Why has Google suddenly pulled reviews from Adwords extensions with so little warning?

Posted by Owen Powis on 17 Jan, 2018
View comments Keyword Research
Google has withdrawn ratings from Adwords extensions. So you’re no longer be able to add these to your ads. Why are they doing this and does it signify a wider problem with ratings? More importantly, does this mean local results or seller ratings extensions could be next?

Google AdWords allows you to add something called extensions to your ads. Extensions are additional pieces of information that are free to add and can boost your click through rate. Some examples are:

  • Sitelinks
  • Call outs
  • Structured snippets

If you’re not already using extensions, then you should be! It’s a great way of increasing CTR (by around 10%) and at a point where more advertisers are using them than not, you’re going to be hit increasingly hard if you're not using them.

Unfortunately, like many things with Google, you can suggest what you want them to show but they decide whether or not they want to show it.

Reviews Extensions

Google didn’t source these reviews themselves. You added them, linking to the source, and the Adwords team just reviewed them before they were allowed live.

Although Google have given little reasoning behind why they have removed them, it seems it might just have been a badly designed system.

For a start on Google’s part it has got to be resource intensive, with team members having to click through, find reviews with matching text and approve. Although it’s likely this was partially automated, if even only a tiny percentage required manual review then it would be a large drain on resources.

This brings us to the next issue: legitimacy. Could you just make the reviews up? Well yes, you could. If you wanted to add a fake review to your site, then include it in the site link there is little Google could do to tell. This is the problem with pretty much all reviews and leads me on nicely to the final point.

Was the review representative? The reason why we trust a review from an unknown source is that it correlates with many other reviews. With this system you could just cherrypick whichever review you wanted, so even if the product is terrible someone, somewhere, is bound to like it and leave a good review. Which you can then legitimately use in your adwords extension.

Finally, you might be clicking on an ad for a product but for the sitelinks reviews, Google encouraged you to utilise those which reflected the site as a whole:

Reviews should focus on your business as a whole, as opposed to a review about a specific product or service. This makes the reviews relevant to just about all of your ads.

So you the user could well think that a general review such as “Absolutely excellent, will be purchasing again” is about the specific link they see in the ad. But it’s not, it’s about the site as whole and may be validating an otherwise awful product.

Does this mean there is a wider problem with reviews?

Reviews themselves have come increasingly under attack. If like myself you use shopping sites such as Amazon and have been doing so for a while, you’ll have seen what I mean. There are so many fake reviews, paid-for reviews, and reviews created by third-party companies paid to create them.

This problem has been created by the effectiveness of reviews, if customer is purchasing a third party product through your site you’ll want to make sure that the best products are shown first. This means using reviews to help weight products in how you rank them. Which in turn means vendors are more and more incentivized to have the best reviews possible. Which is fine, except that not all vendors have great products, but they still want great reviews.

So what’s the solution? What about other ratings-based extensions?

Reviews as part of AdWords extensions are in principle a great idea, but there some real fundamental issues with these which need to be resolved. AdWords needs to strike a balance between what the advertisers - who are after all paying for that advert - want to display and what is a fair representation for the consumer.

These means really they should be looking at a more independent source of reviews or way of gathering these. This is what they do with both seller ratings and consumer ratings.

Seller ratings are an automated (opt out) extension which look like this:

These are shown on search network text ads, or as an abridged version in Google shopping results. Seller ratings show a star rating and text snippet which they gather from a long list of third party review sites and they only show in certain circumstances;

In most cases, seller ratings only appear when a business has 150 unique reviews and a composite rating of 3.5 stars or more.

Consumer ratings are another automated extension and are taken directly from Google customer surveys which they ran for specific industries. So, these will only appear on certain results where they have data:

Google also use a star rating in reviews within local results and although having these linked to a Google account negates some of the problems, they are still pretty open to abuse.  Many businesses only have a small number of reviews, meaning just one or two added from friends or family accounts might be all that’s needed to influence a consumer's decision.

AdWords needs to use a service which is more long standing with a large number of reviews already present and which have their own controls in place to ensure these are legitimate, much like they do with their seller reviews extension. However, even dedicated review sites have massive problems with this. Like the guy who made his shed the top rated restaurant on trip advisor. In short you can’t trust reviews.

Adverts fall under advertising guidelines in both the UK and US where if ads are misleading they have to be removed. Publishers who regularly break these rules or are deemed to be not doing enough to prevent misleading ads can be fined. So AdWords must adhere to a higher standard than the sites it would be taking the source content from, hence the potential problem.

So was Google right to remove them and will we be seeing them again?

In my opinion reviews are becoming less of a trustworthy metric. The ability of bad actors to place them has far outstripped that of companies to ensure they are legitimate. This might be down to the cost / benefit being vastly different from both sides. For an individual company a set of good reviews could be the difference in zero revenue for a product, or $1000’s. So spending several hundreds or even thousands just on ensuring they have good reviews is well worth it. For a review site though, they simply cannot afford to spend anywhere near an equivalent amount on checking the reviews for an individual product. In short there is a lot more total effort going into making fake reviews than there is in removing them. Google tries to negate this with automated extensions by using a wide variety of sources, or their own survey results which they have more control over.

The way the Reviews extension was implemented in AdWords was pretty much asking for trouble.  Then again, while there are better ways, I still don’t think there are any that are ‘good enough’. We’ll have to wait and see what Google does in the longer term and if it decides to make any changes in the organic results or to the other automated ratings based extensions.

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