Typically when people write about the Google Search Quality Evaluator guidelines, they focus on the content aspects of the document.
The guidelines are however an invaluable source of information for a number of things, including how reviews and your overall online presence can impact how Google trusts your website (from a guidelines perspective at least).
We’ve known for a while now that online reviews play a part in SEO, and we’ve all (probably) rushed to include reviews and aggregate reviews schema on our client’s websites. But how important are reviews in a modern SEO world and what can we do it leverage the power that they have?
Breakdown of the guidelines
Section 2.6 of the guidelines focuses on a website’s reputation, and how the raters are to research and establish whether or not it is positive or negative. Otherwise it potentially raises a flag that they really don’t want to direct users to the website/brand.
Your job is to truly evaluate the Page Quality of the site, not just blindly accept information on one or two pages of the website. Be skeptical of claims that websites make about themselves. – Guidelines, page 14
For a long time now SEO has been about looking at the website and it’s pages as an ecosystem, and not trying to optimise individual pages for specific keywords one at a time like it’s 2009.
The same goes with reviews and testimonials, as obviously you’re going to want to show off glowing five-star reviews and emphasise how amazing your services and products are. You may even have some JSON-LD schema in the background so that you’re generating Google and Bing stars.
Do these stars influence click-through rates from the results pages to your site? Yes. Do they influence your users’ on site to see all these names and reviews? Yes. Can they be faked? Yes. Does Google et al trust them implicitly? No.
Search quality evaluators are directed to conduct reputation research, not only into the website itself, but into the entity behind the domain. Raters are also asked to consider what a website is known for, and “how well it accomplishes its purpose”.
My interpretation of this also extends to how well the entity behind the domain performs its service – why would Google want to send users to a great website, but what if the company never delivers on time and produces negative customer experiences offline?
How search quality evaluators conduct their research
To establish a website’s reputation, raters have to think outside of what makes a website great, but consider it from a user perspective. If a website has a large number positive reviews on reviews.co.uk or TrustPilot, then it would be fair to assume that a website has a positive reputation.
Other verified awards, such as Pulitzers, should also be taken into account when considering a website’s reputation. If a website operates in a YMYL industry (legal, healthcare, medical etc), raters are also looked to find endorsements and opinions from other expert bodies – e.g. the healthcare clinic is endorsed by the NHS.
We consider a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation. – Guidelines, page 15
Reputation research is a necessity for all websites that a rater encounters, regardless if you’re a household brand.
Replicating the evaluator process, does my brand look good online?
It’s important to consider that your brand may have a number of consumer touch points, ranging from online and offline, to the sales process or after care and support. Google understands this, and also understands that everyone will at times get a negative review that is unjust, and naturally mistakes happen.
Raters are told to use their judgement and to read the reviews, so the odd negative experience with a receptionist or the odd meal being served cold won’t impact your overall reputation.
Below is a rough breakdown of the process that a search quality evaluator would follow in order to identify a website’s reputation:
- Identify the website’s homepage..
- Use search modifiers to research the website, i.e. [“example.com” reviews site:example.com] & [“example.com” site:example.com].
- Look for reviews on known third party websites, such as Yelp, Google Shopping, Trustpilot and Better Business Bureau, as well as on forums.
- Look for other articles on the website/brand, such as Wikipedia or from independent news sources.
There are negative results on page one for my brand, I need to “push them down”
Negative results appearing for branded searches are a nightmare, and I regularly see a number of posts in various forums where webmaster’s are asking for “SEOs” to push down results that are negative to their businesses.
I’ve also seen people spin up blogspot and tumblr websites in order to try and dominate the page one real estate for queries relating to their name, to try and push down news stories and other negative articles.
However in my opinion, asking “How do I push down the negative results?” isn’t the right one to ask. You should be asking “Why is Google choosing to show these negative results?” The reason is they add value to the user query.
If there are negative news results appearing on page one, you don’t need SEO, you need intelligent PR to create fresh, positive news stories that are more recent and relevant. These can then indirectly benefit your SEO through your online reputation.
What do raters do if they can’t find any “reputation”?
Depending on the size/reach of your business, you may not have a big digital footprint. But if you’re a large company (perhaps regional/national) and you boast some impressive client logo candy, Google expects to find a footprint.
You should expect to find reputation information for large businesses and websites of large organizations. – Guidelines, page 17
If you are a small, local business it’s commonplace that you won’t have a reviews.co.uk profile or extensive reviews, no reviews however is not indicative of a negative reputation, or indicative of low page quality.
That being said, as a local business you should be actively looking to get onsite reviews, Google Reviews, and Facebook reviews, not only to show prospective customers that you’re great, but because of the ranking benefits.
Studies have shown that since Google’s Possum Update review and citation signals make up ~25% of the Map Pack algorithm, which combined is greater than the My Business signals (proximity between business and user) which is the single most important factor. Citations and reviews also make up for 15% of the localised search results algorithm (Venice).