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Google: Now Likely Using Online Merchant Reviews As Ranking Signal

Earlier this week, the New York Times spotlighted how a merchant with bad reviews nonetheless was ranked well in Google. Today, Google has announced that changes to its ranking system are in place to prevent such things from happening again.

Collecting Reviews But Dodging If They’re Used

Google aggregates reviews about merchants from across the web, as well as through its own Google Checkout system. With Google Product Search, merchants have an overall reviews page — the screenshot to the right is an example of this.

It seems likely that Google is now using these reviews as part of its ranking algorithm, though it never explicitly says this:

From Google’s blog post on the topic:

In the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide a extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

When I asked if reviews were being used, I was told:

As we mentioned in the blog post, we cannot reveal the details of our solution—the underlying signals, data sources, and how we combined them to improve our rankings—beyond what we’ve already said.

But Reviews Probably Are Used

I think these are being used. As you’ll see further below, Google talks about how it is NOT using reviews as something it will display in its results, because that alone wouldn’t be enough to “demote” sites. What would? Using the reviews as part of the ranking algorithm.

Also further below, Google talks about how it’s NOT using sentiment analysis to determine if links to pages indicate something good or bad about a merchant.

That leaves Google with few options to tell if a merchant has a good or bad reputation — and yet, it says it has a mechanism now in place to determine if a poor user experience is happening. I think this means tapping into reviews that it already collects.

That doesn’t mean reviews necessarily override all other ranking signals but rather that they are yet another factor among many to be considered.

It sure would be nice if Google would just confirm it, of course.

Sentiment Analysis Not Done

The post also explains that some things that were suggested as solution to the bad merchant problem, such as sentiment analysis, are technologies it has but doesn’t use, as they wouldn’t be deemed as helpful.

In particular, Google explained how some links from review sites were “nofollowed” and thus not providing link credit, while in other cases, links from news sites like the New York Times or Bloomberg to the merchant had little positive or negative sentiment to detect.

Reviews Not Being Displayed Alongside Listings

Google also talks about the idea that in the future, reviews about merchants might be displayed next to their listings, in the way that’s currently done for local businesses:

Yet another option is to expose user reviews and ratings for various merchants alongside their results. Though still on the table, this would not demote poor quality merchants in our results and could still lead users to their websites.

More Information

For more background, see our other stories:

No, You Can’t Rank Well Just By Cultivating Terrible Reviews, out today, explains more about how those review sites didn’t pass on credit, in the way that the merchant had assumed.

Google’s “Gold Standard” Search Results Take Big Hit In New York Times Story covers the New York Times story and examines in particular how merchant reviews were known to Google but apparently not part of the ranking algorithm, as well as how they might be displayed to warn users about merchants with poor records.

Postscript: I’ve now had a chance to check on the merchant, Decor My Eyes, that was spotlighted in the New York Times article. For one of the key terms discussed, it’s gone: christian audigier glasses doesn’t have Decor My Eyes in the first page of results.

However, chanel 5117 sunglasses does still bring the merchant up, in fact, right at the top of the page after the ads:

I checked some further “top level” categories such as club monaco sunglasses, banana republic sunglasses and alexander mcqueen sunglasses, none of which put the merchant in the top results.

I then drilled down into some further specific searches, such as:

  • chanel 5117 sunglasses
  • Cazal 932 Sunglasses
  • Chanel 3142B Eyeglasses
  • Gucci Eyeglasses – Discount Designer Sunglasses
  • Hugo Boss 11062 Eyeglasses
  • Versace 2051 Sunglasses
  • Guess GU 6439 Sunglasses
  • alexander mcqueen 4039 sunglasses
  • club monaco 6517 sunglasses
  • club monaco 6517

None of these brought the merchant up. I’m not sure if it was ranking for these before the change or not. Typically, when I looked at these types of specific searches in the past, I would find the site. I do know it has matching pages on all these topics which are not showing in the first page at Google now. So, the change seems pretty effective.

Postscript 2: In the comments below, you can see the point raised that Google never actually says it is using merchant reviews. I’ve updated this story to reflect that.

Postscript 3: See DecorMyEyes Merchant Vitaly Borker Arrested After NYT Piece On Google Rankings. It also covers how some other sites from Borker at different addresses still seem to have visibility on Google.

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