected.

Who the April Update Affects and How

April’s update is a little more focused. Right now, the changes only apply to sites with product reviews. That’s not to say, however, that we won’t see these changes applied to content across the board in future updates. Google remains committed to rewarding great content over thin content and that’s not changing any time soon.

Overall, If you’re already producing informative, high-quality product reviews, you just might see your rankings improve. Since Google is setting out to “better reward such content,” it’s possible that pages on your site will rise up above other sites that attempt to exploit the algorithm by mashing together several product affiliate links instead of offering genuine review content.

But if your strategy has been to emulate the top Google results in hopes of outranking the competition, you may want to reconsider your process. While the change won’t necessarily penalize this kind of content, it does reward creators that put a significant amount of effort into making great content for their visitors.

Great Content Rises Up

Google is rewarding product review pages that provide users with valuable content. In other words, content that aims (and succeeds) at providing the kind of high-quality product reviews you’d expect to use to make your own purchasing decisions.

Reviews that cover the pros and cons of a product, provide a well-balanced and in-depth understanding of the use cases and provide as many details as possible are going to see their rankings rise. This includes strong images or video that supports the information, along with how well it compares to the competition. In other words, really great product reviews are getting their just deserves in rankings.

One interesting line in Google’s guide mentions content written by “experts or enthusiasts who know the topic well.” Going forward, we’re likely to see original content written by expert contributors and passionate enthusiasts who truly care about their subject matter. As the old saying goes, you can’t fake passion.

While Bad Content Falls Through the Cracks

The “thin content” that simply summarizes a product will drop off in favor of reviews that share ample research and thoughtful consideration. If you’re creating or publishing sub-par content that’s made for the sole purpose of filling it with referral links, you may want to rethink your strategy.

Looking for product information, reviews and comparisons is a big part of how we use Google. People turn to the web to research a product they have an eye on or to learn about their available options in a given product category. They need good reviews to make the best decisions.

Savvy marketers know this. It’s why a lot of content on the web is built to rank well and then inundate visitors with product recommendations that aren’t necessarily backed by careful reviews and thoughtful research. They simply aren’t providing visitors with valuable insights that help them weigh options and explore the benefits and trade-offs of each product.

What About Affiliate Reviewers?

Sites that focus on creating product reviews are likely to be impacted the most by this update. Does that mean it’s time for these particular sites to pack up and move on to greener pastures of revenue generation? Not necessarily.

April’s update isn’t about targeting affiliate reviews-it’s about rewarding quality content. For those operating a review site that generates revenue through affiliate marketing, as long as they’re producing excellent content filled with in-depth product comparisons and insightful recommendations, this update is a blessing.

Sites with thin content and walls of affiliate links, however, may want to adjust their approach. Rather than seeing this update as an attack on this type of content, it’s better to see it as Google reinforcing its commitment to quality websites that provide the answers users are searching for.

The Future of Product Reviews

If you’ve been in the marketing game for a while, you may recall when Google launched its Panda update back in 2011. Like April’s update, Panda focused on rewarding sites with high-quality content. Also like April’s update, Panda moved top-tier content up through the ranks while demoting thin, overly optimized content.

A Focus on High-Quality, Engaging Content

Going forward, marketers and creators should focus on quality over quantity. And while quality is often subjective, Google isn’t without its benevolent streak. The company provided users with a set of guidelines for product review content that helps clarify what kind of content Google is looking for with the changes. Here are a few key questions from their documentation on the update (wording our own):

  • Does the content convey expert knowledge about the products reviewed?
  • Does it show the physical appearance of the product and how it’s used beyond the information provided by the manufacturer?
  • Does the content provide actual measurements about how a product performs in various categories?
  • Does it explain what differentiates a product from its competitors?
  • Does the content discuss the pros and cons of a particular product based on thorough research?
  • Does it describe how the product has improved over previous products and releases to address issues and help buyers make an informed purchase decision?

Of particular interest in their announcement is that Google uses the term “thin” to describe less-than-stellar content. It’s important to understand a distinction here: Thin has no bearing on word count-instead, it’s about the kind of value the words within provide. Pushing out a few thousand words of low-quality content will not move the meter for you here.

A simple way to look at creating great product reviews is to consider whether the content you have is something you would use to make your own purchasing decision. The next time you’re about to publish one, stop and ask yourself: “Would I genuinely use this article as a guide for buying this product?”

The Right Tool for the Job

As Google’s algorithms improve and its requirements for top-tier content increases in complexity, we’ll also see content optimization tools improve and evolve, providing ways for marketers to understand and address these requirements.

Already, tools like MarketMuse and Frase offer a way to optimize your content for better search rankings. These AI-powered solutions analyze content that’s already ranking in real-time and then compares it to what you have, providing real-world, actionable suggestions. This kind of live analysis of existing content gives you the insight you need to create content that answers user’s questions accurately and without any mystery.

Don’t Publish Reviews? Pay Attention, Anyway

Even if you don’t publish product reviews, there’s a lot to take away from the update, especially considering past changes to the algorithm. Google’s track record in requiring authentic content with depth and insight isn’t new. And while this particular change is focused on product reviews, there’s no reason to believe that Google won’t apply the same high bar to future content, whether it’s a product page or blog post.

Need more convincing? In the guide for April’s update, Google explicitly states that the product review changes aren’t a core update, but they then go on to link to their advice page for how sites should adapt their content for core changes.

At the end of the day, Google has always been about high-quality content. While the search giant is in the business of selling advertisements, they wouldn’t have gotten far if their core product didn’t provide users with what they want and need: Great content that answers questions, inform decisions and provides insights to the people reading it.

Quality is the New King

Way back in 1996, Microsoft founder Bill Gates penned an essay that described the future of the web as a marketplace for content. In it, he wrote a phrase that’s turned into an oft-repeated-if not cliched-mantra for content marketers: Content is king.

While it’s been decades since that essay was written, there’s no denying the importance of content, even today. But as Google continues to tweak and refine their algorithm, there’s just one thing that remains constant in their quest to return the best search results, and that’s quality content that provides real value.

Perhaps it’s time for content to descend from its throne-quality has risen to take its place. Long live the king!


Article by

Eric has been working in marketing and product management for over a decade with companies in the software, eCommerce and content creation spaces. He’s particularly drawn to both content marketing and SEO and is excited that the two areas are increasingly converging. While he’s pretty serious about marketing, he does love to drop a great dad joke on occasion.

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