In April 2021, Google changed how they assess content which ‘reviews’ products and services. The “Product reviews update” made it harder for pages that do little more than “summarize a bunch of products” to rank highly. But, unlike many other Google updates, this one came with a cheat sheet that describes what site editors need to do in order to outperform their competitors. And there’s a ton which we can all learn from these guidelines.
Browsing reviews is rarely a great user experience
If you’ve ever researched a purchase decision online, you’ve almost certainly ended up on websites and pages which just aren’t very helpful when it comes to assessing, comparing, and finally picking a product. Many reviews pages might show you a few product recommendations, but they don’t help you to weigh the options, understand the details, or really explore the trade-offs and benefits of each choice.
These kinds of poor experiences are a problem. Searching for product reviews, comparisons and information is a huge part of how we use Google, and how we spend our time online. So it’s no surprise that Google is taking steps to make sure that the pages we find are helpful, trustworthy, and reliable.
Google’s Product Reviews update introduces new quality requirements
By way of announcing the update, Google published a page of documentation on their Google Search Central blog. It’s a great post, which goes into depth in describing the kinds of questions that content creators should ask themselves when publishing reviews.
The guidelines set a high bar. They expect original research, deep competitor analysis, and long-form comparison content – and that’s just for starters. If you’re going to review products, you need to do far more than just present a list of options with quick “pros and cons”. If you want your reviews to rank, you need to prove that you have the expertise and rigor to make a valid, unbiased analysis and comparison.
Take a look at some of their example questions. We’ve emphasized the bits which we think really stand out. Bear in mind that these aren’t things that they’re explicitly measuring; they’re examples of the kinds of quality assessments their systems are trying to make based on the data that they collect and analyze.
They ask if your reviews:
- Express expert knowledge about products where appropriate?
- 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?
- Identify key decision-making factors for the product’s category and how the product performs in those areas?
This is a lot to ask! These requirements might represent hours – maybe even days – of work. But if you write reviews on your website, you need to try to meet (and exceed) these standards. If you fall short, you may find that competitors with better content outpace and outperform you in the search results.
“But my site doesn’t publish reviews!”
Even if your website doesn’t publish reviews, there’s a lot that you can learn and use here. The levels of depth, rigor, and authenticity that Google requires for review pages aren’t radically different from the expectations they have of ‘normal’ content. Your blog posts, product pages, and own content should aim to meet the kinds of quality levels described in this checklist.
These are the kinds of expectations that Google has of all of our content – because they’re the expectations that our users have of our content. They’re also the kinds of questions our users ask as part of the search process itself.
Most searches are a type of ‘review’
When you search on Google, you review the results. You compare websites, decide which to click, decide whether to stay, and decide whether to convert. You do this based on what you know, what you see, and the experience you have as you walk through those processes.
That means that we can take Google’s review guidelines, and apply them to the entire search experience. We can think about how users search, how they form opinions and preferences, and how we might use these guidelines to improve our own performance.
Many of these questions can apply even before the user reaches your webpage. Is your brand recognizable and memorable? Have you optimized your snippet, to present your page in the best possible way? Is it clear what sets you apart, and where you have specialist expertise?
Users will look for clues, and make decisions (consciously or otherwise) based on what they see, all the way through their journey. Your audience is constantly reviewing you, versus your competitors.
Users don’t like to be disappointed, and the process of evaluating multiple bad results is frustrating. Google understands this, and so places a huge emphasis on ensuring that results can be trusted.
This focus on trust and quality isn’t new
This isn’t the first time that Google has provided these kinds of ‘quality checklist’ questions. If you’ve been doing SEO for a long time, you may remember when Google launched their Panda update in 2011. That also focused on rewarding content quality and came with a similar set of guidelines.
Take a look at some of the questions below. We’ve emphasized the interesting and challenging parts here, too.
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health-related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
These questions are still a great way of thinking about content quality. In fact, we know that Google used the answers to these questions as part of the process of training their machine learning processes (they surveyed real humans, looking at real pages). There’s a reasonable chance that some parts of how Google learned to evaluate ‘quality’ as a result of these questions still play a part in their ranking systems today.
These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you write, and before you publish, if you want to make sure you’re creating “high-quality content“.
Because Google isn’t just a machine
Behind the scenes, we know that Google’s ranking algorithms are influenced by quality assessments from real humans. The search engine employs large numbers of people who assess search results, and provide feedback on their experiences.
These ‘Quality Raters’ follow a set of guidelines (which are publicly available), which help Google to understand when their algorithms are returning pages which aren’t ‘high-quality’. They review all sorts of factors, asking the same kinds of questions as in both the Reviews guidelines and ‘Panda guidelines’ above.
They go into great detail (across 175 pages!) in exploring how to assess whether each result trustworthy, accessible, authoritative, authentic, user-friendly, and a good fit for the user and their query.
As the images above suggest, their evaluation isn’t just limited to the words on the page. They’ll even go so far as to look at the reputation of the website, the content creator, and even business ‘behind’ the website. Their review processes is extensive. Across all of this, their main focus across all of this analysis is to determine whether the page ‘met the needs’ of the searcher; and that’s about much more than just the words in the main content of the page.
These are all the same kinds of quality questions
There’s a consistent theme across all of these questions. They’re trying to give us a way to think about quality, from a very human perspective.
In its early days, SEO was mostly about trying to optimize web pages for machines. Use the right keyword density. Configure your XML sitemaps. Get links from other websites. All of these factors are still important, but they’re not enough to win. They’re what you need in order to enter the competition, versus your competitors and other websites.
Yoast SEO provides a great set of tools which help you to optimize your content. We check your writing style, keyword usage, readability, and more. But to provide truly ‘high-quality’ content, you need to go beyond “writing a page”. To win, you need to ask yourself the kinds of hard questions that each of these Google quality documents ask. Questions like these, from the guidelines above:
- “For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?”
- “Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?”
- “Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?”
These are the kinds of questions which Google’s various systems – whether human or machine – are considering when deciding which pages should show up for a searcher. If you’re falling short of these expectations, then your higher-quality content from competitors is likely to outperform you.
A combined cheat-sheet for high-quality content
Collectively, these documents and guidelines do a good job of describing how Google might consider, measure, and reward ‘high-quality’ content. But there’s a lot to digest, and a lot of moving parts.
To make things a bit easier, we’ve taken Google’s new Product Review guidelines, Panda guidelines, and Quality Rater Guidelines and ‘generalized’ them to apply to all search behavior.
The next time you’re about to publish a page, put yourself in the position of a searcher, and review the following questions…
For the search engine results page:
- Would I recognize the brand?
- Does the brand have a good reputation?
- Is the brand well-known and respected in relation to the topic/product/service?
- Does the search snippet compel me to click?
- What do the title and description suggest or promise about the content?
- Does the content deliver on that promise?
- Do competitors have better, richer, or different-looking results?
- Are they saying, doing, or promising something which my result isn’t?
- What’s unique about my result, and what makes it stand out?
- Is the result a suitable format for the query (e.g., text vs video)?
For the pages on your website:
- How much would you trust the information presented?
- Enough that you wouldn’t need to visit other websites, to fact-check, or to compare?
- Enough to give your credit card information to the site?
- Enough that, if the content were medical advice, you’d take it?
- Is the content written by an expert, with demonstrable expertise?
- Can you see, trust and validate their name, photo, job title, biography?
- Is the author (reasonably) unbiased in their opinions and writing?
- Are there references to information sources, and links to external/other/curated resources?
- Is the content well-written, well-edited, and well-presented?
- Does it have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors? How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the content comprehensively cover the topic?
- Has enough consideration been given to layout, typography, color, and design?
- Is the content targeted, on-topic, readable, and well-optimized?
- Is the content more than just words-on-a-page?
- Does it provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Is it deeper and more useful than other pages in search results?
- Does the content provide multiple points of view?
- Is the page a resource?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia, or book?
- Is there evidence that the information is regularly reviewed and kept up to date?
For product (or service) pages:
- Do you demonstrate that your product is a good fit?
- Do you provide expert knowledge, examples, and resources that explore how the product solves the problems of your audience?
- Do you show what it’s like to experience the product, with unique content, beyond what’s obvious or generic to that product type?
- Do you include quantitative measurements about how your product measures up in various categories of performance?
- Do you prove that you’re a good choice?
- Do you explain what sets your product (and the process of buying, receiving, and getting support for it) apart from your competitors?
- Do you identify key decision-making factors for the product’s category, and describe how your product performs in those areas?
- Do you help users for whom your product isn’t a good fit?
- Do you recommend alternative or comparable products, including those from other vendors?
- Do you explore the benefits and drawbacks of your product, and how those might impact different use-cases and audiences?
Google wants to show its users trustworthy, authoritative, ‘high-quality’ content to their users. As their documentation explains, they launch many small algorithm updates each week, and numerous larger ‘core’ algorithm updates each year. All of these changes help them to understand and reward good content. Their recent Product Reviews update isn’t any different.
To meet their expectations, we need to think about content from a human perspective. We need to consider if we’re producing genuinely ‘high-quality’ content, written by and for real people with opinions and expertise, designed to help to solve real problems. We impress Google by impressing our users.
But “high-quality content” is an abstract concept, and hard to define. In this post, we’ve collected and combined several resources to get better insights into what Google expects you to produce. The result is a helpful guide that you can turn to again and again. We hope it helps you reach that content nirvana!