Product Review Algorithm Updates Explained

On August 25, 2022, Google rolled out its latest product review algorithm update, the latest in a series of similar updates since 2021.

The completion of the so-called “Helpful Content Update” is set to take two weeks, though as with many things related to search optimization, this is by no means a sure thing.

What we can be sure of is Google’s consistent commitment to improving search results for product reviews. Specifically, the Helpful Content Update and others like it are intended to address the proliferation of low-quality review sites on Google SERPs (search engine results pages).

What Are Product Review Sites?

Product reviews are nothing new. Reviews of products have been published almost as far back as the earliest print magazines. When the internet became available to the general public, product reviews soon followed, as did the precursors to today’s product review sites.

Product review sites are not to be confused with the user-generated product review sections of ecommerce sites such as Shopee, Amazon, or Lazada. Rather, the term most often refers to standalone sites that feature reviews or other opinions regarding products.

The Problems With Product Review Websites

The explosion of global ecommerce in the past decade has dramatically ramped up the demand for quality product reviews. Reviews are so important that most people trust online reviews as much as they trust their friends. While the user-generated product review sections of most ecommerce sites are helpful, to an extent, they are limited by several factors. They tend to lack detail or authority, and are often faked by unscrupulous merchants.

In theory, independent product review sites should help address these drawbacks. On a review site, subject matter experts writing reviews themselves or with the aid of expert writers and editors can create and publish much more detailed, higher quality reviews, giving potential buyers a more complete picture of a specific product.

However, the publishers of these sites found that they could effectively use black hat SEO strategies to game Google’s algorithm to push low-quality content up the SERPs. Quite often, the writers of these low-quality reviews have never tested let alone seen the products they are writing about firsthand.

Consequently, the reviews on these low-quality sites lack any semblance of authority or legitimacy, which is bad news for consumers. This adds to other problems with product review sites, such as undisclosed payments for reviews and the potential conflicts of interest that happen when a reviewer is sent “free” stuff to write about — things that are not within the scope of Google’s Helpful Content Update but are nonetheless, relevant for product review sites.

What Are Google’s Product Review Algorithm Updates About?

The goals of Google’s Helpful Content Update and other similar algorithm changes are straightforward. First, the updates are to help Google Search users identify legitimate, authoritative review sites. Second, they are intended to push low-quality sites out of the top search results. The Helpful Content Update is unlikely to be the last such update that Google will roll out that’s related to product review pages.

Are the Product Review Algo Updates a Penalty?

Not necessarily. If your product review site consistently puts out high-quality product reviews, there isn’t much to be worried about. However, if your review site is reliant on spun content and dishonest reviews, then you may have to rethink your business model.

That said, getting the top spot on Google SERPs is a zero-sum game. If you do have a legitimate product review site, it only makes sense to give Google’s bots the right ideas.

9 Tips for Thriving With Google’s Product Review Algo Updates

First, a couple of disclaimers. The tips are below based on Google’s own recommendations and “best practices”, which means they may change at any time. Also, the updates only cover websites that review products, not services. Review aggregators and websites that publish user-generated content are also not likely to be included in the update.

Here are some tips for helping your independent product review site survive and thrive the latest Google algorithm updates:

Tip #1: Express Expert Knowledge About Products

While even the best generalist writers can fool all of the people some of the time, they cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

As with any site, product review sites have to consistently put out quality content. The only way to do this is to get knowledgeable people working on the reviews. Consistently publishing expert-level reviews based on real experiences sharing and sharing unique insights that newbies and outsiders are unable to fake is ultimately the only way for a product review site to achieve lasting success.

Tip #2: Show What the Product Is Like Physically or How It Is Used

Reviews that demonstrate how a product looks and performs in real life are especially compelling for site visitors, as they show a more realistic idea of the item compared to idealized product shots on marketing materials. Google will also probably rank review sites that do this consistently higher on the SERPs.

One key advantage of a professionally-run review site over the review sections of ecommerce pages is that publishers can use a full range of multimedia options to bring product reviews to life. If you run a review site, it’s a good idea to leverage this advantage and use original videos, photos, and audio where relevant. Even basic content like unboxing videos will be ultimately more valuable than fake or gibberish reviews.

Tip #3: Provide Quantitative Measurements of How a Product Performs

Unless you are already a thought leader and chief influencer in your product review space, you probably shouldn’t lean into subjective descriptions of reviewed items. When possible, try to show objective measurements that indicate a product’s performance and physical characteristics.

Sure, spec sheets are helpful but these are often just glorified marketing materials that do not show the true story. When possible, measure the actual performance of the product against the advertised specs. Performing objective measurements will not only increase the quality of your content, but it should also indicate to Google that you are, in fact, doing an expert-level review.

Tip #4: Explain What Sets the Product Apart from Its Competitors

This is not always possible, as doing this may require hands-on experience with competing products. However, when you can, do your due diligence and share how and why the product being reviewed is different from others in its price range and category. If you do have reviews featuring competing products, make sure to provide a link to these on each relevant review.

Tip #5: Discuss the Product’s Benefits and Drawbacks

When people visit a product review site, they want to know the full story behind a product’s performance in real-world conditions. If you do not have criticisms of any product, it could eventually damage your credibility (and Google SERPs rankings), as most people understand that nothing is perfect. Given this, any review you publish must be as balanced as you can make it, featuring both benefits and drawbacks.

Tip #6: Describe How the Product Evolved From Previous Releases

While ecommerce sites now collectively sell trillions of items, only a tiny fraction of these are truly new products. The vast majority of them evolved or are spun off some other thing. Given this, reviews that describe how a product has changed (or stayed the same) compared to previous releases are usually much appreciated.

While this is not always relevant (such as the case with collectibles), it is especially pertinent for items that are intended to do real work, such as performance gear, PPEs, instruments, kitchen appliances, and so on.

In these cases, people may be reading reviews because they are interested in a substantial upgrade or a replacement for something that is no longer up to snuff. Helping these people out with nuanced reviews will be a good way to keep your site in good standing with Google.

Tip #7: Discuss Factors to Consider When Buying a Product

If you want your site to rank higher on Google Search, it’s a good idea to consistently educate visitors on the factors to consider if they’re thinking of buying a reviewed product.

It’s worth noting that reviewers have a responsibility to be impartial, as the products they are reviewing may represent a significant investment for would-be buyers. While you cannot always guarantee that buyers will make the right decisions, each review should, at the very least, indicate who the product is intended for.

Tip #8: Discuss Key Design Choices in How a Product Is Designed

Being able to explain the rationales for various product design features is understood by Google to be a mark of a subject matter expert. Consequently, original content that fleshes out the reasons behind various design choices should help your site maintain a strong position on Google’s SERPs.

Tip #9: Provide Evidence of Your Own Experience With The Product

Google will most likely take original multimedia content as an indicator of a higher quality product review, as this suggests that the reviewer did, in fact, experience the product they are discussing. On the other hand, generic images and stolen content may be understood by the algorithm as indicators of a low-quality review site.

Summing Up

There is no way around it. If you want to have an authoritative, high-ranking product review site in the next few months, you will eventually have to write real reviews based on real experiences.

And if you aren’t one yourself, you may have to collaborate with or employ real subject matter experts to do the reviews. Additionally, you will probably need to invest in multimedia production capabilities that will allow you to make original, high-quality product shots and video demos, preferably with decent audio quality.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. You’ll have to ensure that your viewpoints are well-articulated and that all your written and multimedia content is optimized for Google Search.

As with Google’s previous algorithm changes, the Helpful Content Update is not likely to be the last. If past updates are any indication, site publishers who are truly committed to delivering good content are not likely to experience anything drastic. Those who have counted on publishing low-quality product reviews, however, probably have their work cut out for them.

Glen Dimaandal
Glen Dimaandal
Glen Dimaandal is the founder and CEO of SearchWorks.Ph. He has been doing SEO since 2008 and is consistently featured in mainstream media and industry conferences. His core skills include SEO, SEM, data analytics and business development.
Glen Dimaandal
Glen Dimaandal
Glen Dimaandal is the founder and CEO of SearchWorks.Ph. He has been doing SEO since 2008 and is consistently featured in mainstream media and industry conferences. His core skills include SEO, SEM, data analytics and business development.