Google caused a stir in the affiliate sector with its April algorithm update. The latest update promised better rankings in Google searches for websites with product reviews and product testing that include unique and useful expert content, while affiliate sites focusing only on clicks and commissions rather than providing the user with added value would be downgraded. So far, the update has only been rolled out for English-language Google search where some major changes have already been seen.
What do I need to know about the Google Product Reviews April update?
What changed? This Google update was aimed mainly at product review and product testing websites with an aim to push high-quality and expert content in this category up the rankings. Since the purpose of product reviews and testing is to encourage users to buy, this is a sensitive area that has come increasingly under the scrutiny of Google’s E-A-T guidelines – Expertise, Authority, Trust – Google’s three core elements for website ranking.
Which sites have been affected? The update was essentially an attempt by Google to ensure only high-quality affiliate sites have a chance of reaching the top rankings. In other words, sites that mainly exist to serve Amazon & co. but offer no real added value will not rank as well in the search results.
When did the rollout take place? Google normally announces the most important updates to search algorithms in advance – a strategy it has used for its core updates and core web vitals updates and opted to do the same for this product reviews update. It announced the rollout for English-language reviews on April 8, 2021 in this blog post – the final rollout was completed on April 22, 2021.
What ‘refreshes’ and rollouts can we expect in future? Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison of Search, said there was still no specific timeframe for the rollout of Google’s product reviews update in other languages, adding that the product reviews update would be refreshed periodically. Unlike the core updates, however, further ‘refreshes’ would not be announced in advance.
At the moment, there's a periodic refresh. Unlike with core updates, we might not always post when a refresh happens given the more limited nature of content involved here. So overall, sites should consider the advice & keep working to it (true of core updates as well!).
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) April 9, 2021
What does Google mean by high-quality product reviews?
So, what exactly are high-quality product reviews and product testing sites? According to Google, “the overall focus [should be] on providing users with content that provides insightful analysis and original research, and is written by experts or enthusiasts who know the topic well”. This means that affiliate sites like “The 10 best robot vacuums”, which take up a Top 10 ranking spot by filling the page with an Amazon API gateway and copied product descriptions and images, placing it all next to an unhelpful SEO text, fall way short of Google’s requirements for high-quality product reviews.
Incidentally, user ratings and product reviews do not meet the requirements for product testing either. At least that is what John Mueller stressed on Twitter, saying “the focus [has to be] clearly on reviews from experts”.
I don't know your site, it seems to mostly be light-weight reviews / comments from "random" users on the web. Looking at https://t.co/h36Fw6ZIuE the focus there is clearly on reviews from experts. Keeping the quality of a UGC site high is hard, I don't have a simple solution.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) April 14, 2021
In this blog post, Google recommends those creating content take a critical look and ask themselves whether their product 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 the manufacturer has provided?
- Provide quantitative metrics on how the product is doing across various performance criteria?
- 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?
- Describe how a product has evolved from previous models or releases to provide improvements, address issues, or otherwise help users in making a purchase decision?
- Identify key decision-making factors for the product’s category and how the product performs in those areas? For example, a car review might determine that fuel economy, safety, and handling are key decision-making factors and rate performance in those areas.
- Describe key choices in the design of a product and its effect on the users beyond what the manufacturer says?
Google also recommends that publishers, in particular, should use exact product names, structured data and unique product identifiers like the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN™), Manufacturer Part Numbers (MPNs), and brand names.
What impact has the Google product reviews update had?
Numerous SEOs, webmasters and experts have reported a significant impact on rankings, especially for affiliate sites.
For example, SEO expert Glenn Gabe showed some anonymized screenshots of websites whose curves went up or down significantly following the update:
Some examples of the volatility in search visibility I'm seeing in the reviews space (across niche categories). It's still early, but some sites are seeing a lot of movement (including some urls jumping many spots into the top 10, while others have urls dropping heavily.) pic.twitter.com/jnZhZX0Cj7
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) April 10, 2021
Other webmasters reported a complete loss of ranking, with keywords disappearing completely from the Top 100 search results:
Most of the keywords that were ranking in the top 5 positions (constantly from last 2 months) are now gone out of 100.
Content on site is okayish.
As of now, only 2 keywords are up rest whole site is down.
— Sumit Gupta (@sumit4seo) April 9, 2021
In another case, an 80% loss of traffic overnight was reported:
With the snap of a finger, my site has lost 80% of its traffic overnight. One year of good research, good writing, seo work and sweat, down the drain. The site was well received, with a steady growth and we've helped plenty of people finding the right product for their needs.
— Mattia Callian (@MattiaCallian) April 13, 2021
Conclusion: Is this the death knell for affiliate sites?
Affiliate sites are not fundamentally “bad” for Google. On the contrary, if the quality is good, then these kinds of reviews are an important decision-making aid for users and deserve appropriate rankings.
For publishers of product tests and reviews, the following applies: As in other areas, creating content that is as helpful, useful and unique as possible is becoming more important than ever. It is becoming increasingly evident that you need to be very familiar with the respective subject area and have relevant expertise in the field.
Those sites that offer a very good user experience as well – and that are geared up for the core web vitals update and the introduction of page experience as a new ranking factor in summer 2021 – should still be able to continue getting good rankings going forward.
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