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.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Features: General | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Everfluxx

    Excuse me Danny, but where in his post did Amit Singhal say that Google has started using merchant reviews as a ranking signal?

  • Danny Sullivan

    Good point — I’ll get this clarified. I’ve made that assumption because it talks about not using reviews for display purposes, which I read to imply they were used for ranking.

  • Brian Cox

    I still see ‘said merchant’ for some pretty large (money) terms like ‘Discount Designer Sunglasses’. I’m pretty sure he’s down 1 spot from where he was yesterday though.

  • Brian Cox

    correction, that was with personalization.. hes gone..

  • Everfluxx

    Thank you very much for your clarification, Danny. Obviously Google will never disclose exactly how they construct their “opinion” of the users’ opinion, so I agree with you that it is perfectly legit and reasonable to assume that merchant reviews are likely part of the new algo (since they did not explicitly deny it, either).

    Speaking of signals, as we know ratings are much easier to treat algorithmically than reviews: no sentiment analysis required there; it is just a matter of counting stars or weighing points on a Likert scale. However, user ratings are also trivial to spam, unless one has to actually complete a transaction in order to be able to rate a merchant. So, I believe that ratings collected through Google Checkout’s seller-rating system might be a cleaner, more effective signal source.

    My hunch is that Google might also have thrown an entirely new source in the mix, one that -AFAIK- they admittedly have not used for rankings until now: i.e., conversion data gathered by Google Checkout and/or (maybe) Google Analytics. That would be an excellent source of implicit customer satisfaction signals, quantitatively and qualitatively speaking, because what Google improved, as Singhal said, is their ability to demote merchants that offer a very bad overall user experience. Think about it: a disgruntled customer might or might not leave negative feedback for other customers’ sake; but most likely, they will never purchase anything from the same website again. What do you think?

  • Danny Sullivan

    I thought about them using Google Checkout or Google Analytics data, too. The problem is that not all merchants use this, so it’s not a complete solution. They should use toolbar data and things like bounce rate to detect dissatisfaction. But that wouldn’t work well, either — after all, Decor Your Eyes had people who were converting. Sure, maybe they don’t go back — but there are plenty of merchants I don’t go back to. I bought my new eyeglasses frames about a year ago. They’re still fine, so I have no reason to go back to the legit merchant I used back then any time soon.

  • Sharky Laguana

    So what are they going to do to prevent competitors from posting malicious false reviews and negatively affecting page ranking?

  • ippy

    Google says that links in NYT contributed to the site’s ranking. I didn’t see any links at all in their article and I actually looked for them. Not sure about Bloomberg..

  • weberest

    In my opinion if Google starts using reviews as a ranking factor will be wrong. As a company grows bigger it will have more and more customers. The probability of having dissatisfied customers gets bigger and we all know that people write reviews when they are dissatisfied and a lot less when they are satisfied.
    My point is if Google starts counting bad reviews, they should take the number of customers into account.

  • Everfluxx

    Danny, on second thought I think I agree with you: even zero returning customers over a long period of time might not necessarily imply customer dissatisfaction for merchants selling durable goods, so if conversion data are being taken into account, the resulting signal is probably not very strong. Post-purchase seller ratings gathered by Google products and third-party services such as Kelkoo are probably the best signal source.

  • Stuart Bell

    There is a big risk of malicious negative feedback reducing ranking, especially in the local market where numbers are smaller. The yelp model may be an indication of approach, where one time a ‘yelper’ is discounted over a regular reviewer. Again, not fool proof though.

  • Michael Martinez

    You’re doing a great job of heading off a new SEO myth at the pass, Danny, but it seems that people are already sharing the New York Times article in forums (other than Sphinn) and not checking the links to see if they’re nofollowed.

    This issue could inflate into a 2-year-long fight against ignorance, as has happened in the past. It’s a shame the article didn’t mention that the links were nofollowed to begin with. Maybe that would have stopped people from drawing the wrong conclusion.

  • silence

    Danny, in your screenshot to “chanel 5117 sunglasses” search results, the second website belongs to Vitaly Borker, as well :)

  • Korean SEO Guy

    Thank you for your good description.
    RE Google algorithm, firstly I thought PR algo. tuning. There will be a little possibility.
    But, this method have problems, too.
    Finally, the possibility is in their inner services such as analytics, webmaster tool,
    Checkout, etc.
    At there, if they apply “critical data” concerning sentiment analysis and integrate with
    ranking algorithm, G will be control SERP.
    Already most of sized US e-commerce sites use these services and the sites gaming at SERP 1-10 pages are these sites.
    In the end, this tuning will not bring out distorted SERP.

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