Episode 109: SERP refinement, product reviews and page experience

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook talking about:

Refinement SERPs: How this Google test can help you with your on-page SE

Google product review update: Google's new refreshed algorithm for product reviews

Page experience update: More than just Core Web Vitals

Show notes

Claire Carlile tweet - refinement SERPs

Google Tests Detailed Search Refinements: By Material, Type, Brand & More

Product review update

Page Experience Delay + Report


MC: Welcome to Episode 109 of the Search with Candour podcast, recorded on Friday, the 30th of April, 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and today I'm going to be talking about SERP refinements, and two Google updates, which is the Google Product Review update, and the Page Experience update, which I'm sure many of you know has been moved back a little.

Before I kick off this episode, I would like to tell you, it is kindly sponsored by Sitebulb. If you haven't heard of Sitebulb before, it's a desktop Windows or Mac auditing tool for SEO. It's something we've used in our agency for quite a few years now. It's something I personally use in, well, pretty much every SEO project I work on, I run at least one Sitebulb crawl. I've spoken about it in the last few dozen episodes, really, and gone through various features of Sitebulb, that particularly make it useful, and set it above other similar tools.

Today, I just wanted to talk about how... Previously, I've said, with Sitebulb you set up your project and you can run multiple crawls, right? And the advantage here is, you can actually compare the differences between those crawls historically. So you can see what's been changed, what's improved and how you're doing.

One of the really helpful features that they've added is, you can actually share audits between users or different Sitebulb installs, because Sitebulb works on a per-user basis. So this means if you've got an audit that you need to share or move about, you can actually go to that Audit Overview page. There's a share button, and it exports into a proprietary format for Sitebulb, which is sbp. And you can actually send this to another Sitebulb user, and they can import it. It's really helpful, especially for me when I'm moving around machines, or we're trying to share data around the agency.

And it means rather than just share an end PDF, you've got the actual data you can import into Sitebulb. Sitebulb's got a special offer for listeners of Search with Candour, which means you can get a 60-day free trial of their software, no credit card or anything required. All you have to do is go to, it's, and you can get going right away.

We're going back to our classic format in this episode. So we've had now, the last half a dozen or so episodes, I've had the pleasure to interview various people. We did a whole set of people from the Women in Tech SEO group.

We've spoken about all sorts of stuff, from technical SEO to content mapping, so check out those episodes if you haven't already. And in this time, a lot of stuff has happened in SEO, and there's two major updates. Well, one is live, and one is coming, which is the Product Review update, that is already here, and the Page Experience update, and I want to talk a little bit about them. But before we kick off, something I saw earlier this week really interested me.

It's around what I guess we're kind of calling refinement SERPs. And it was actually a tweet by Claire Carlile, who if you don't follow, I recommend you do. I'll put a link to her original tweet in the show notes, and you'll be able to find everything I speak about in this episode, links to things I'm referencing at and that will take you to a transcription of all of our episodes. And it would link between anything I mentioned, so if I mentioned another episode, it will be there. So what I saw Claire tweet was really just a question saying, "What are we calling these?"

And Claire posted a screenshot of a Google Search where she had done a search just for storage, and rather than get our 10 blue links or map hacks or anything. What was at the top of the search page was refined household storage containers and then we've got by material, by type, by holiday storage. So, by material, we've got things like plastic, fabric, wood. By type, we've got crates, open top box, lidded box. And of course, Barry, not new Schwartz from Search Engine Roundtable, jumped in with the link all the way back to 2017, so four years ago, where we had seen Google experimenting with similar SERPs. And again, I'll put a link to that 2017 article in the show notes. But it just shows that around searches, like garden furniture with scenes refining around different types of material.

Now these older examples do appear to only be shown at the bottom of the search page as far as I can see. And the one that Claire's pointed out is really like front and center. So why am I bothering mentioning this to you if it's a “not a new thing”. I think there's two important things to think about here. Firstly, like with data we get from people also ask, I think this kind of breakdown is really helpful for your own websites in terms of the user experience, the search journey and how you're structuring your pages and content and your filters. So if we know, if you're selling storage, Google is giving you this information, that people are interested in storage by material type, and by the type of actual storage, whether it's, I said a crate, open top box or a lidded box.

So this is giving you some very clear guidance about what ideally should be search accessible. So one of the biggest challenges when it comes to faceted and filtered navigation is, which parts should we open up to search engines and which parts should we close off because we don't want them getting stuck in these incredibly deep rabbit holes of crawls. So first thing, I think this information gives you a very clear bit of guidance about, does our site serve all of these individual wants and needs that we can see. And the other thing from the search journey point of view is, one of the challenges of using search as a channel is that search by definition, requires people to know something, they need to know the solution to the problem.

So, I've got children's toys all over the floor, therefore, I need some storage and I want it to be lide or they need to know the problem. So, that's higher up in this research stage and it's a common problem. Actually, when you have new businesses with brand new products, where maybe the end user doesn't even know they have a problem. So to give you an example, I worked with a client a couple of years ago, who specialised in a type of insurance for people that were hosting Airbnb and the reason was that generally, their normal household insurance doesn't cover Airbnb guests. Now, one of the issues they had at the time was, not many people knew that. They just assumed that they didn't need any other extra insurance to do Airbnb. So the search volumes for things like, Airbnb insurance, were very low because people didn't even know it's a problem.

So, while search can be a really powerful channel to find out or put your customer, your product in front of the customer when they're doing that search when they know what they want, it's tricky when they're not at that stage yet. So the other usage I think of this refinement is, from Google's point of view, if someone is just doing the search that Claire highlighted here, which is storage. They may not actually have thought about the different types of storage, or even really realise that, yep, you can get fabric storage, or wood storage or plastic.

So this then opens up your opportunities in terms of content to educate people around this, on your site. So to take this example, what are the instances when you might want to use plastic over word or fabric over wood, for instance, or the uses for lidded box versus crates. So I think in this, it's very easy just to look at this stuff and be like, "Oh yeah, cool." That's interesting, but actually, if you dig a little deeper, I think there's a lot of information there that's potentially helpful to your SEO campaigns. So maybe have a look at that tweet, and just think about how those refinements could impact what you're doing and what you're planning.

I'm going to briefly cover now as well, Google's Product Reviews update. And I'm just going to read you a little excerpt from the Google Search Central Blog, which was posted on Thursday the 8th of April, 2021. And it was entitled, ‘what creators should know about Google's Product Reviews update’. Again, for the show notes and our link to this post, if you want to read the whole thing.

So they say, "Google Search is always working to show the most useful and helpful information possible through testing, experimenting, and review processes. From this, we know people appreciate product reviews that share in-depth research rather than thin content that simply summarises a bunch of products. That's why we're sharing an improvement to our ranking system, which we call the product reviews update, that's designed to better reward such content." So this may sound familiar to people who were doing SEO around the time of the Panda update, which again was focused on what Google described as thin content.

Personally, I know a few affiliate marketers that were negatively impacted by this. So, some affiliate sites were concentrating quite heavily, let's say on the curation of this data from various sources and doing comparisons that maybe didn't offer enough value, at least in terms of how Google was rating those pages. So there wasn't much there in the way of in-depth analysis, so they suffered in the rankings.

Google go on to say, "This update is going out today." So this update is already live. "And only involves English language reviews for now." Again, that's a pretty standard thing we've seen with BERT and with other updates, that Google generally seems to roll-out these upgrades in English first, I think it's the language that they do a lot of their processing, and have some of the largest data sets in.

“We believe this will further help those producing rich content in the product reviews area.” So again, this sentence is talking about how the advice they give on their broad core updates, they're looking to improve the ranking of people that are providing this type of content rather than penalising people based on some other metrics. And they go on to give some advice here. "So, for those creating content, here are some additional useful questions to consider in terms of product reviews: do your reviews express expert knowledge about products where appropriate? Do they show what the product is like physically? Or how it is used with unique content, beyond what's provided by the manufacturer?" So again, really interesting because lots of e-comm sites review sites sometimes just pull in from APIs or from product descriptions, just the stock text, the stock images. And number three is, “provide quantitative measurements about how a product measures up in various categories of performance?

Explain what sets the product apart from its competitors, cover comparable products to consider or explain which products might be best for certain uses or circumstances. Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a particular product based on research into it. Describe how a product has evolved from previous models or releases to provide improvements, address issues, or otherwise help users in making a purchase decision. Identify key decision-making factors for the product's category and how the product performs in those areas.

For example, a car review might determine that fuel economy, safety and handling are key decision-making factors and rate performance in those areas. And lastly, describe key choices in how a product has been designed and their effect on the users beyond what the manufacturer says” So I think that's what, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine points Google's giving you just around product reviews. Which you can pretty much copy and paste and give to reviewers, I think as a checklist to say, "Are we doing these things?" Because, already just even writing those questions out is getting quite detailed.

And a lot of those reviews that certainly I see online, don't do these things. So I'd be interested to see how this is going to impact reviews. I'm really interested for anyone that works specifically on review sites. Maybe if you want to contact me and let me know if you've been affected by this update, I'd be really interested. I don't myself actually have many contacts that I can think of that work primarily in reviews. But again, if that's something you're doing for your site, there's lots of different kinds of publications that are going to be doing this, from PC game reviews, to actual dedicated sites that host reviews, that's going to be your list to stick to.

We're talking about Page Experience updates again. So we've covered Core Web Vitals a few times now on the podcast and obviously the announcement when it first happened that this Page Experience update was being rolled out. And I'm sure a few of you have heard that this month in April, Google announced they're actually going to delay the roll-out, which originally was set for May to add Core Web Vitals as ranking factors to now mid June. And it's going to be a gradual roll-out as we've been told. But here's what I found again is really interesting…

So why am I bringing this up again about Page Experience? So to give you one of the headlines that I'm interested in and we'll delve into it, is that it was until today, and maybe I'm late to the party on this, that I realised that this Page Experience update isn't just adding Core Web Vitals into the mix.

It's actually looking at all of Google's Page Experience factors. So things like HTTPS, things like the intrusive ads, things like mobile friendliness, and they're all being reweighted. And I'll show you how I came to that conclusion, but I hadn't processed that before. I was just thinking, okay, we're going to now have Core Web Vitals, and are going to be added to the algorithm. Which is a pretty poor way to think about it, to be honest, but what's happening is, I think the best way I can describe it is, the part of the algorithm that Google describes as this Page Experience, part is having Core Web Vitals added to it. And therefore, actually, when you think about it, it makes sense that those other metrics that they look at also need to be reweighted, right. Because if we're going to end up with an overall Page Experience score, which we know pretty much we do have, because of the new report in Search Console, which I'll go through in this section as well.

But all of those things are going to need to be reweighted, because you can't just add in new metrics and not reweigh existing metrics. So for those that haven't had time to read it, I'm just going to again, touch on the Google announcement on the Google Search Central Blog. So this was posted on Monday the 19th of April, so about just over a week ago, 11 days ago, from when I'm recording this. Again, of course, guess what? I'll link too in the show notes. If you want to read the whole thing, I'm just going to read out a few bits that I find particularly interesting.

"So, with a gradual roll-out starting in mid-June this year, we'll begin using Page Experience as part of our ranking systems beginning mid-June, 2021. However, Page Experience won't play its full role as part of those systems until the end of August. You can think of it as if you're adding a flavoring to food you're preparing rather than add the flavor all at once into the mix. We'll be slowly adding it all over this time period."

I'm laughing there because I don't know why Google just always seems to use recipes and cooking as examples and analogies for everything, it just makes me smile. Okay, where were we? "As we have said before, while this update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences, Page Experience remains one of many factors our systems take into account. Given this, sites generally should not expect drastic changes." I'm going to read that again. "Given this, sites generally should not expect drastic changes in addition, because we're doing this as a gradual rollout. We will be able to monitor for any unexpected or unintended issues."

So, a couple of things I want to just interject there myself. I'm not going to name any names here. I saw on LinkedIn the founder of quite a well-known SEO agency, was talking about this Page Experience update, and saying how Google wasn't being very transparent, which I'm not sure I particularly agree with. They seem to be communicating what's changing, they've given us specific metrics, they've given us timelines, they've told us roughly about the impact. So I'm not sure what more they could offer, but fair enough. But one thing I did disagree with and I thought it was misleading, was they did this... Well, they had some analysis where they said, "Look, Core Web Vitals, sites that have good core web vitals seem to be ranking better already." So we think they're already ranking signals. But look at this, when you look at YouTube, YouTube performs terribly yet it still ranks for lots of things, but it's a Google product. I think trying to suggest Google was giving itself a get out of jail free card when it comes to ranking factors and Core Web Vitals.

And I just thought this whole thing was a complete mess. And the reason is, as they actually in fairness said about correlation, causation, dah dah dah. That's a pretty boring discussion. But, if sites are performing well, they've normally been engineered to do so, if they're doing well on Core Web Vitals, right. There's very few sites, except maybe really, really old ones, like '90s websites, that perform well on Core Web Vitals without a specific effort to do so. Generally, the sites that have had a specific effort to do so are because they have SEO teams or at least developers that are SEO-savvy, that have been pushing these changes. So it makes sense to me that the sites that are doing well in Core Web Vitals rank well, because they probably have SEO teams working on them. Fine, there isn't a way to definitively prove or disprove that. It just doesn't make much sense to me that Google would roll-out this change ahead of time and then lie to us about when they're doing it. I don't see the benefit, but fine.

The thing I wanted to mainly talk about was this YouTube, and oh, why does YouTube rank well, when they perform poorly on Core Web Vitals? And I've seen Google, and John Mueller specifically talk about this in regards to Core Web Vitals, not about YouTube, but about how Google is still like content first, right. If your site is excellent at Core Web Vitals and mine is a bit rubbish, but I've got really great content, and you've got like two lines about something, I'm still probably going to rank better than you, right? Because I've got stuff that you don't have, that it's matching what people are searching for. The fact that your site's fast and content doesn't move around, and it's quick to interact with, that doesn't override the fact that you're missing the content. And I think this is what's applicable to YouTube.

Can you name a video platform that offers the same kind of content in the same breadth and depth as YouTube? That's publicly crawlable. Probably no, there isn't one. The amount of UGC on YouTube is massive. So of course it appears for an incredibly wide range of searches. And for any site that's trying to serve petabytes of video, Core Web Vital stuff is going to be a challenge because video is big, right? Again, it's not about scoring great on these Core Web Vitals, it would be about, maybe if it was a tie breaker and there was another YouTube. It would be, yeah, who can give the most optimised performance? That's going to give you an edge in those rankings. So, I do think it is misleading when it's dressed up like this.

So Google's been clear here. It's not going to be drastic changes. I think personally that maybe, when they've been doing tests, they've seen rankings change in a way that they don't want them to, which is why they're doing this gradual roll-out. And as they say, monitor for any unexpected or unintended issues, because they can't monitor all of their search results. They are relying on people to feed back like, "Hey, my site's great. It ranked really well, now it's doing terribly. Why is this?" And we saw similar things in March 2020, when Google rolled out some broad core changes and they were reversed later. So hopefully, that's given you some things to think about there.

The other two bits I want to talk about is, what's included in the update and the new Page Experience report in Search Console.

So this is, as I said at the top of this section, is what really surprised me. So details on what will be included in this update, as previously announced, the Page Experience update will consider several Page Experience signals, including the three Core Web Vital metrics, LCP, FID, CLS. Again, we've spoken about them before. Now that wording there just made it completely clear to me that yes, the other page experience signals, HTTPS, mobile friendly, safe browsing, all that stuff, is going to get a rejig, I think in this update. So I'll be interested to see how, and there's a few sites I'm watching closely that have incredibly intrusive pop-ups and ads when you visit them and to see how they perform. Google reminds us as well in this section that AMP, so the Accelerated Mobile Pages, format is no longer required to appear in the top stories Console aAnd they're going to stop showing the AMP badge icon to indicate AMP content.

Again, this is something we've spoken about before, and it's really interesting to see Google take a step back on that and push the Core Web Vitals forward. I think that the overall strategy is pretty much the same, which is we want performance, mobile content, Core Web Vitals is a good way to measure that. So it doesn't matter whether it's AMP or not, as long as it performs well on these metrics, we can be fairly certain users are going to get a good experience, and again, roll into the other Page Experience stuff like mobile friendly. So I just thought that was really interesting. So when you're thinking about this Page Experience update, don't get too blinkered thinking just about Core Web Vitals. We need to think about the other Page Experience factors and quite recently, I haven't had time to explore it in depth.

We did get this new Page Experience report in Search Console. So Google says, "To provide you with more actual insights, we're introducing the Page Experience report. This report combines the existing Core Web Vitals report, with other components of the Page Experience signals, such as HTTPS security, absence of intrusive interstitials, safe browsing status and mobile friendliness. The page experience report offers valuable metrics, such as the percentage of URLs with a good Page Experience and search impressions over time, enabling you to quickly evaluate performance. You can also dig into the components of Page Experience signal to gain additional insights on opportunities for improvement.”

This report makes me laugh because it's so brutal. It just has this big header at the top that says, "Your site has X percentage of URLs with good Page Experience." I've seen several clients and several websites, where I load up this Page Experience report, and it just says, "Your site has 0% URLs with a good Page Experience. I think that's a really good headline to go in with maybe when you need to get attention and talk about this update.

It's nicely broken down the signals into Core Web Vitals, Mobile Usability, security HTTPS. So it does give you... It's a really useful report to act as a narrative for what you need to do. So if you haven't explored that yet, you can't miss it. If you log into Search Console, there is literally a little new section on the left called experience. And in there you've got Page Experience, Core Web Vitals and Mobile Usability. So if you just click on Page Experience, you'll get that report. You can see what percentage Google has passed or failed if you like your pages. So, I think it is a really interesting set of updates we've seen on Google.

I still don't think we're going to see as Google says, massive changes with this Page Experience stuff, but I do hope we see a slight improvement in some of the sites Google's choosing to rank, but we will have to wait and see.

And that's everything I've got time for in this episode. Thank you so much for listening. I'm going to be back in one week's time which will take us into May. So it will be Monday the 10th of May, 2021, that I'll be back talking about some other stuff, about SEO and PPC. We're planning to go back, at least some of us to our offices. So we may have the opportunity to speak to Rob Lewis to talk more about PPC.

And lastly, actually, while I have your attention still, hopefully I want to just say, if you go to, you'll see, we have actually got three job openings at the moment for an SEO specialist, a PPC specialist and an account manager. I'm looking really hard trying to find someone to fill. Oh, well, three people to fill these roles, to join our team. So if you think that might be you, check out the job descriptions, see if it sounds like something you could live with. Apart from that, I hope you all have a brilliant week and hope you tune in for the next episode. Bye-bye.

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