Google recently published a new April 2023 update to its Reviews System, which was previously called the Product Reviews system. Dropping the word “Products” from the update’s name is a significant change that shouldn’t be overlooked: Google has now expanded its review system to address content containing any type of review – not just reviews of products.
According to Google’s new article about the Reviews System, “there can be reviews of products such as laptops or winter jackets, pieces of media such as movies or video games, or services and businesses such as restaurants or fashion brands.” However, the update is not meant to affect third-party reviews, such as user reviews, testimonials, or other user-generated content on the page.
This new Reviews update is the 7th such update to Google’s (Product) Reviews system within the span of 3 years. It’s clear that Google has been working hard to ensure this set of algorithms elevates high-quality, original, helpful reviews above “thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products, services or other things.” The consistent updates to this system may serve as a clue that this task is not easy to do algorithmically.
As many SEOs and journalists often point out, even despite multiple Product Reviews updates, Google’s guidelines for good reviews can still potentially be “faked” if the site owner tries hard enough. After all, many site owners wonder how it’s possible for Google to algorithmically identify who is a true expert from someone pretending to be an expert. In one entertaining example, The Verge even published a fake product review, including unedited ChatGPT content, just to show that fake review content that lacks true E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authority, and trust) can still rank.
However, this 7th version of the Reviews update shows some evidence that Google may finally be turning the tide against review content that lacks sufficient real-life experience.
The Rise of the New “E” for Experience
Each of Google’s now 7 (Product) Reviews updates over the past 2 years came with communication from them about the importance of reviews demonstrating real-life experience. Google wants proof that the author actually tested the products, even going so far as to encourage site owners to include pictures or videos of the author using the products.
After various Product Reviews updates, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that in December 2022, Google introduced a new “E” to the “E-A-T” family: E for experience.
Google’s explanation of what it means to have experience comes directly from the Search Quality Rater Guidelines:
“Experience: Consider the extent to which the content creator has the necessary first-hand or life experience for the topic. Many types of pages are trustworthy and achieve their purpose well when created by people with a wealth of personal experience. For example, which would you trust: a product review from someone who has personally used the product or a “review” by someone who has not?”Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines
Even in Google’s “official” definition of experience, Google doubles down on the importance of first-hand experience in product reviews.
Google’s newly refined article, “Write High Quality Reviews,” provides extensive guidance for site owners who add reviews to their sites. Among these recommendations include a few that specifically speaks to the importance of real experience:
- “Provide evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links of your own experience with what you are reviewing to support your expertise and reinforce the authenticity of your review.”
- “Demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about what you are reviewing—show you are an expert.”
- “Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of something based on your own original research.”
- “Focus on the most important decision-making factors, based on your experience or expertise (for example, a car review might determine that fuel economy and safety are key decision-making factors and rate performance in those areas).”
With the recent March Core Update, there were some hints that several sites demonstrating real expertise might have seen a boost in rankings. However, with the recent April 2023 Reviews Update, that pattern became much more clear.
Reviews Update Winners: Demonstrating Real-Life Experience
Several sites containing reviews have seen increases in rankings and visibility after the April Reviews Update. A common theme among these sites is that their content consistently demonstrates real-life experience in the content.
Below are a few examples of sites seeing visibility increases. These changes are calculated by looking at the Sistrix visibility index score of the domain at the start of the Reviews update (April 12) vs. the end (April 25).
Parenting Advice & Product Review Site for Moms
A popular “mommy blog” containing many reviews of products for babies and children saw a 45% increase in SEO visibility during the April Reviews Update. Interestingly, this site was actually negatively impacted by the March Core Update just before the Reviews Update, which may serve as a clue about how the updates use different sets of algorithms to assess quality.
The below Sistrix chart shows keywords for which the site moved into positions 1-3 after the April Reviews Update, with some high-volume product keywords moving over 50+ positions into position 1.
The content on this site is written by real mothers who use their names and include pictures of themselves in their author biography pages. It does a good job speaking to specific audiences, such as the below article, which speaks to mothers of babies of color and demonstrates true first-hand experience:
Providing original research and a unique angle is something that can set your reviews apart from other sites, and Google appears to be rewarding this.
The site also provides answers to common questions that readers might want to know with their own opinions written in the first person:
Google is rewarding sites that have something new and helpful to say based on their own real-life experience.
High-End Audio Product Review Site
This audio and headphone review site earned many new top rankings after the April Reviews Update, seeing an 85% increase in visibility. The below Sistrix chart shows keywords for which the site moved into positions 1-3.
The chart below shows their growth in visibility during the April Reviews Update, which took place during the number 8 at the end of the chart.
The site has done a good job building up a reputation as an authority in the space, with a significant social media following and many relevant backlinks. But what really stands out about the site is the first-hand experience demonstrated by the authors of the content, such as in the below review page:
The content is written in the first-person and is clearly written by an experienced author who has actually used the products he is reviewing. It goes above and beyond what the manufacturer says about the products, which is exactly what Google recommends for review sites. The entire site is filled with this type of helpful, authentic content.
Popular TV, Movies & Entertainment Site
A popular publisher site with information about the latest TV shows, movies and other entertainment saw a 3.72% visibility increase which seems small but makes sense when considering that the Reviews update only looks at review content, which is only a portion of this site. That said, the site earned top positions for some coveted, high-volume entertainment keywords, even ones not including “best.” This movement also shows that the Reviews Update was looking beyond just products, as Google expanded the update to address all review content, including movies and TV shows.
The authors are movie enthusiasts who share their opinions throughout the content, which sets the site apart from other sites which leverage user-generated reviews or reviews from movie critics. It’s interesting to see that this type of content earned top positions after the Reviews update, as it demonstrates that in some cases, Google thinks an experienced enthusiast’s recommendations provide the best search experience.
Reviews Update Losers: No Evidence of Real Experience
With this round of the Reviews update, it is much easier to spot the losers than the winners. Many sites that contain reviews that do not meet Google’s standards for high-quality reviews saw significant declines with the April Reviews Update.
Numerous travel sites saw significant visibility declines after this update, with at least 5 highly-trafficked travel blogs losing anywhere from 50-95% of their SEO visibility. Locations aren’t products, so it’s possible that these sites were able to thrive before Google expanded the Reviews update to include all types of review sites. Now that the Reviews system looks at all reviews, some travel sites that saw significant SEO growth in recent years were hit hard by the update.
One such site actually saw big increases during the March Core Update but tanked to its lowest position in months after the April Reviews Update:
This site contains “things to do” articles in different cities. But there is no real evidence that the authors have visited the places they are writing about. The content appears to include information sourced from various places around the internet but lacks any first-hand experience or expertise.
Below is the visibility chart for another travel site negatively impacted by the Reviews update:
This site previously held the #1 ranking for the keyword “coffee shops,” with an article summarizing the best coffee shops in the United States. The paragraph below shows an example of the content in the coffee shop article:
One important observation about this page is that the above link that says “Best places to stay” is a VRBO affiliate link that doesn’t actually take the user to a page about the Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shop, but rather a generic VRBO search for Durham, North Carolina. This is not a great user experience and could be something that caused the site to get flagged by the Google’s Reviews algorithms.
The page that took the #1 position for “coffee shops” after the Reviews update uses a completely different writing style. It demonstrates significant effort, which Google’s Search Quality Guidelines mention is an important factor for good page quality. It is written in the first person, and it also indicates that the site conducts surveys to create the rankings, which is another method of demonstrating real life experience:
Another similar category affected by the update is sites reviewing restaurants and food dishes.
For example, this one restaurant review site was unaffected by prior Product Reviews updates, but lost -79% of its SEO visibility during the Reviews update.
Similar to the coffee shop article, the site is comprised of reviews of restaurants that seem to use information sourced from around the internet, and not necessarily real experience or research by the author. The below screenshot is a snippet taken from an article that previously ranked in position 1 for “chicken restaurant” but has dropped out of Google’s top 100 positions after the update:
While the content isn’t necessarily unhelpful, it doesn’t demonstrate the first-hand experience Google is looking for with review content.
Google has raised the stakes for many bloggers, ‘niche site’ creators, and other affiliate marketers with its 7th Reviews update. Now that Google’s strict review guidelines affect all types of review sites, it is clear Google is increasingly focused on authenticity and real human experiences.
Especially with the rise of AI content creation tools, Google and the other search engines have to parse through millions of pages of content that provide advice and opinions written by people (or bots) who don’t actually have the sufficient experience (or any!) to be writing on those topics. If you’re still using these tactics with your content strategy, even if this current version of the Reviews update didn’t impact your site, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear when Google continuously refines and updates these algorithms.
Focusing on E-E-A-T is as crucial as ever, and the addition of the new E for experience means site owners and marketers will have to work even harder to prove that they’re worthy of earning top positions in the search results.
Staying up to date on the latest changes to Google is only one part of a data-centric, performance-driven strategy, giving you the power to know more and do more. Dig deeper into the impact of Google’s March 2023 Core Update, or let’s talk about how to achieve more for your marketing — and your business.