Local Memo: Google Releases Helpful Content Update
In this week’s update, learn about Google’s helpful content update; a new reinstatement policy for Google Business Profiles; the role of business name in local ranking; the reappearance of third party reviews in Google listings; and FTC findings indicating Google and Facebook reviews are inflated.
Google Releases Helpful Content Update
Google began rolling out an update to its helpful content system on September 14, officially termed the September 2023 Helpful Content Update. Like previous helpful content rollouts, this update is designed to help Google, according to a company statement, “tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines” and “help make sure that unoriginal, low-quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search.” The update, like most Google updates, will roll out over about two weeks. Google has stated that the September update is targeted primarily to educational, entertainment, shopping, and technology content.
Several updates were made to Google’s documentation on helpful content in conjunction with the release, including the removal of the phrase “written by people” from a sentence describing that the system is designed to “better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.” Presumably this is a nod to content written by AI, which Google has previously stated is fine as long as it’s useful to humans.
Google’s helpful content documentation before and after the latest update, courtesy Barry Schwartz / Search Engine Roundtable
New “One Shot” Reinstatement Policy for Suspended GBP Profiles
Ben Fisher broke the news about a new GBP reinstatement policy launching in the EU, followed by discussion in the Local Search Forum and another writeup from Mike Blumenthal. The update is expected to come to the US soon. The gist of the change is that businesses will have one chance to submit a request for their Google profile to be reinstated after a suspension, and must supply the required evidence for reinstatement within a 60 minute time window. To help with the process, Google will now provide general information about why the business was suspended, whereas previous suspension notices did not provide such detail.
If this new one shot process does not result in a reinstatement, the business cannot appeal or continue to supply evidence, as was the case in the past. Instead, businesses are encouraged to seek help from volunteers in the Google Business Profiles Help Forum, who can escalate appropriate issues with Google staff on the business’s behalf. If that step also fails, the business must pay for mediation services with a third party. Third party mediation operates in the EU under a regulation called P2B (“Platform to Business”) that requires platforms offering business services to participate in mediation of disputes.
It’s unknown whether all steps in this process will be migrated wholesale to the US. Google is also said to be refining the process in response to early feedback.
Google Removes “How To” Rich Results Entirely
In August, Google removed “How to” rich results from mobile search. Now the company has announced that it is deprecating the display of rich results in “How to” format entirely, both from desktop and mobile search and in all countries where Google Search is available. Sites that utilize “How to” schema markup will no longer be eligible for rich snippets for content utilizing that schema. The company remarked that the removal was part of an effort to “simplify” the SERP. Support for tracking “How to” result appearances will also be removed from Search Console.
Many other types of rich results remain in place, such as Knowledge Panels and “People also ask” results. Still, it’s tempting to speculate that formats like “How to” may be duplicative of generative AI results that may be coming soon to Google search, as evidenced by the experimental Search Generative Experience (SGE).
The Role of Business Name in Local Ranking
Joy Hawkins points out that new businesses should be careful to consider the choice of a business name, given the significant influence of keywords in business names in local search performance. She notes that keywords (including those related to your primary category and location) will benefit your search rankings, but business names that are too generic can result in SERPs that include competitors, rather than bringing up only your business. Though the benefit of name selection is mostly limited to new businesses – and adding keywords to the business name just to rank is against Google’s guidelines – Hawkins suggests that established business can get the same benefits by filing a DBA (“doing business as”) with the state.
Generic business name surfacing competitors, courtesy Joy Hawkins / Sterling Sky
Google Tests Third-Party Reviews
After a more than ten year hiatus, Google is again testing the inclusion of reviews from third party sources in the reviews feed for business profiles. Evidence of this was shared on X by Mike Blumenthal, who noted that inclusion of reviews from sites like HomeAdvisor and Best Company seems to be limited to service-based businesses. The reviews appear alongside others in the review feed, with icons and links identifying the third party sources (along with Google as a source). Google does include third party reviews in its separate interface for hotel listings.
Courtesy Mike Blumenthal
FTC Finds Evidence of Review Inflation on Google and Others
A story published on Yelp’s blog shares the results of a February study conducted by Devesh Raval of the Federal Trade Commission. The study finds that Google, Facebook, and HomeAdvisor display higher ratings for low quality businesses than are found on Yelp and BBB. In particular, the study finds that ratings in general are about half a star higher on Google than on Yelp, but for low quality businesses, ratings are a full star higher. Google reviews were also found to be less informative, with 50% containing fewer than 100 characters and 32% containing no text.
Yelp was found to have a more even distribution of ratings than Google and Facebook, with 32% of reviews above 4 stars, 58% between 2 and 4 stars, and 10% below 2 stars. On Google, 59% of businesses had star ratings of 4 stars or greater, and on Facebook the percentage was higher at 79%. As for businesses rated below 2 stars, these comprised 4% of businesses on Google and 2% on Facebook.
Rating distribution on top review sites, courtesy FTC / Yelp