Insights / SEO

PUBLISHED: Feb 21, 2023 13 min read

Google’s 2021-2023 Product Reviews Updates: What Happened?

Lily Ray

Lily Ray

Vice President, SEO Strategy & Research

Jump to: How the product reviews updates work | Why is Google so focused on product reviews? | Outcomes of the product reviews updates & who won 2021-2022 | Conclusion: Focus on expertise in product review content (and all content!)

This post was updated on February 21, 2023

Between April 2021 and February 2023, Google launched four versions of its brand new type of algorithm update called the product reviews update. The first product reviews update took place on April 8, 2021, the second on December 1, 2021, the third on March 23, 2022, and the fourth was announced on on February 21, 2023.

According to Google, the product reviews updates represent a ranking change aimed at increasing the visibility of “product reviews that share in-depth research, rather than thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products.” With the launch of each update, Google updated its best practices recommendations related to the criteria they are looking for in high-quality product review content.

How the product reviews updates work

Google’s product reviews updates are aimed at elevating the rankings of product review content that demonstrates significant expertise, thoroughness, and helpful information above and beyond what is provided by the manufacturer.

Just like with Google’s core updates, Google is looking to rank insightful content that demonstrates significant expertise or enthusiasm about the topic.

In Google’s official documentation about the product reviews updates, they present numerous questions reviewers should consider when producing high-quality review content, such as whether the reviews:

“Express expert knowledge about products where appropriate?

Show what the product is like physically, or how it is used, with unique content beyond what’s provided by the manufacturer?

Provide quantitative measurements about how a product measures up in various categories of performance?

Explain what sets a product apart from its competitors?

Cover comparable products to consider, or explain which products might be best for certain uses or circumstances?

Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a particular product, based on research into it?”

What creators should know about Google’s product reviews update

The common thread among all these questions is that they demonstrate the reviewer has truly spent a significant amount of time and research evaluating the products first-hand.

In fact, Google’s recommendations for reviewers include a variety of tips related to proving that the reviewer has actually spent time with the products. For example, in the December 2021 version of Google’s product reviews guidelines, they state that reviewers should “provide evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links of your own experience with the product, to support your expertise and reinforce the authenticity of your review.”

It’s clear that Google is devaluing reviews that only repurpose what others or the manufacturers have said about the products, without adding evidence that the reviewer has tried the products themselves.

Only product review pages are affected

The product reviews updates are also different from other Google updates in the sense that they specifically affect pages that Google’s algorithms think are product review pages.

In the article “More Helpful Product Review on Search,” Google explains that:

Sometimes the improvements we make are broad and affect all types of queries. Others are more specialized, designed to improve results for more specific searches and the types of information we know people like to see. Take product reviews, for instance.”

More helpful product reviews on Search

Because Google’s algorithm updates often cause “collateral damage,” I asked Google if these updates would only affect product review pages, or whether we could expect to see some other ranking fluctuations for non-product review content as well:

Google’s answer creates interesting questions for some sites that fall into the “grey area” of product reviews: are roundup pages considered reviews? Or lookbooks? What about pages that review places or services, but not products? While Google’s documentation is largely focused on reviews of physical products, service reviews may also benefit from the update.

However, when asking Google if we should have expected the product reviews updates to impact the visibility of sites reviewing colleges and universities, Google’s John Mueller gave a slightly different answer:

John raises an interesting question: regardless of the type of product, service, or place being reviewed, shouldn’t the quality guidelines still apply? Of course, the answer should always be yes: reviewers should consistently illustrate that they’ve done significant research and demonstrate real subject-matter expertise. This is consistent with all of Google’s quality guidelines for SEO.

Product reviews updates impact the rankings of non-product review sites

Even though the product reviews updates are designed to only affect the rankings of product review content, the ranking volatility they cause tends to impact many other different categories of sites.

Back during the December 2021 product reviews update, there was a clear drop in visibility among a variety of product review sites, which all happened to contain the word “best” in their domain name.

Digging into which keywords saw the declines, one interesting observation was that many of the keywords for which these sites lost page 1 rankings do not include the word “best” and are simply transactional head terms without modifiers.

Below are some examples of queries where the “best” sites lost page 1 rankings:

This outcome could also indicate that Google used the product reviews updates to re-classify the user intent behind many transactional queries: a previous query that may have returned a product review now instead sees eCommerce or other types of content ranking in top positions.

In fact, for the queries where the “best” domains lost positioning in December, another interesting trend took place: some of the big eCommerce retailers, including the sites selling the actual products being reviewed by the product review sites, saw massive increases in SEO visibility. This is a good illustration of how many types of sites can be affected by these updates, not just product review sites.

Why is Google so focused on product reviews?

One important question to ask in light of Google releasing major algorithm updates is why they might be so focused on a specific change to their ranking systems. For product reviews, I believe the answer falls into a few categories.

User feedback & bad press

Google itself states that it learned through extensive user testing that “people appreciate product reviews that share in-depth research, rather than thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products.” Google must have been receiving this type of feedback with frequency because around the same time, the product reviews updates were launched, they also started to receive a bit of negative PR related to how their algorithms rank product review content.

Articles, such as the infamous Google Search is Dying by Dmitri Brereton and a deeper expose on the same topic by the New Yorker called “What Google Search Isn’t Showing You.” In this article, author Kyle Chayka starts his first paragraph by diving into what he perceives as low-quality product review content, stating that his searches for a new toaster resulted in “aggregated listicles clearly designed to exploit Google’s search algorithm and profit from affiliate marketing.”

It’s obviously not a good look for Google and the quality of its algorithms to be featured this way in mainstream publications.

Low-effort, low-quality product reviews running rampant

One likely explanation for Google’s focus on elevating high-quality product reviews is because of the dramatic increase in the number of affiliate blogs Google is crawling and indexing, and with it, likely a big increase in low-quality affiliate content. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, 53% of affiliates increased their spend in the channel between 2020 and 2021:

It has long been the case that Google has scrutinized affiliate content. In its Affiliate Programs documentation, Google states that:

…sites featuring mostly content from affiliate networks can suffer in Google’s search rankings, because they do not have enough added value content that differentiates them from other sites on the web.”

Affiliate Programs – Google Search Central

Google isn’t alone in recognizing the poor quality of many product reviews in its search results — the journalism world has caught onto the trend as well.

Nicole Scott, a journalist and former Editor in Chief of Mobile Geeks, has an extensive history in the product review space and shared some insights related to the declining quality of product reviews over time.

According to Scott, “The SEO industry changed the ways that publishers create product reviews. About seven or eight years ago, our internal SEO professional informed us that we had to structure our reviews a certain way to meet SEO best practices and keep up with all the other product review sites. Around that time, the quality of review content began to decline because authors were more focused on meeting SEO guidelines than producing quality reviews.

“It has become a common practice for authors of product reviews to read reviews on Amazon and simply repurpose this content as “Reviews from our Readers” or “Products our Readers Love,” without actually trying the products themselves. You can notice that many reviews lack the type of detail about how products actually work – information that could only be obtained through using a product extensively.”

Perhaps this is why Google’s new documentation is so focused on real evidence that the reviewer used the products themselves.

The rising threat of Amazon

Google is facing increasing competition from Amazon, which has led to a number of significant changes to its search results in recent years, especially related to Google Shopping. Many of these changes are aimed at trying to make Google a more appealing place for both merchants to sell products and shoppers to start their online searches for products.

For this reason, it seems fair to assume that improving the quality of product review content, which often ranks in top positions for product keywords, would be a top goal of Google. If searchers are relying on Google to show the best roundups and reviews of products as part of their shopping journey, Google has an obligation to ensure that content is of the highest possible quality to best meet users’ needs.

Displaying product review content directly in Google’s search results

Another possible explanation for why Google is so focused on high-quality, accurate product review content is a trend we commonly see in the SEO space: Google might display the content it gathers from publishers directly in the SERP (search engine result page).

Indeed, some searchers reported seeing tests in which Google displayed product review content directly in the SERP in a feature called Buying Guides. These guides embed many of the important questions answered by product review sites in the search results, using accordions that expand into different considerations about the product.

Outcomes of the product reviews updates + who won in 2021-2022

So, how well have Google’s product reviews updates been able to algorithmically elevate high-quality reviews, and reduce the visibility of review content that doesn’t add significant value?

Measuring the outcomes of the product reviews updates has been challenging because Google has implemented three versions of the update over the course of the year, causing massive swings in volatility for many sites. For example, the below sites (the same group as above with the word “best” in the domain) have seen significant movement — both negative and positive — with the December PRU (letter A) and the March PRU (letter B).

Below are some examples of other sites seeing big increases since the most recent March 2022 product reviews updates, and some examples of what likely helps the pages to succeed.

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What Google considers a high-quality product review

Below are a variety of product review sites seeing significant increases in SEO visibility between March 14, 2022, and April 7, 2022 (the tail end of Google’s March 2022 product reviews update). The scores below represent Sistrix Visibility Index scores, which measure organic search visibility on Google in the U.S.

Winners of Google’s March 2022 product reviews update:

Examples of content seeing significant increases:

Below are some examples of pages seeing significant increases in rankings since the March 2022 product reviews update.

For the query “womens ski pants,” moved from position 9 to position 1 for its article “Best Women’s Ski Pants of 2022.” It’s hard to imagine a more robust page on the topic.

Switchback Travel’s article on the best ski pants for 2022

What this page does right:

  • Provides expert insights into what their team does/does not like about the ski pants
  • Includes proprietary photos, as opposed to stock photography found across many sites
  • Includes links to multiple sellers (as per Google’s recommendations)
  • Contains updated content to truly reflect insights relevant to the 2022 ski season
  • Explains what each pair of pants is good for (backcountry, resort, etc.)
  • Includes a robust comparison table
  • Contains solid authorship
  • Contains extensive content about the best pair of pants for each environment

For the query “earplugs,” moved from position 3 to position 1 for its article “Best Earplugs for Sleep.”

SleepFoundation’s article on the “best earplugs for sleep”

What this page does right:

  • Includes specific information about its selection methodology
  • Contains solid authorship
  • Mentions that product reviews are updated weekly
  • Explains which earplugs are best overall, best for the price, best for noise canceling, and most comfortable
  • Includes links to multiple sellers
  • Explains in detail who each set of earplugs is best for
  • Calls out product highlights
  • Specifically mentions the Noise Reduction Rate for each set of earplugs

For the query “best indoor outdoor thermometer,” moved from position 3 to position 1.

YourBestDigs’ article on the “best indoor outdoor thermometers”

What this page does right:

  • Contains solid authorship
  • Indicates in various places that “real testing” was done for all the thermometers
  • Provides comparisons for pricing, ease of set up, and ease of reading the thermometers
  • Provides extensive information about why they selected the products

Conclusion: Focus on expertise in product review content (and all content!)

Google is becoming more sophisticated in algorithmically determining which content truly put in the work to provide real value to searchers, as opposed to content that just rehashes what other publishers have already written. This focus on E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authority, and trust) has become a major focal point for Google in the past several years, and product reviews are just one manifestation of that. For those publishing product reviews, it’s crucial to review in detail all of Google’s recommendations about what a good product review looks like because this type of content requires significant work and research more so than ever to earn top rankings on Google.

Stay connected.

Have a question? You can reach out to @lilyraynyc on Twitter.

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