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Google’s latest updates: Reviews & Helpful Content Systems

Product Reviews & Helpful Content update are new Systems for ranking in 2023

The product teams have been busy at Google releasing two new systems: the Review System and the Helpful Content system. I read and digested the various documentation published in Google Search Central. In researching the latest on what has been known as the product reviews update, I noticed two sections Helpful Content System and Reviews System under Ranking Updates:

The announcement of these two systems is important because they represent how Google evaluates and ranks content.

Firstly, the Product Reviews Update which has been rolling out for the better part of April, now encompasses a much broader “reviews system” and is applied to all types of reviewable content.

Secondly, Google updated its page experience guidance on how it relates to helpful content saying it will transform the Page Experience report in GSC to link to a new page on general guidance.

What’s rising to the surface now is how Helpful Content is evaluated, it’s prominence over page experience and the ranking signals that are involved. Ultimately, what Google Search is driving towards is surfacing “original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

Along the way it’s interesting to see what they’re labeling as a “system” versus a “signal”.

Google updates page experience guidance – now more holistic to content creation

Google’s updated documentation on “The Role of page experience in creating helpful content” says, “Helpful content generally offers a good page experience…We think this all will help site owners consider page experience more holistically as part of the content creation process.” So far so good.

What’s changing:

  1. The documentation says in GSC, the Page Experience report will “transform into a new page that links to our general guidance about page experience, along with a dashboard-view of the individual Core Web Vitals and HTTPS reports that will remain in Search Console.”
  2. (Tool update) In December, Google will be retiring the Mobile Usability report.

What’s important to note from the FAQ section of this document are the following Q&A’s provided by Google.

Is page experience evaluated on a site-wide or page-specific basis? 

Our core ranking systems generally evaluate content on a page-specific basis, including when understanding aspects related to page experience. However, we do have some site-wide assessments.

Google Search Central documentation

No big changes there but interesting to read it confirmed that core ranking systems are evaluated on a page (URL level) in terms of performance and content as a ranking factor.

How important is page experience to ranking success? 

Google Search always seeks to show the most relevant content, even if the page experience is sub-par. But for many queries, there is lots of helpful content available. Having a great page experience can contribute to success in Search, in such cases.

Google Search Central documentation

I guess content is still king. Meaning, a heavy or jumpy page can be overlooked in the face of stellar content that’s valuable to users. That’s nice to know while we continue to improve across CWV but I wouldn’t expect that to last. In the long run, I imagine both performance and content will need to be equally stellar in order to maintain a competitive ranking.

Does page experience factor into the helpful content system? 

The helpful content system is primarily focused on signals related to content, rather than presentation and page experience. However, just as our core ranking systems consider signals that align with good page experience, so does the helpful content system, to a degree.

Google Search Central documentation

Translation: kind of. Sort of. Basically, yes.

If you’re interested, here is Google’s documentation on their helpful content system that “generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

Clear as mud, right?

My takeaway is in streamlining page experience Google is not diminishing it’s importance but instead redirecting the focus on producing helpful content. The bottom line here is that helpful content needs to be exactly that, “helpful” and satisfy search intent. That seems to be the core theme from the guidance on “Creating Helpful, Reliable, People-First Content”. That means whatever query brought the user to your page, the intent needs to be met.

Page experience is more of a technical SEO factor that only so many webmasters, SEO’s, bloggers, site owners, and product teams can proactively address.

What’s new: The product reviews update is now “reviews system”

This is big because this system has been building momentum for over a year. I’ll explain more in the algorithm timeline below.

In a way, Google’s algorithm updates (and systems) can be a lot like tornados leveling some areas and leaving others completely untouched. If you’ve been doing something spammy with your site and content, your organic traffic can and likely will, get leveled.

Normally, I don’t subscribe to bracing for impact after each announced algorithm update because, realistically, if you’re doing white hat SEO, your site(s) shouldn’t be negatively impacted every time an update rolls through (except in the case where your page(s) lose their rankings when search intent changes. That has more to do with continually making sure your content is relevant to the query and meets the searcher’s intent).

This update from Google made my ears perk up because there are tons of review and affiliate sites out there, I’m interested to see how Google search separates the wheat from the chaff to see who gets a spot on page 1.

Back in April 2021, Google announced the Product Review update and provided several bullet points of questions to help review sites evaluate their content at both a qualitative and quantitative level. That’s incredibly generous of the search giant and helpful when taken to heart.

Fast forward to April 2023 and those updates have built on each other to become part of a greater Reviews System that now ranks all types of review content. That’s an indication this system is going to stick around for a while.

Algorithm Timeline

Let’s quickly examine the product development timeline of this update. Since there have been multiple iterations of the Product Reviews update, IMO it’s an investment in sussing out better and helpful content for Google search. There’s a parallel between the timelines of the confirmed algorithm update announcements of Product Reviews and Helpful Content, which has also gone through multiple versions.

Page Experience was announced as a lightweight signal and also developed over time. Though, to my point earlier, page experience has now become a more holistic part of content creation.

My hunch is that the iterations of Product Reviews + Page Experience Updates led to bolstering the Helpful Content Update into the Helpful Content System (blending in page experience metrics) and the emergence of a complementary, comprehensive Reviews System.

Like a good wine, this paring is content forward with notes of good page experience.

Note: The timeline below is not comprehensive; I’ve selectively pulled out certain Google algo updates to illustrate the evolution of whats led to these two larger systems.

  • April 2021 Product Reviews Update

    The Product Reviews Update is meant to better reward product reviews that go above and beyond (e.g., by including in-depth and original research, insightful analysis). Google said it will promote these types of product reviews in its search results rankings.

  • June 2021 Page Experience Update

    Google gave us 3 CWV metrics: LCP, CLS, FID to better quantify page speed and site performance.

  • December 2021 Product Reviews Update (#2)

    Google’s new advice for this update: provide more multimedia “evidence” around your product reviews and include links to multiple sellers.

  • Feb 2022 Page Experience Update (desktop)

    This update included all the signals from the mobile version of the page experience update.

  • March 2022 Product Reviews Update (#3)

    This update builds on the others and is meant to help Google identify high-quality product reviews and reward them with better rankings. There were three new bits of advice from Google around ranked lists, recommendations of “best” products and creating reviews for multiple vs. individual products.

  • July 2022 Product Reviews Update (#4)

    This was more of a refresh than anything new, and is meant to reward high-quality product reviews

  • August 2022 Helpful Content Update (NEW)

    A site wide signal meant to reward content that helps or informs people, rather than content that is created primarily to rank well in search results. Google provided a list of 15 questions to ask about your content reviews to ensure you are building human-first content

  • Sept. 2022 Product Reviews Update (#5)

    Meant to reward English-language product reviews that are helpful and useful to searchers.

  • Dec. 2022 Global Helpful Content Update

    This update added new signals to its classifier and also brought the helpful content update globally for all languages.

  • Feb. 2023 Product Reviews Update (#6)

    Noted on the Google Search Status Dashboard. As well as linking to the helpful content system page (updated March 2023).

  • April 2023 Reviews Update (#7) –> Reviews System

That brings us up to April 2023 where Google announced a seventh reviews update, a doozy and a game changer. Again, this version now targets more than just product reviews: it evaluates review content of any topic. To further illustrate the change, Google changed the name from “product reviews system” to “reviews system”. 

The bottom line for publishers is, it’s going to take more time, attention to detail and demonstrated Experience when publishing review content that earns its way to the top spots on page 1.

If you still think I’m reading too much into Google’s laser focus on quality content, read Google’s guidelines for writing high quality reviews.

What stands out to me is the intentional language around showing expertise, being useful in terms of helping someone make a decision that’s best for them, and providing links to other resources (information and/or products for purchase). That points to the additional “E” in the E-E-A-T acronym, specifically to demonstrate Experience (experience, expertise, authority, trustworthiness).

TL;DR create and update helpful, knowledgeable, unbiased content written by people for people.

Nature doesn’t make exact copies

That’s a line from the popular detective TV show “Castle”. I think it’s also a clue for how to create useful, helpful content. Every person is unique in their own way. We all have our own perspectives and experiences that, when distilled down to stories, pass along wisdom.

As the saying goes “April showers bring May flowers.” I think the takeaway in these April updates from Google is to “shower” users with original, insightful, genuinely helpful content of all kinds and that will yield results (flowers) for everyone from webmasters and content creators to search engines.

The information contained in this post does not represent the views of my employer nor was it written with any assistance from ChatGPT. It’s based on research reading documentation published in Google Search Central.

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