In 2021, online shoppers used search engines as the primary source for product research before purchasing. Since 2010, Google has consistently dominated more than 90% of the search market — effectively leaving other search engines in the dust. So, the math is simple. Understanding the algorithms and logic behind the web’s most popular search engine is non-negotiable for online brands and product marketers in 2022 and the foreseeable future.
Google’s latest update to its product review policy took effect on March 23, 2022. The update is part of Google’s larger strategy to give users “content that provides insightful analysis and original research and is written by experts or enthusiasts who know the topic well.”
The impact of the update is two-fold.
The obvious impact will be felt by the product reviews sites themselves. Google plans to reward websites with content authored by experts who deliver in-depth market research. Those who respond well or are already meeting Google’s expectations will see continued organic traffic success.
However, the product merchants themselves will feel the second and perhaps more meaningful impact. Brands that rely on product comparison sites for referral traffic to drive sales will need to either proactively work with existing partners, find new referral sources, or risk getting left behind in the online search marketing game.
Catch Me Up: What Happened in Phases 1 and 2?
In case you missed it, Google announced back in April 2021 that it would be rolling out three phases of updates to its product review policy.
The first phase saw Google start promoting in-depth product review content above templated or summarized content. A Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land the intent was to reward sites that “share in-depth research, rather than thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products.”
The second phase, news of which was released on December 1, 2021, added two best practices to the search engine’s expectations for high-quality product reviews:
- Reinforce the authenticity of your review by providing evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links demonstrating your personal experience with the product and how it performs, especially compared with those of competitors
- Give readers the option to purchase a product from the vendor of their choice by providing links to multiple sellers of the product
In essence, the second phase provided actionable steps for site owners to take in response to the initial phase news. While the initial announcement caused more panic than anything else, the second update gave site owners a direction in which to head.
The third and final phase, which is the one we’re discussing today, builds on the previous updates. Google has added ranking signals that enable the search engine to “get sound purchasing advice” in front of users.
While the search engine provider has not come out with exact descriptions of these ranking signals, the intent is clear: Quality product review sites will be rewarded with a more prominent (read: higher) position in Google search results.
What Does the Phase 3 Update Mean for Brands?
The updated product review policy will greatly impact product review and comparison sites, particularly those that rely on Google for a significant amount of their traffic. But the unspoken ripple effect is felt by merchants who rely on product review sites for a significant portion of their customer referrals.
Websites that, in Google’s opinion, have “thin” content or do not demonstrate the necessary industry expertise to distinguish themselves as experts on the product market will not be directly penalized; however, if their competitors do a better job of demonstrating the industry expertise and in-depth product research, the higher search rankings will go to the competitor, resulting in less organic traffic for other sites.
If your product is currently benefitting from referral traffic of other websites, whether through affiliate partnerships or non-monetized referrals, you may be impacted. If the referring site does not meet Google’s product review standards, the resulting hit to organic traffic will likely trickle down to your product sales. To ensure you’re protected against revenue dips, partner with sites whose content meets Google’s standards for helpful product reviews.
High-Quality Product Reviews (Per Google)
Per its product review guidelines, Google implores website owners to deliver more helpful product reviews. The product reviews featured atop search results will:
- Include in-depth, helpful details that aid in purchasing decisions such as benefits and drawbacks, performance results, or how the product differs from previous versions or competing products.
- Include unique information “beyond what the manufacturer provides” such as visuals or media containing details of the reviewer’s experience.
- Identify key decision-making factors for the product’s category and how the product performs in those areas.
- Share quantitative measurements of how the product performs.
The content must be authored by people who have actually used the products. It must reveal what the product physically looks like and how it performs its marketed functionality — the good, the bad, and the ugly. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is infinitely more valuable.
Regarding word count, Google also recommends that site owners “focus on the quality and originality of your reviews, not the length.” Unlike user-generated content (USG) product reviews, such as those you see on Amazon or an individual merchant website, quality trumps quantity when it comes to third-party product comparison sites.
Respond Proactively to Minimize Negative Impact
If your website has seen a recent traffic dip you believe stems from this update, consider this a fantastic opportunity to reinforce your credibility as an industry expert. Below, you’ll find actionable steps to ensure your online brand weathers this update, including examples of sites doing each step well.
- Make sure your website’s About Us page is up to date, visually appealing, and demonstrative of your industry expertise. It should showcase your individual experts and their respective qualifications, including awards and years of experience. YourTango’s About page has a clean UI showing the media company’s masthead and their respective bios. Meanwhile, Aelive takes a more visually creative approach to showcase the team’s marketing expertise. CardRates.com emphasizes the media footprint of its finance experts, whose financial reporting experience includes contributing to or being featured in The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, MarketWatch, and other noteworthy financial publications.
- Plan a content calendar of product-related blog posts, articles, or guides that showcase the product and your experience with it. The content should feature quantitative research results, first-hand user testimonials, and/or step-by-step product demos. For example: This guide walks readers through the a first-hand assessment of FlexClip, a web-based video editor. The article includes a feature breakdown, honest feedback on the user experience, and a video demonstration of the product in action.
- Reach out to product review bloggers or journalists in your industry and offer to be a resource for product information or quotes. HARO (HelpAReporter.com) is a great platform for connecting with journalists, and Twitter can be a goldmine for finding relevant bloggers. If you want to be really proactive, create a Google Alert for specific product names so you can be the first to know when someone is writing about a product area of expertise.
If you’re a product merchant experiencing the downstream effects of this update, fear not! Service providers, product distributors, or online store owners can get ahead of the game by proactively partnering with the right sites:
- Hold partners accountable: Point existing referral partners to Google’s product reviews best practices. Ask what steps they take to adhere to Google’s standards more closely and how you can support their initiatives. If they shrug off the information or claim they don’t see value in making changes, run — do not walk — to find other referral sources.
- Take inventory of your content: Ensure your site’s product descriptions are well-written, keyword-rich, and informative. They should be long enough to thoroughly describe the product and its features, but not so long that they appear spammy. Glossier’s product descriptions are a great example of how to do this well.
Again, merchant sites are not the direct beneficiaries or victims of this algorithm update; however, having informative, helpful content on your own site will make it easier for product review sites to cover your product or services accurately. And, potential customers will be more likely to find your website and make a purchase without the middle man — which is a win-win scenario for your sales team and the business’s bottom line.
Follow Google or Get Left Behind in the Race for Results
As Google search continues to be the driving force behind most online purchasing decisions, it’s imperative that product marketers understand how the latest algorithm updates will impact their brand’s visibility.
Follow Google’s algorithm updates and changes, take note of the potential impact, and take proactive steps to ensure your digital goods get the visibility they deserve in a post-update world. Get your products in front of the right people, in the right light, by proactively responding to all three phases of Google’s product reviews update.