Update: December 2021
I just published my analysis and findings based on the December 2021 Product Reviews Update. The Dec PRU is the second product reviews update that Google has rolled out (following the initial rollout in April 2021). It was another massive update that took three weeks to fully roll out. You can read my post for more information about the December update.
On April 8, 2021 Google announced a new algorithm update called the Product Reviews Update. The update was designed to reward in-depth reviews versus thinner review content (whether that’s a single product review, a group of products, service reviews, etc.) I’ve been heavily analyzing the update since it launched, including impact across different niche categories, content that was impacted, site-level findings, user experience factors across sites affected, and more. Based on what I’ve been seeing, the update has been core update-like for some sites. For example, some sites impacted are experiencing heavy drops or surges based on the Product Reviews Update.
For example, here are some visibility changes for sites focused on reviews:
Google’s Danny Sullivan explained the update can take up to two weeks to fully roll out, and I absolutely saw that in action. For example, I saw a lot of volatility early in the rollout around 4/9 and then have seen volatility later in the rollout as well (like 4/15 and 4/19). I tweeted about that movement along with screenshots of what I was seeing. That additional movement could have been based on the two-week rollout or it could have been based on tremors – where Google is tweaking the algorithm over time based on what they are seeing in the SERPs (which is definitely possible).
Here are some examples of late movement for two sites focused on reviews (both starting on 4/19). Remember, the update started rolling out on 4/8:
Below, I’ll cover what I’ve found during my analysis while I’ll also providing some final bullets covering key takeaways and recommendations for site owners that have been impacted. I’ll start with important points to understand about the update overall and then I’ll cover my findings based on digging into a number of sites impacted by the update (across various categories). Also, I published a companion Web Story for site owners and affiliate marketers covering those key points about the Product Reviews Update.
Table of Contents:
Since the post is long with a number of sections, here’s a table of contents so you can jump around:
- Key points about the launch and rollout.
- Google evaluating sites more broadly (site and section level impact).
- Sites impacted by previous core updates.
- Frequency of updates and recovery.
- Discover impact.
- Analysis and findings.
- Reviews content quality.
- Thin versus valuable.
- Examples of thinner reviews.
- The anatomy of a strong review (Wirecutter).
- Affiliate aggressiveness.
- Content organization.
- Affiliate disclosure.
- Authors and branding.
- Aggressive advertising plus affiliate content.
- The Authority Impact.
- Collateral Improvement – Holes in the algo.
- Structured data.
- Key takeaways and recommendations for site owners.
The Product Reviews Algorithm Update: Key Points To Understand
Launch and Rollout:
First, and as I explained earlier, the update officially launched on 4/8/21 and Google explained it can take up to two weeks to fully roll out. The update feels a lot like a broad core update for some sites impacted, but it’s just focused on reviews content. Note, the two-week rollout is exactly what Google says when a broad core update rolls out. Just an interesting side note.
It’s worth noting that I asked Danny Sullivan if the update was still rolling out on 4/20. He replied and said it was indeed still rolling out. That makes total sense based on what I was seeing across sites impacted (you can see my screenshots from earlier about impact over the two-week rollout).
And then we finally heard on 4/22 that the rollout was complete. So it was a full two-week rollout for the update:
Site and Section-level Evaluation, Not Just Pages:
This is super-important to understand, and again, it’s similar to how broad core updates work. Google has explained that the Product Reviews algorithm is looking more broadly at sites and sections. For example, analyzing the site overall and/or specific parts or sections of a site. With core updates, Google is evaluating the site overall, where with this update, it can be a mixture of the site overall or sections of a site (that contain reviews).
So, this is not always going to be a page versus page comparison. I bring this up because I’ve seen site owners sometimes make a big mistake with broad core updates by not reviewing the site overall from a quality and relevance standpoint. This is also why Google has explained time and time again to significantly improve a site overall to see recovery from a broad core update. I have hammered this point in all of my posts about core updates. This advice also applies to the Product Reviews Update.
Sites Surging That Were Previously Impacted By Broad Core Updates:
It’s also worth noting that I have seen sites surge or drop after seeing a lot movement during broad core updates. For example, some sites that dropped heavily during the December broad core update started surging with the Product Reviews Update. So, it’s like recovery from a broad core update, but not during a subsequent broad core update. That is not the typical way recovery from broad core updates works. This is more evidence that the Product Reviews Update is evaluating sites overall. For example, here are two sites that surged during the Product Reviews Update that dropped heavily during the December broad core update. And as I mentioned above, sites typically do not see recovery (or significant movement back) until another broad core update rolls out. So this was super-interesting to see.
Types of Reviews Impacted:
Google has explained that various types of reviews can be impacted, including single product reviews, lists of products being reviewed, services being reviewed, etc. In addition, sites with heavy UGC reviews can be impacted as well. I have seen all of these types of sites and content impacted based on my analysis of the Product Reviews Update. I’ll cover more about that soon.
Frequency of Updates and Recovery:
After the announcement, I asked Danny Sullivan if the update will roll out like broad core updates (every few months) or if sites can see improvement as they improve their reviews content and the site overall. Danny explained that the update requires a periodic refresh, and we might not be notified when that happens. This is extremely important to understand. If you’ve been impacted by the update, you have to work to improve the site and content over time and wait for a refresh. You probably cannot see a lot of improvement until that refresh occurs.
In addition, John Mueller explained in a Search Central hangout that he wouldn’t be surprised if the algorithm is baked into core web ranking at some point. It’s just another reason to tackle this situation NOW and try to improve your site significantly. Here is a video of Google’s John Mueller explaining this (at 29:38 in the video).
Discover Impact (like broad core updates):
Google has also explained that the Product Reviews Update can impact Discover visibility (just like it can with broad core updates). Again, this underscores the point I mentioned earlier about Google evaluating a site or sections more broadly. It’s not unusual for sites impacted by broad core updates to see a lot of volatility in Discover and now it’s similar with the Product Reviews Update.
And I have an amazing example of this happening. There is a site I helped that recovered from a broad core update hit last year. It’s a news publisher that surged during the December broad core update. That was amazing to see, but they still weren’t showing up in Discover at all. The Discover reporting didn’t even show up in GSC! Well, with the Product Reviews Update, the site finally started showing up in Discover. It was amazing to see. And it was right on 4/8 when the increase started. The strange part is the site doesn’t focus on reviews at all. :)
But beyond this one example, there are a number of site owners reaching out to me that have seen Discover volatility since the update started rolling out on 4/8. That makes total sense based on what Google has explained about the update impacting Discover visibility.
Analysis and Findings: Google’s Product Reviews Update
Now that I’ve covered key points about the update, I’m going to cover my findings based on analyzing many different sites impacted since the update started rolling out. The sites are across a number of different niche categories, including consumer goods, health, technology and software, professional services, education, finance, food and recipe sites, and more. As I said earlier, some of the impact has been core update-like with significant visibility changes since 4/8/21.
Below, I’ll cover some important findings based on what I’ve been seeing across sites both negatively and positively impacted. I have reviewed content that dropped or surged, the SERPs before and after the update, compared link profiles of sites competing in each space, and more. I obviously can’t analyze every situation, site, and piece of content, but I dug into many sites across a number of categories. It’s also worth noting that you can definitely find examples of sites that surged that shouldn’t, or dropped that shouldn’t. Remember, this is an algorithmic, so there are always going to be examples of collateral damage or improvement. Actually, I cover some examples of collateral improvement later in the post.
Also, I am actively helping several companies that provide reviews (across different categories) and have been able to dig into changes those sites are seeing based on the update. And last, I’ve had a number of site owners reach out to me after seeing impact based on the update. So, there’s been a lot of data to dig into since the update started rolling out.
Before I begin, a quick disclaimer:
I do not work for Google. I do not have access to Google’s Product Reviews algorithm. I have not dressed up as Paul Haahr’s long lost uncle Homer and approached him on the street about trying to learn more about what Google is crafting algorithm-wise. OK, I have thought about trying that… but haven’t moved on it yet. I’m not sure Paul would appreciate a scene like the following… :)
The findings below are based on reviewing many sites impacted by the latest update, based on my experience analyzing major algorithm updates during my career, hearing directly from site owners impacted, and helping several companies that focus on reviews (across different niche categories).
With that out of the way, let’s jump in.
The Product Reviews Update: Key Findings From The Front Lines
Reviews Content: Mostly thorough, helpful, detailed, and balanced (with clear disclosure).
When the update first rolled out, it was easy to think that all sites negatively impacted would have extremely thin review articles, short and meaningless posts, etc. That was definitely the case for some sites I analyzed that dropped, but definitely not all. Not even close actually. Once I dug into the drops, I found many review articles that were actually ok (not great, but not horrible either). In addition, there were several examples of collateral improvement… i.e. sites that surged that had little to do with reviews. I’ll cover more about that later in the post.
Below, I’ll cover key themes based on analyzing the update, while providing several examples of what I found (without revealing the sites and urls). My goal isn’t to “out” any specific company for dropping during this update. Based on my findings, I think you’ll get a good feel for what I was seeing across various niche categories.
Thin vs. Valuable:
If you read Google’s post about the Product Reviews Update, it provides a number of questions that site owners can ask themselves about their own review content. Google also linked to their blog post about core updates, which contains even more questions site owners can ask. Those questions address making sure sites provide unique, original, and thorough review content for consumers.
Reviews should be well-balanced and cover pros and cons, provide as many details as possible so users can truly understand more about each product in order to make an informed decision. That includes providing strong visuals and/or video supporting the review, data about how products or services measure up against the competition, and more. I highly recommend reading through those questions several times.
It’s also important to understand that thin has nothing to do with word count. Instead, it has everything to do with value. Site owners should objectively determine if their content can meet or exceed user expectations based on query. If it can, it’s not thin. If it can’t, I would consider it thin (even if you have the same amount of content). Again, it’s not about word count.
When checking content that dropped, a lot of it wasn’t mind-blowingly extensive. Sure, it might provide a paragraph or two about the product, but it often wasn’t giving me the detail I wanted in order to make a purchase decision. And on the flip side (mostly), many of the reviews that surged (or remained with strong rankings) were more detailed, provided more balance, contained clear affiliate disclosures, strong visuals, and were written by experts or enthusiasts in those categories.
It’s also important to know that you could easily tell when a writer had not used the product or service they were reviewing. The level of detail based on actually using a product, testing it out, etc., cannot be matched if you really didn’t try it out… That sounds obvious, but I came across many reviews that were like that.
Examples of thinner reviews content that dropped:
Here are some screenshots from review content that saw negative movement based on this update where the reviews were thinner in my opinion. Again, a simple paragraph is not sufficient, reiterating what the manufacturer already wrote is not extremely helpful, a lack of data and strong visuals left me wanting more, etc.
E.g. One paragraph and just a set of links to buy products:
Not much original and valuable content:
Not enough content to help consumers and the page is inundated with ads (on top of affiliate content):
On the flip side, strong reviews content:
I know many of you reading this post want to see some good examples of reviews. Again, my intention is not to call out certain sites for bad reviews or focus attention on many sites that surged. That said, there is one site that produces some of the best review content on the web — Wirecutter. I’ll provide one example below highlighting some of the great things they do with their reviews. I totally understand it’s not possible for many sites to match or exceed what Wirecutter is doing, but it would be smart to review their content to get a stronger understanding of how to craft outstanding review content. It’s also important to understand that each vertical is different and will require different levels of expertise, research, and thoroughness.
Clear affiliate disclosure:
Broken down by category:
Table structure with top picks, prices, discounts, and stock updates:
Table of contents:
Detailed research with information about how they pick the top products, how they tested them, etc.:
Strong visuals of each product:
Additional research and information for consumers (privacy and security for this specific review):
Author details (expertise, links, etc.)
Wirecutter provides a great structure for their reviews, packed with insightful, unique, and valuable information for consumers, presented in a user-friendly way, with clear affiliate disclosures, author information, and more. Again, if you focus on reviews, I would spend some time there.
For affiliate marketers, there’s always a fine balance between providing information and getting users to click through (so they can earn a commission). With a number of sites that saw a drop, the affiliate aggressiveness was strong… I felt like the pages were trying to push me to click through in any way possible. There were images leading off the site, links, buttons, and more. I get it, affiliates want users to click through. But as a user researching products, that can get super-annoying. As I’ve said many times with broad core updates, “Hell hath no fury like a user scorned”. I would try to strike a nice balance between providing helpful information and gaining that click… I would not overwhelm users with affiliate links, buttons, image links, and more.
Note, image links can be a bit deceptive since some users might think it would yield larger images to view. But in reality, those images are driving them off the site to buy the product. For those sites that are impacted, you should read my post about running user studies through the lens of broad core updates. That methodology applies here as well and you can include some questions from Google’s post about the Product Reviews Update.
Here is a page that was aggressive with linking out without providing specific reviews of each product:
Content Organization: Comparison, Pros and Cons, etc.
After going through many review pages, this point really stood out. A number of pages on the winning side of the update (or sites that remained strong) seemed to organize their content better. For example, clear sections for each part of the review, using a table structure when comparing features or data across products, providing FAQs at the bottom, summaries for longer reviews, etc. It’s impossible to say if Google is looking at organization like this, but it sure helps from a usability perspective. And since Google is evaluating sites and sections more broadly, I would always try to improve the user experience as much as possible. More about UX soon.
This is something I have been helping clients understand for a long time (for broad core updates) and now it’s front and center with the Product Reviews Update. It’s extremely important that users understand there is an affiliate relationship set up or it can feel very deceptive. For example, making sure users understand that the author is recommending X products, but they are earning a commission from recommending those products. There should be a clear disclaimer for users on the page.
And for me, beyond “clear”, it should be located in areas of the page where users can actually find it. For example, during my analysis (of this update and broad core updates), there are times that affiliate disclosures are buried on the page. They might be at the very bottom and in a smaller font, they might be in the sidebar, and sometimes they aren’t even on the page at all. Instead, there might be a small link to read the “Affiliate Disclosure” on another page.
If you provide reviews on your site and have affiliate links to earn a commission, then you should absolutely have a clear disclaimer that users can easily find and read. And I recommend having one at the top of the content and at the bottom.
On the flip side, here is page with two authors listed (Senior Editor and Chief Editor):
Aggressive Advertising + Affiliate Content: A UX Nightmare, but…
If you’ve read any of my posts about broad core algorithm updates, then you know aggressive, disruptive, or deceptive ads can be seriously problematic for a site. One thing I noticed while analyzing many sites with reviews was the weaving of many ads within affiliate content. I found that extremely annoying and those sites are double dipping from a monetization standpoint. They are earning ad revenue while also earning affiliate commissions when people click through and buy something. To be clear, those sites can absolutely do that, but the impact to the user experience can be extreme in certain cases.
That said, I didn’t really see a correlation with this update with heavy ad content (and that’s different from what I have seen with broad core updates where there is a connection). So, I would still be very cautious with your ad situation since it can impact the user experience, but from what I saw while analyzing sites that dropped or surged, ads didn’t really seem to play a part.
Here are two examples of sites with aggressive ads with affiliate content (but it didn’t seem to impact the sites based on the update):
And here is a site with 261K links that dropped heavily. It’s not about the quantity of links, but the site has strong links from authoritative sites. And it still got hammered.
But hold on, as I dug deeper, this finding didn’t tell the full story from an authority standpoint. For example, I found when a series of reviews were close in quality and thoroughness, it seemed like Google fell back to authority in those cases. For example, it’s like Google was determining which site overall could be more trusted since the reviews were close in quality… Google seemed to rank the more authoritative sites above the others (overall) when analyzing the SERPs for those queries. I saw this a number of times during my research. It’s impossible to know exactly if this is what Google is doing, but again, I saw this a number of times while analyzing the update.
Collateral Improvement: Holes in the algo.
I mentioned this earlier, but I have definitely seen sites that surged during the update that probably shouldn’t have. The ones I’m referring to are larger and more authoritative sites that don’t necessarily focus on reviews content. For these sites, some content is being seen as legitimate reviews content, but it’s really not. I wish I could provide more information about this, but I can’t. And that has led to a big surge in traffic to those urls. I’m pretty darn sure Google wouldn’t want this content to rank for those queries… My guess is Google will correct this at some point. But as of today, those sites and pages are still ranking well. Remember, algorithms aren’t perfect. There are always edge cases.
Below are two queries that lead to pages that are being seen as reviews content. Notice the surge after the update started rolling out:
Heads-up About Structured Data:
In Google’s blog post, they linked to another post for how to present product information via structured data. We know structured data is not a ranking factor, but I would make sure to provide Product structured data when you are reviewing a single product. If you are reviewing several products on one page (like the best widgets for 2021) or comparing two products, then Product structured data doesn’t make sense. Google’s documentation explains that it’s for single products only (as of now).
Key takeaways and recommendations for site owners:
I know I covered a lot in this post about the Product Reviews Update, so I wanted to end with some key takeaways. If you focus on reviews content and your site has been impacted, then I recommend going through the following bullet points and determine which changes you can implement to improve your reviews (and your site overall).
- Review the list of questions in Google’s blog post about the Product Reviews Update and in its post about broad core updates. Objectively review those questions and determine gaps in your own approach and reviews content.
- Make sure to analyze your site overall from a quality and relevance perspective. Google has explained the Product Reviews algorithm is evaluating sites and sections more broadly. It’s not always a page versus page comparison.
- After implementing changes to your content (and site), understand you need to wait for a refresh to see significant improvement from a rankings standpoint. This is similar to how Google’s broad core updates work.
- Make sure your content is written by experts or enthusiasts based on the subject matter. Provide insightful, original, and valuable analysis for consumers (way beyond what they can learn from the manufacturer description).
- Provide data and strong visuals to support your reviews. And organize that content in way that’s easy for users to consume.
- Provide clear affiliate disclosures and in areas of the page where users can easily find those disclosures.
- Make sure to check for Discover impact, which Google has explained can be affected by the Product Reviews Update. And if you were negatively impacted, then you will need to wait for a refresh to see recovery there (if you significantly improve your site and content).
- Watch both affiliate aggressiveness and the heavy mixing of ads on affiliate content. Remember, “Hell hath no fury like a user scorned”. Don’t overwhelm users based on your monetization strategy.
- And just like with broad core updates, improve your site, content, UX, ad strategy, and more over time. Google wants to see significant improvement over time in order to see recovery during subsequent updates.
Summary: The Products Review Update Was Core Update-like For Some Sites
The Product Reviews update heavily impacted many sites focused on reviews, and across various niche categories. It was a significant update and Google explained the algorithm is evaluating sites and sections more broadly (similar to how Google’s broad core updates evaluate sites overall). If you have been impacted, I recommend taking a hard look at your reviews content through the lens of the questions Google provided (and based on my analysis above). Then I would implement as many changes as possible to improve your site and reviews content.
And remember, you’ll have to wait for a refresh to see recovery (and we might not be told when that happens). We’ll definitely see the movement after a refresh happens, but Google might not publicly announce it occurred. I’ll definitely be sharing what I see over time with sites impacted by the Product Reviews Update, so follow me on Twitter if you haven’t yet. We know Google has a busy spring and summer planned, so it should be interesting to see when the first refresh happens. Stay tuned.
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