Cheat Sheet: Google curbs publishers’ commerce plans with a product reviews update

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Google likes to keep expertise and information scattered across the internet. A coming update to its search engine should help to keep commerce content expertise scattered, further entrenching its role in the rapidly developing world of e-commerce.

On Thursday, Apr. 8, Google announced a “product reviews update” to search that changes what kinds of commerce content will rank highest in search results. While not technically a core update, the change has significant implications for publishers that have made commerce content an increasingly important part of their businesses.

Google said it will prioritize product reviews that feature information gathered through hands-on evaluation of the product, rather than aggregated information about it. The move stands to hurt publishers, especially those that have found success in aggregating product reviews.

The key details

  • Specifically, reviews that “express expert knowledge” about the products being discussed, or show what a product is like physically “with unique content beyond what is provided by the manufacturer” will fare better.
  • Content that compares products to one another will also benefit; Google’s update asks site owners to consider whether their reviews “provide quantitative measurements about how a product measures up in various categories of performance.”
  • The change will only affect product reviews written in English. Google said the changes will take two weeks to take effect.

Separating wheat from chaff

Google has always said that changes to search are made to serve users’ interests, and it’s easy to see how this update aligns with that mission. The commerce content space has grown more crowded in recent years, as brands and retailers have grown more interested in affiliate marketing and publishers have chased those commissions. Last year’s pandemic accelerated that trend, as advertisers spent media dollars cautiously but invested in affiliate marketing.

“Honestly, a lot of [commerce content] out there has gotten kind of shitty,” said an executive at one publisher with a large commerce operation, who asked not to be identified while discussing changes Google has made. “There’s a lot out there now that feels very pay for play.”

Privileging content built from hands-on testing and evaluation, rather than content built by collecting and summarizing Amazon customer reviews, makes sense from that perspective. 

But it will also make commerce content more time- and resource-intensive to produce, said executives at several publishers with commerce content operations, so much so that it could make expanding into new product categories prohibitively expensive; well-researched, in-depth product reviews “are a hard operation to scale,” a source at a second publisher said.

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Shaping a shopping ecosystem

The push toward original reporting serves Google in other ways too. Like most platforms, Google is trying to figure out how to play the biggest possible role in consumers’ e-commerce behavior. Creating an environment filled with hands-on reviews produced by experts could help distinguish Google from Amazon, where most American consumers begin most of their product searches; a survey conducted in August 2020 by Dynata found that 53% of American adults begin their product searches on Amazon.

While Amazon has been experimenting with how to incorporate publisher recommendations into its platform, its owned and operated properties are also growing increasingly crowded with ads.

Google’s past tweaks have had significant effects on different sides of publishers’ commerce operations. In late 2019, Google cut off a once-promising coupons revenue stream when it changed the way it treated content hosted on publisher sub-domains. That same year, publishers fumed when Google started scraping endorsements out of publisher buying guides and incorporating them into Google Shopping widgets displayed in search results, essentially stealing publishers’ insights and using them to drive sales that publishers wouldn’t get compensated for. 

Fears of a similar development remain on publishers’ minds. Late last month, Google launched a Best Products for Everything widget on its Google Shopping homepage, featuring curated collections of products across dozens of categories. The product-level pages inside that widget still feature excerpts from publishers’ guides.

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